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Editorial: Piano Performance Practice and Period Orthodoxy: Calling the Question
"Try this, see if you like it", a friend said to me recently, handing me a performance of J. S. Bach's Six Partitas by Russian-American pianist Vladimir Feltsmann. The arrival of this recording co-incided with a recently-attended performance by a British Columbia. pianist, whom I heard in a performance of a Mozart piano concerto with orchestra. Thinking later about the recording and the live performance, unsettling reflections came upon me. And, of course, the likely topic for a newsletter...
Bach and the Piano
As students we argued up and down on musical topics--the merits of composers and their works, technique, instruments and performance practice. One of our frequent topics of discussion was "authentic instrument" revival, and how it affected what we were doing, listening to and performing. A lot of these arguments revolved around some of the frequently-quoted stuff one read on on record jackets. Remember those? One statement that was often heard was.."Bach would have used a piano if he'd had one..."
That assumption was based on the famous visit by the master to Frederick II's court, where he was supposed to have seated himself at a Silbermann fortepiano and improvised the six-part ricercar of the Musical Offering, a long and fascinating masterpiece which he later penned and sent to the king as a gift. "So that proved his open-mindedness when it came to instrumentation". This liberality was cited as evidence that he wouldn't have minded his music being played on the piano, the guitar, or the xylophone, whatever was at hand. Baroque musicians were frequently characterized on those record jackets as being "enlightened" in that they didn't mind what instrument played their music, as long as the form and notes were clear. Lots of arranging went on, Bach even borrowing from himself. You still see this shibboleth quoted on CD liner notes.
This was the gist of a pianist friend's argument, referred to as the "Bach really wanted a Baldwin" thesis. I countered with a simple reductio ad absurdum--"Cavemen and women really wanted BIC lighters" (being tired of rubbing sticks, steel and flint, and a parade of successive technologies). This argument tries expose the fallacy of the concept of "progress" in artistic affairs. The novel is not better than the fable, the oil painting is not better than the fresco, the internet download is not better than the live performance, merely different. But those were the days of callow youth, when arguments could be won and lost. Now I know better. Now I argue both sides of a point, and ask pointed rhetorical questions, which I answer, like a politician.
So listening to the Feltsmann record I was struck by the way that he had more or less ignored the historical awareness that is now commonplace among early instrument proponents. Not only had he not embraced the use of an anachronistic keyboard, but he used the typical crescendo/diminuendo and rubato phrasing of modern piano technique. His exaggerated tempos, emphasis of harmony over counterpoint, and the blurring reverberant acoustic of the hall of the Moscow Conservatory remind one of Bach piano performances of fifty years ago. The treatment of the ornamentation which Bach carefully, more carefully than usual in his keyboard scores, wrote out in minute detail, is also far from an accurate reading of the score. All of the interpretive equipment of the Romantic tradition is present, applied without the slightest guilt to Baroque music never intended for the instrument.
Feltsmann is a very capable pianist, so this means that he must have thought about it, and rejected the currency of the early music revolution, decided that a market still existed for traditional Bach pianism, current in the pianistic Bach style of the Busoni tradition, carried forward by Serkin, Fischer, Tureck and now by contemporary players such as Andras Schiff and Murray Perahia. To put it another way, he hasn't realized that the piano as it now exists is also a "period" instrument. It is his decision not to show it to advantage in its own period.
I concluded that there are many people around who feel that this is still a valid approach to the music, and that the lines and forms, the counterpoint and melodic and harmonic content were so strong, that the clothing that the music wore really didn't matter all that much, and that, as Glenn Gould observed, once the music left the composer's pen, it was fair game for any capable interpreter. Fair enough, let each artist find and serve his or her market.
Mozart and the Piano
But then came the Mozart concerto. Here I heard the work played as we have come to expect symphonies and soloists to do, played if it were Chopin or Rachmaninov. The arch humour and simplicity of Mozart's keyboard style overlooked in favour of grand gesture. The cooperative balance of Classical period instruments as Mozart would have known was not observed. It was replaced with a adversarial Romantic atmosphere of sentiment and histrionic overstatement. And this is certainly not to say that the musicians did not play well, they did indeed; every note in place and each feature brought forward for the audience's express enjoyment. But labouring under the weight of conservatism forced upon them by the audience's expectations, they had made a tacit decision to ignore fifty and more years of work in quite another direction.
