There’s this idea out there that Mozart’s music is the hardest to play on the piano.
It sounds obscene on the face of it: Who, stepping onto a professional concert stage, can’t play a simple alberti bass? Mozart’s music is just melody and accompaniment. Any child can play it! The technical challenges are nothing compared to the romantic virtuosity of Liszt or Rachmaninoff’s thick, fast moving chords or busy textures.
This is not wrong on a superficial level. There aren’t nearly as many notes in a 15-minute Mozart Sonata versus a 15-minute Liszt tome. You cover a lot less of the keyboard in classical repertoire, as opposed to later works.
But the idea does start to fall apart: Mozart’s music was written on a less-evolved piano which had a much lighter action, and some of his busy, scalar passagework could be played more brilliantly with less physical demands on the pianist. Secondly, Mozart’s music fits some pianist’s hands better. The bigger your hand, the more precise and delicate your fingers must be.
It is easy to look at Mozart’s music as rather simple, but in reality, he rarely writes a simple Alberti bass. You hear it in the most stereotypical examples, like the beginning of his Sonata in C K 545, but for the most part, his accompanimental patterns are much more inventive and varied.
The idea that Mozart’s music is so difficult comes from the fact that it is so musically delicate. It’s in fact because of these lean textures, where there’s nowhere to hide, that his music is a feat to play. In later music, wrong notes can be hidden by the damper pedal (they shouldn’t, but everyone slips up!), but you simply can’t get away with using the pedal just anywhere in Mozart. His passage work requires rhythmic precision. It’s easy to hear the difference between beautiful rubato, playing with time for expressive purposes, and simply not being able to keep time, when you try to be expressive in Mozart’s music.
It’s deceptively easy to just play Mozart’s music right off the page. The melodies and harmonies are beautiful in and of themselves. But there’s so much to Mozart underneath the surface of the score, and the beauty of Mozart is to play his piano music as if it’s an opera scene. You need to have beautiful, charismatic characters who interact with each other. You need to hear the drama of the plot.
So all of the slurs in Mozart become very important. The interaction between the right hand and the left hand. The passagework aren’t just series of notes, but they have to alternately invoke excitement, frenzy, exuberance, and frowns.
Evidently Artur Schnabel, one of the oldest pianists who was recorded playing Mozart, and indeed, who spent his life dedicated to classical composers like Mozart and Beethoven, said, “Mozart is too easy for children, but too difficult for professionals.” No less a master of the classical style than Alfred Brendel elaborated on that mentality this way:
In Mozart's keyboard works everything is exposed. There are relatively few notes and each of them counts. Not only that you find the right key, but that you give each key the right nuance, the right inflection. If you are not careful you fall into a trap. This is also why these pieces are relatively rarely performed. I think that most players shy away from them. They either don't see the complications and think the pieces are too easy, or they do see the complications and find them too difficult. I decided that I should tackle these sonatas because it will be too late if I don't do it soon.
I'm generally no fan of labelling "historical eras". Really, what does late Monteverdi, Giulio Caccini, Henry Purcell, and J.S. Bach have in common? Next to nothing, in fact, in terms of texture, many of them have exactly opposing ideals. Yet we call all of it 'Baroque' music.
I find the "classical era" label most cohesive and appropriate. There is consistency of style and musical ideals from composers as wide as C.P.E. Bach, J.C. Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.
But it's the "romantic era" label that really gets me: Romanticism does not mean expressive. I need to say that again, in different words: just because some music is expressive, does not mean that it is romantic. Expressive music doesn't automatically mean romantic music.
I could go on as to why, but I'll point you to two resources. One is an interesting article contrasting the historical philosophy of the enlightenment and romanticism. This isn't easy reading, but this extended quote is contributive:
Whereas the existing neo-classical paradigm had assumed that art should hold a mirror up to nature, reflecting its perfection, the Romantics now stated that the artist should express nature, since he is part of its creative flow. What this entails, moreover, is something like a primitive notion of the unconscious. For this natural force comes to us through the profound depths of language and myth; it cannot be definitely articulated, only grasped at through symbolism and allegory.
Charles Rosen doesn't really define what romanticism, especially as it relates to music, is, but he does a great job discussing music that he considers romantic, and how these composers contrasted their work with the preceding classical era. Reading The Romantic Generation is a big commitment, but it is the most enlightening musical text I have ever read. Who are the composers who make the cut and earn the label 'romantic?': Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, a little Mendelssohn, Bellini, Berlioz and Meyerbeer.
I have no problem removing the 'romantic' label from Brahms, and Schubert, and even Mendelssohn. I'm hesitant to give it to Chopin (Rosen makes a strong case that Chopin contributed innovations to romantic sound, but I'm not sure he would suggest that Chopin is a purely romantic composer, like Schumann was). I don't think it's at all appropriate to Rachmaninoff.
Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and Rachmaninoff all wrote very expressive music. But to make not of this fact is simply to make note of its expressivity, not allegations of romanticism.
Prevailing wisdom tells you that when playing a fugue, one should always bring out the subject. I suppose the logic is ironclad: the whole point of a fugue is to have the main theme/subject weave itself in and out horizontally while 3-5 voices weave in and out of themselves vertically.
But I wonder if this way of playing a fugue defeats the purpose.
Isn't the genius of Bach that he could combine the subject and independent material in remarkable ways? It's more that he hides the subject? So if we're constantly pointing out the subject, we're working against the genius of his polyphonic writing.
I like to make the appearance of the subject much more subtle, and bring out the top voice more often than not. Give the audience some credit: most will know what they're listening for, and will search for it anyway. We don't have to hit them over the head with the subject. Even for the audience without significant musical training: fugues are set up that they get to hear the subject alone to begin the movement, then hear it flow from one voice to the next. Given just a little musical ear, and they understand this concept, and will track it as the texture becomes more complex. To me, this unveils a much greater, more subtle form of compositional genius.
I've been giving a closer listen to Anton Rubinstein's Concerto #4 in d minor, Op. 70, since finishing his biography last week. You can check out the score here.
Listening to the first movement, one cannot avoid the connections between this work and the more famous 1st piano concerto of Tchaikovsky. A tendency towards heavy blocked chords jumping across piano registers, the piano accompanying a lyrical orchestral melody with scalar passages, alternating octaves. The piano textures are remarkably similar, and take nearly the same kind of technique from the pianist. The cadenzas also begin the same way: arpeggiated Gb major chords in the LH, like a harp, while a RH melody slow builds.
So the question is: who copied?
Clearly the answer is Tchaikovsky. Rubinstein's concerto was written in the early 1860s, and the first version of Tchaikovsky's came in the early 1870s (never mind the revisions that it went through). According to the biography, Tchaikovsky adored the older Russian from a young age, and though Rubinstein could be considered the younger Russian's teacher, he rarely gave him much mind. Evidently Rubinstein was mostly a teacher by example, rather than a mentor.
Tchaikovsky eventually tired of the relationship and felt taken advantage of. But clearly in this early work, he took many ideas from Rubinstein.
I wouldn't say Rubinstein managed to create moments that are quite as memorable as Tchaikovsky's. The concerto opens without much note, and though the first piano entry is energetic and extroverted, still has no match to Tchaikovsky.
Rubinstein's melodies are beautiful, but not quite the earworms as Tchaikovsky's.
Still: this is a worthwhile concerto. It is very dramatic, especially the coda which follows the first movement cadenza. It shows off the pianist very well, but isn't tremendously difficult.
I'm surprised more students don't pick this piece up. It would make a great stepping stone to the more famous Russian concertos that followed it, but it's still a great piece. I suppose it doesn't have quite the practicality, because few competitions would accept it, nor would many orchestras think to program it.
But there are some excellent recordings out there (I've listened to Matti Raekallio and Joseph Banowetz) and I think many people know of the piece. Let's hope that more pianists pick it up.
I recently finished reading Anton Rubinstein: A Life in Music, by Philip Taylor. I had been eager to become more familiar with the life of Anton Rubinstein (not the better known, more recent pianist, Artur Rubinstein). Rubinstein is today known as a gargantuan pianist from the latter half of the 19th century, a contemporary of Liszt, and epitome of the Grand Romantic Artist. Many people have compared my beloved Nyiregyhazi to Anton Rubinstein: the huge romantic gestures, passionate performances full of equal parts enthralling personality and wrong notes.