My question: Is there a failure to engage the essential terms of public performance of old music, or just a desire to answer it with the expedient practices that fall most easily to hand? I'll answer this question by proposing that the pianist and orchestra are simply assuming a known persona, or to put it in more contemporary postmodern terms, they are associating with the brand "The Great Pianist". She is heroic, individual, the righteous artist pitted against grand superior forces. This is the spiritual quest of the Romantic concerto form, and the audience understands that archetype. It grew out of 19th c. nationalism.
But how can this characterization be used in the decorative Roccoco musical structures of Mozart? For me it fails to pass the crucial tests of musical pragmatism: Does it work? The one or two rehearsals which are customary and economically mandated for such performances make the soloist seem as if he is acting in a drama in which an elaborately costumed actor soliloquizes in stentorian tones while a cast of grey-garbed supporters read from scripts in the background. This works well for much of the concerto repertoire, but it forces a good deal of older and newer music into a corner.
For them it would be a virtually impossible task to change. Whereas Feltsmann and others can make a choice; they still argue for a position that the piano performance practice of the nineteenth century could still have life in the face of the rectitude of early instrument puritanism. From their point of view it would be as if we could still build castles and live in them, travel in horse-drawn carriages, build houses covered with fake chimneys and Victorian fretwork and still not be thought of as some sort of eccentric.
Judging by its approbation, the audience seems not to care that the piano that they hear bears no relation to the composer's, the instrument that conveys his tonal language, his desire for balance of the voices, articulation that prizes differences rather than similarities, temperament that expresses color, rather than homogeneity, and an effect of personal, rather than public, utterance. Further, the piano has changed radically, but the orchestra fundamentally hasn't. These examples showed me that performances of music from the past still have more to say about us, living in our period, than about them, living in theirs.
Changing Public Taste
There is still a long way to go with period instrument performance and the public canons of taste. Early music proponents who made their names selling once radically different views of the traditional Baroque and Classical period repertoire, conductors such as Trevor Pinnock, Nickolaus Harnoncourt and Christopher Hogwood, have fanned out and ended up in front of large traditional symphony orchestras. They have increased their audience and influence by guiding larger ensembles, inspiring them with some of the techniques of early music interpretation, its engaging personality of ensemble, producing a newly marketable product where the old seemed moribund.
In the piano sphere, spurred by the successful pioneering of Glenn Gould, Paul Badura-Skoda and Charles Rosen, pianists such as Alexei Lubimov, Kristian Zimerman and others have diversified and incorporated the concepts of historical awareness into their piano playing, some recording and re-thinking the repertoire on antique, period and contemporary instruments. Treating the piano in its various historical contexts makes the artist more appealing, more approachable and it honours the traditions of a long-lived art form.
Having come this far in two generations on historical awareness, how far do we still have to go to change the public's mind? Not to say we want a new orthodoxy to supplant the old, but that we gladly entertain the possiblity of a choice. There are big problems with anachronism pursued as a policy
How many more symphony orchestras and piano manufacturers will succumb to economics before we begin to serve the public's rapidly evolving tastes and preferences more sensitively? For example, many conservatories are now requiring string students to study Baroque and Renaissance fiddling, because they may well end up playing in ensembles that have better marketing and recording exposure than the failing symphonies in which they were trained to serve a generation ago.
When Is Early?
The public's mind is hard to change. So there are no conclusions in the argument over historicity, only questions. What to say about newer recordings of music of Wagner, Mahler, Holst where the string players are told to slide to the expressive notes of melodies, as early recordings show that all orchestras once did; reviving the use of small-bore trombones, non-Boehm system winds, obsolete brasses and other devices which have been the losers in the Darwinism of the post-war period? Just how far can we extend the principle of "earliness" in music? I recently attended a museum with a superb collection of "early" electronic instruments, all maintained in working condition.