In the end, Taylor's biography focussed less on pianistic aspects of Rubinstein's career. In fact, more insight into his playing can be found in the occasional mention of his work in After the Golden Age. There was some insight into his general artistic vision, and his dedication to performing. Across many months in 1872 and 1873, he performed over 200 concerts in the USA, including one stop very close to my current home, performing in Toledo, Ohio (I want to see if there is any record of this event locally).
The book did emphasize his work as a composer, more than that of a performer. This was intriguing. I suppose I realized that he had written a lot of music, but I had only really heard his 4th piano concerto, and then, not in a professional setting.
In fact, Anton Rubinstein seemed to regard himself as more of a composer than performer (similar, again, to Nyiregyhazi). He wrote over a dozen operas, several symphonies, an abundance of chamber music, lieder and a tremendous amount of piano in the form of concertos, sonatas, variations and character pieces.
I've been looking at a lot of his music and listening to some. It seems fair that his output here has been forgotten some. It is rather conventional, and dare I say derivative of Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schubert, with a few certain Russian touches. Not that there's a lot that is bad but given when he wrote, history was ready to give posterity to composers doing something more new.
Some of it is very beautiful. As I write this, I'm listening to his Ocean Symphony for the first time. There are many beautiful melodies and gorgeous climaxes. He seems to understand writing for the orchestra very well as all sections are utilized in turn, and he writes quite a bit of polyphony. He seems to use form well to create drama and arch. But none of this is anything Beethoven hadn't done.
I may learn a few piano pieces, perhaps to build a repertoire of encore pieces. I think it's most interesting to observe how much history can change our perception of artists. Perhaps if Anton Rubinstein had been alive during Beethoven's time, we'd speak of him as a giant, and Beethoven as a side character. Perhaps if Anton had been alive 20 years later and been recorded, biographies of his life would focus much more on his pianism. As it is, it's difficult to say a lot, other than report on reviews and accounts of his recitals.
I wonder what it would have been like to hear him play, but for now, we must focus simply on his legacy as heard through his student, Josef Hofmann.
Sometime in the midst of my master’s degree, after I had read Kenneth Hamilton’s After the Golden Age, I came up with a study that I think might demonstrate the effects that listening to recordings has on individuality in one’s artistry. At this point in time, I was very frustrated with the general state of piano playing. So many people seemed to love Martha Argerich, and I didn’t get it (I still don’t get it but that controversy is for another post). All this I ruminated on in my last blog post.
As I entered my doctoral degree, I thought I might have the chance to work the study into my program, but as graduate work goes, I got too busy, ended up going another direction in my research and lost the chance to have plenty of student pianists nearby to test my hypothesis. I thought it might be relevant to share the general outline of the study. Maybe someone will one day take it up and test it!
The procedure is simple enough: have two groups of pianists, likely undergraduates though their technical capabilities by no means need be similar. Each group would be given a score of some obscure work, likely from the early classical period, with relatively intermediate technical challenges. The score would make no reference to composer or style. I would recopy the score on notation software myself and include only the essentials: notes, rhythms, tempo indication, and meter. Dynamics, articulation, phrasing, metronome marking would all be absent.
The test group would be given free rein to practice and prepare the score for performance in a given time period. The only stipulation is that they may not consult with any other person in their preparation of the score.
The control group would also be given free rein to practice and prepare for performance in the same time period. They also may not consult with any person in their preparation, but, they are given a recording of the score which they must listen to every day. In the recording, which I would make with an attempt to sound stylistically appropriate, they would hear distinct choices in terms of tempo, articulation, dynamics, phrasing, rubato, etc.
All participants would, after the same amount of preparation, record a final performance. These recordings would be sent to adjudicators. These professional musicians would be aware of the score, plus an edited score representing the distinct choices I made in the recording. Adjudicators would be asked to grade how closely each group adhered to distinct, observable and (relatively) measureable interpretive choices in the recording.
My hypothesis is that the control group would make interpretive choices similar to the recording, more often than the test group would. As my goal in the recording is to not make controversial interpretive choices, I suspect that students in the control group would, without realizing, adopt the logical interpretive choices that I had made. While the test group may also make several interpretive decisions similar, given stylistic conventions, inevitably, something such as exact metronome marking, or articulations in a melody, or dynamics, will vary given complete freedom.
Upon further thought, it may make sense to make one controversial interpretive decision in the recording and see how many of the control group go along with it.