It's a big market out there: What do we say when the word "classic" is used to describe rock music of the seventies, as the word "ancient" was used in the mid-18th c. to describe music of the previous generation in the seventeeth? Will the few firms still making pianos abandon the effort, or will they and other manufacturers continue to expand the making of electronic keyboards which offer acoustic instruments merely as sampled sounds among myriad choices on a dropdown menu? It's the audience that decides.
From Susan's Studio: The 1910 Bechstein, Part One
It's an exciting time for us as we await the arrival of our newly-restored Bechstein piano. About a year ago I began to realize that our 1873 London Erard has earned the right to a peaceful retirement, so I was faced with the dilemma of acquiring a new instrument. This is like adding a new member to the family, so we wanted to do it right.
Of all of the 'modern' pianos I have played, and there have been many, Bechsteins really stand out from the crowd for me. So I set about finding a good example of the breed. After pricing new instruments and experiencing severe wallet pains, I decided to seek out a piano in good restorable condition and put it into the hands of our dear friend, Marinus Van Prattenburg, whose profession is piano restoration. In Marinus' workshop I've observed and played dozens of different instruments, from Broadwoods to Steinways, so this seems like a fortunate opportunity to employ his unique abilities. Incidentally, Marinus restored the Broadwood square piano which we used for the piano and guitar repertoire on this site. (It's a real cutie!)
So the hunt was on. I trawled the net, combing through piano websites. I phoned dealers in several provinces and states. I pestered piano fanatics who know the location of every interesting instrument in the country. I prodded the calculator, fumed and vacillated, and generally stewed myself into a state of piano hysteria. Then one day Marinus called and said that he noticed a 7'4" Bechstein in a flyer from a music store where it had been sitting for years, about ten miles from where we used to live in Surrey! Moreover, he had done estimates for the restoration of this piano on two separate occasions and he knew the instrument well. Here is a picture taken in the store.
I was on the phone within the minute, and after a few days of haggling we became the proud owners of a 1910 Bechstein. One friend describes this sort of fortunate coincidence as a visit from the Piano Fairy, and indeed that's how it feels. Even the transportation of the instrument to its new location in Kelowna was made easy by the same reliable mover we had used for many years in the Vancouver area.
Once in the workshop, the piano was closely examined and measured, so that the original design parameters would be maintained. We decided to replace the existing action with a new Renner action, since they currently supply Bechstein with their impeccable products. The soundboard had become completely flat over the years, instead of exhibiting the desirable "crowned" shape which enhances resonance. So this, with bridges and bracing, would be replaced with a high quality board which replicates all of the original measurements. Marinus told me that there were seventeen braces of different dimensions and shapes, so the process required painstaking work and attention to detail. After the new bridges were made to be flat on top, graphite was applied and they were "notched", as you can see in this picture.
Many hours were spent cleaning and refinishing the single-casting iron frame, with spectacular results. As I write this, the piano is at the refinisher's shop where it was completely stripped down prior to applying new finish. We have asked Buddy Tavares to supply us with some pictures of his work so that we will be able to put them in the next newsletter. The piano will soon be in my studio...
Meanwhile, although we had decided at first to sell the Erard (in fact some of you may have noticed it listed for sale on this site), we have now decided to keep it since it's in such good original condition. It was impossible to part with that historically important double-escapement action, made from pearwood and hornbeam, wrapped in kid leather for quiet operation. So luxurious, so French.. Yes, I know what you're thinking, but just because we have five large keyboard instruments, that's no reason not to have another one. We'll just have to start hanging them from the ceiling.
I'm really looking forward to playing music of the early twentieth century on this piano, and I plan on spending the summer immersed in French Impressionism. But I know that when I get acquainted with the Bechstein it will suggest lots of other repertoire as well, because part of the allure of this particualr piano is its versatility. Let's see, how about something Spanish? Or English? It's probably lovely for bits of Schumann and Brahms. Or even Beethoven, at least until Marinus builds that Broadwood copy he's been talking about.
Uh-oh, let's see now, where can we fit another piano into this house?
[From the top, pictures are:
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