Secondly—What I would include in the score could change. I think it’s important to have as blank a score as possible, so that people’s artistry would be observable on a nearly blank slate. Perhaps I wouldn’t even need a tempo marking, “Allegro” for instance. That would be one way to see who in the control group would resist the pull of recordings enough to question what they were hearing. For instance-imagine having no tempo marking for the opening of Mozart’s Sonata K 545, and hearing it played adagio. One could feasibly, if you never heard this work before, yet intimately understood the style, not question the choice of tempo at all.
Thirdly, it would be interesting to run this study with proficient high schoolers making up both groups, as well as only graduate students, even run it with only professional musicians. Then compare the rate of variance at all 4 levels. What if, on the whole, the control group’s interpretations adhered to the recording at the same rate greater than the test group, whether or not we are dealing with high school musicians, or professional musicians?
I think the results of such a study would be fascinating. None of this is meant to discredit professional musicians, or students. The simple aim is to observe the roots of our artistry, and to find one way of explaining how our general sense of style in interpretation might have a fundamentally different basis than that of artists when the composers of the classical canon were themselves writers of ‘new music’.
Initially, I may have been aiming to hide flaws in my playing. As I spoke of my undergraduate years inthe first blog in this series, my facility lagged behind my enthusiasm for the piano for several years of advanced study. Playing “standard” but rarely heard repertoire masked my flaws by its novelty.
But as my technique improved, I realized another draw to this music: I didn’t like how many people played the standard repertoire. And if my own musical ideas weren’t widely accepted, I could at least more easily let my imagination run freely where few people knew the music.
I had the good fortune during my masters degree to study classical performance practice at the modern piano. Experimenting with the fortepiano, even playing for the legendary Malcolm Bilson in a masterclass, opened my eyes to the fact that not all of our presumed traditions today are in fact what was intended by the composer.
But it was Kenneth Hamilton’s After the Golden Age which truly opened my ears to a sound world, a style of playing, which truly felt natural for my own intellect and tastes.
How do we know what a piece of music is supposed to sound like? Interpreting a piece of music requires a lot of assumptions, interpretational ideas that we take for granted. After the Golden Age challenges a lot of those assumptions.
We often speak today of the “Golden Age of piano playing”, but when it comes down to it, we’re often not sure what that actually means. We fail to acknowledge that pianists of the time—say the mid nineteenth century into the early twentieth century—had practices and authorities that we don’t recognize today:
The character and legendary stature of Liszt, the performer and composer, looms large throughout the book. Hamilton’s goal isn’t to allow unfettered recompositional license when interpreting works of the past, but we shouldn’t dismiss unfamiliar performance traditions—those heard in plenty on the earliest recordings of pianists who were trained in the nineteenth century—as scandalous: Referring to the editor in lavish performance editions:
"Nowadays we need not try to grasp Beethoven’s meaning while being verbally bullied by Bulow, or Bach’s while being harangued by Busoni. But we could, while not denying the indispensable value of the urtext back-to basics approach, also embrace a tolerant position and treat the later performance history of music as offering viable options to present and future players, rather than simply constituting a sad catalog of corruption.” (pg. 280)
After the Golden Age not only introduced me to new expressive techniques in my playing, but challenged my ears, and indeed my intellect, to reformulate how I approached piano playing. For the first time I listened to old pianists, students of Liszt, and was amazed by what I heard. Their playing sounded original, the pieces I thought I knew inside and out felt brand new, the boring phrases sprung to life. My imagination was fueled, wondering what Liszt or Chopin would have sounded like themselves, cherishing this aural link to classical music masters.
And this book ignited a youthful, and sometimes misguided, passion to be different. So while Hamilton fueled my love for piano music from the nineteenth century, he also pushed me specialize in music from the late twentieth century as well as the modern day.
My primary reason for attending the doctorate in Contemporary Music at Bowling Green State University was not primarily for the love of new music. Though I grew to cherish new music, I first and foremost wanted to develop my artistry in a body of repertoire that did not have an established performance tradition.
The resistance to the traditions illuminated in After the Golden Age taught me to place myself in a position similar to these old piano recordings that I loved. By working with living composers, I could be an active part in the creation of musical masterpieces. In building an authority in this way, I hope to justify my playing upon my return to the traditional repertoire…But more on that in the fall!
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His discography details an intentional identity. Two volumes of Scarlatti Sonatas, a volume of Haydn, collections of Scriabin and Chopin, along with concertos by Tchaikovsky, Medtner, Scriabin, and Rachmaninov (choosing the rarely heard original version of the 4th concerto, itself already obscure). Even in a solo volume of Rachmaninov, Sudbin plays the less famous Chopin Variations, instead of the better known Corelli Variations to couple with the 2nd Sonata. Sudbin (with the exception of Medtner) plays the most standard composers, yet he tends to champion their lesson known works with equal vigor as the masterworks. In the famous pieces such as Tchaikovsky’s first concerto he manages to find his own voice.
There is something to be said for forging your own path. Sudbin said that he not only began playing, but also improvising at the age of 4. He still does his own arrangements, often song transcriptions for solo piano.
Beyond that, Sudbin is an active writer on music. All of his recordings that I’ve perused have been accompanied by his own liner notes which provide historical context and clues to his interpretations. In all ways, Sudbin takes an active part in the creative process.
I decided to focus on Sudbin’s Scarlatti recordings, in particular the C Major Sonata K. 159 from the second Scarlatti volume in 2016.
In the liner notes to the original Scarlatti recording, Sudbin describes the draw to Scarlatti’s oeuvre (he also reveals-unbeknownst to me, that Scarlatti’s 555 brilliant sonatas were only begun when the composer was 50 years old!). He says that Scarlatti’s compositional voice stands alone in music history: there is no distinct, singular origin or contemporary parallel. Of course, to come to this conclusion, one need only compare Domenico’s keyboard works to the vocal works of his father to see that little musical genetics were shared across generations.
Furthermore, Scarlatti wrote these Sonatas protected and perhaps isolated by royal patronage, which in my mind elicits comparisons to the future works of Haydn: “Probably because he (Scarlatti) composed all of his sonatas for the Queen, who by all accounts was a brilliant performer, and because he wasn't seeking popularity or commercial profit, he could allow his imagination free flow.”
Sudbin does not see these works as necessarily fixed by the limits of technique, instrument or musical creativity known to Scarlatti: “Both the Queen and Scarlatti were extraordinary harpsichordists and had great improvisational skills. It is very plausible that for each of the notated sonatas, there were 50 or so other versions.”
He later speculates that due to the diversity of the sonatas, their immense creativity, that Scarlatti had an inkling that a better instrument (the modern piano) would exist in the future, and that musical styles would continue to evolve. The last two points are a defense to suggest that Scarlatti would not have been surprised to hear his works played differently as time moved on.
So Sudbin allows himself certain luxuries in his interpretations. He utilizes the binary form that Scarlatti composed in to play the material once through largely as one would expect. The A section in K. 159 is unoffending the first time through but with an immense and joyful character: brassy fanfare in the right hand and a dancing lilt in the left.
But listen to what he does in the repeat! The opening is played softly and with the pedal for the first 4 measures, before contrasting with the fanfare texture the next 4 measures. The next two phrases continue this trade off. No student could get away with this muddy texture because it’s not traditional. “Scarlatti didn’t have the damper pedal!”
But it makes sense. Sudbin still has clarity, he’s just opening up the strings of the piano to vibrate more openly as the strings on a harpsichord (which doesn’t have dampening at all) would. It’s a color, not an obfuscation of the texture.
He also allows himself all kinds of ornamentation upon the repetition (as he does in his Haydn recordings). Improvisation, afterall, was an essential part of one’s musicianship during the time that Scarlatti wrote, and one can easily argue that for any composer from the 18th, even 19th centuries, what is on the page need not be a limit to what one does in performance (you could even hear his liberal use of the damper pedal as simply an ornamentation).
In the fourth system of the first page (I’m looking at this score), a leaping motive is enlarged to over an octave. For the last one, jumping up to D, he ornaments the approach with a glissando, adding to the spritely spirit.
On the second page, in the second system, he holds the low Gs, perhaps with the sostenuto pedal, then reorchestrates the parts. Both parts as written are taken in his left hand, and the right hand doubles the melody an octave higher. He treats the piano momentarily like an organ as pedal stops, different manuals and octave coupling create a variety of color.
He adds simple ornaments, trills, appoggiaturas and doubling octaves. But he goes as far as to add notes. He fills out the bare octaves at the very end of the pieces with an ornamented third. Not a big deal, except ending on open octaves is a common thread in Scarlatti’s music.
All of these changes are just a gateway into understanding the beautiful artistry Sudbin brings to Scarlatti’s music. Each one sounds like the work of a different composer, and each individual sonata is full of variety. Listen for his ever evolving variety of articulation, ornamentation, or sudden surprises in the left hand voicing, etc. While K. 159 is a fanfare, K. 208 is a dramatic operatic aria and K. 213 in d minor is a dark lament. Sudbin plays both the famous and the obscure sonatas with an equal admiration and careful crafting to show the ingenuity, virtuosity and artistry of Scarlatti.
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But this follow-up I disagree with: “he somehow obliterates his own enormous musical personality by his occupation of the territory of the author he plays.” I’ve never done a blind test, but I would wager that I could tell Sokolov apart from other pianists if I did. It’s precisely because his musical personality shines through the notes left by the composer that I enjoy his artistry so much. He has a unique gift to reconcile a composer’s voice with his own.
And then one more statement I do agree with: “Sokolov’s first concern is always his relationship with his instrument.” He is first and foremost a pianist, in the best sense possible. He knows how to express music through the piano.
It’s well known that Sokolov doesn’t collaborate, whether in chamber music or concertos, at least not anymore. He’s often said that it’s too difficult to find a musical partner with similar musical sounds, not to mention, the economics of rehearsing an orchestra long enough to have a unified musical message.
So he plays solo piano, exclusively touring Europe with one program each year. Clearly he gets to know his program so well that once he’s performing publicly, he knows exactly how to make his music heard perfectly.
But that requires the perfect instrument. Sokolov is also known for working as his own piano technician. Spending hours alone in the concert hall before a recital, he will adjust the piano so that it responds exactly as he would like it to.
That might sound like ‘cheating’, manipulating the playing field so that he’s always playing with home-field advantage. But if you make that much effort not just to understand the technical work of adjusting piano mechanisms, but to know exactly what you want out of an instrument, why not utilize it?
So he’s truly someone engaged with what a piano is capable of musically, chooses a program which engages the piano best, and masters the small repertoire to create incredibly moving performances. To go a step further, all of his commercial recordings are live, unedited recordings. I don’t know if he’s ever stepped foot into a studio or had an audience hear a recording of his playing that was spliced together from multiple takes.
It was difficult to decide what recording to focus on, but I decided to look at Chopin’s 2nd Sonata, Op. 35. Chopin, being a pianist’s composer, and Sokolov, being a pianist’s pianist, sounds like the perfect combination.
Chopin of course took ample inspiration from the world of Italian bel canto opera, and wrote in such a way to best approximate the singing style on the least-singing instrument. The best Chopin singers surpass the piano’s percussive nature to create the impression of singing legato with the requisite balance of phrasing, dynamics and rubato. I’d like to suggest that Grigory Sokolov is uniquely qualified to find this balance because of his total engagement in the piano as an instrument.
Of course he sings throughout the first movement. The left hand is not overwhelming in the opening agitato theme and his nocturne impulses shine in the secondary theme. The second movement is as playful as the music allows, making the most of the changes of register, and the motivic repeated notes are never hammered. In the famous third movement he acquires the necessary bleak character, and even manages to make the piano sob at the sforzandos, or the left hand trills in the march section. He makes sense of the strange finale by adding color with the pedal and draws our ears closer by alluding to motives in his voicing.
I’d like to look most specifically at one spot in the Development section of the first movement, M. 137-153, heard at 5:24 of his recording. Here the agitato theme in the right hand is combined with the opening descending sixth octaves in the left hand. If you listen closely, there’s a slight hesitation in the right hand to give a moment longer to listen to the left hand. In that way, the left hand sounds full in tone because the sound has a moment to bloom, and we get to listen to the combination of the two themes.
Without that regular hesitation, the piano would sound completely homogenous, instead of heterogenous. Sokolov understands and hears how the sounds he makes at the piano will be perceived at his attack, and exactly how it will decay, and he manages every other musical decision around those basic realities. And because he works so closely with his instrument at each performance, he is able to guarantee the response that he wants. In this way, Sokolov ismuch unlike Glenn Gould who prized structure over the sound.
For me, her Mozart—like many other pianist’s—is too neutered: the left hand too insubordinate and dull, the slurs smoothed over. Uchida said in an interview that she would love to express what’s ‘inherent in the score’, but says ‘it’s not possible’. We are too influenced by our culture, our upbringing and our listening to other artists. I couldn’t agree more on the latter point. It just seems that she focuses too much on the score in Mozart. (I wonder if that was a younger Uchida.)
Her unique upbringing will inevitably would have led her to hear music differently. She often states that growing up in Vienna influences her connection to the music of great Viennese composers.
She describes her ideal approach to musicality another wayin a more recent interview. Uchida says that she tries to approach each composer and each piece, with a blank slate. Her work, whether privately in practice or publicly while in performance, is an attempt to discover the music without outside interference, or even from yourself and the way you did it the day before. Approaching music this way we will inevitably strike a balance between performance traditions and our own honest musical selves.
Schubert is of course best known for his composition of lieder, revolutionizing the art song with piano accompaniment. Whether it be for allowing the text to guide the composition, or for including the piano as a collaborative element, more than accompaniment, his vocal works are rightly celebrated to this day.
I think the reason I love Uchida’s Schubert so much is that she sounds like she’s playing lieder. Coupled with the blank slate approach, and her playing begins to take on qualities of storytelling: always fresh, always vibrant. Schubert in her hands sounds like long narrative songs without the words.
I’d like to focus on her performance of Schubert’s second-to-last Piano Sonata, the one in A major, D. 959, although her complete Schubert set is worth listening to extensively.
The first movement begins full of majesty. Each new harmonization of the As in the right hand have a color and direction of their own. Her left hand continues its active role in measures 10-13. Try isolating your listening to only hear her left hand. There is so much shaping there, an entire phrase, even though it is the background texture. The transition from measures 28-39 has so much drive, it sounds like she’s accelerating, but check a metronome and she’s staying unusually steady. I think this phenomenon has something to do with the crispness of her right-hand articulation.
She slows down the tempo for the second theme, even though it’s unmarked. I discussed the need for this in the previous entry in this series.
Uchida herself has an interesting discussion about tempo in the Steinway interview linked above. She says that a metronome marking could be perfect in one performer’s hands, horrible in another’s, depending on what else they do with the piece. There is no right tempo. This seems intuitive of course, but why shouldn’t we intentionally apply this concept to individual musical themes? Especially in a single Sonata movement, where the form often pits two contrasting themes against each other.
This choral is where we first hear a truly song-like melody. She plays it very simply at first, from measures 55-63. When that melody is developed starting in 65, her tempo is again largely the same, but he addition of the left-hand accompaniment creates a greater sense of motion. Not only that, but the left hand is shaped such that the eighth notes on beats 2, 3, and 4 are voiced as a countermelody to the soprano voice. If the whole pianist is a collaborator in lieder, the left hand must be the collaborator in the piano sonatas!
To hear a great lieder-like collaboration between her left and right hands, look no further than the beginning of the finale. The right-hand sings impeccably while the round shapes of each half note space in the left hand follows the rise and fall of the melody’s phrasing.
Even though I like her shifts in tempo, I am most amazed with how steady she is between tempo changes. Yet it doesn’t sound steady in a perpetual motion sense. Her control of her sound to make a phrase is something to behold, study and be inspired by. Sound influences time so much in her hands, and as someone who allows time to control everything in my own playing, I am enamored with this skill when played with Uchida’s perfection.
A final interesting thing to note, since I criticized her neutralization of slurs in Mozart, is her voicing in measures 90-105 of the finale. Since no slurs are present in the urtext edition, most people would likely play the right hand as one steady voice throughout this section. Uchida turns the right hand into a duet. A lower voice in 90-93 begins, then is interrupted by a higher voice, the upper octave that measure and the next. Then the two voices trade off beats 3 and 4 of one measure and 1 and 2 of the next. It’s a minor detail, not brilliant save for the fact that, by making a choice of voicing the right hand slightly differently, a textural dialogue that is absent in the score, is discovered, magnifying our listening to the piece.
"Modern performers seem to regard their performances as texts rather than acts, and to prepare for them with the same goal as present-day textual editors: to clear away accretions. Not that this is not a laudable and necessary step; but what is an ultimate step for an editor should be only a first step for a performer, as the very temporal relationship between the functions of editing and performing already suggests." -Richard Taruskin, Text and Act