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[Alfred Brendel]

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[ Biography | Concerts | Selected Recordings | Recent Releases | Brendel's Beethoven | Essays | Interviews ]


[Essay Excerpts]

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Introduction
"A Case for Live Recordings"
"Coping with Pianos"
"Edwin Fischer: Remembering My Teacher"
"Furtwängler"
"Liszt Misunderstood "
"A Mozart Player Gives Himself Advice"
"Notes on a Complete Recording of Beethoven's Piano Works"

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"Coping with Pianos"
From Musical Thoughts & Afterthoughts

[Cartoon by Wilhelm Busch]

I

'There are no bad pianos, only bad pianists.' An impressive statement, one that looks round for applause. A statement that will at once ring true to the layman and make him feel initiated as well as amused. A statement addressed perhaps to some revered virtuoso who did not refuse to play at a private party -- Busoni would have left the house right away -- and who, in spite of the detestable instrument, managed to hold his audience spellbound.

It is a statement to confound any pianist. Admittedly, many a piano will sound less awful under the hands of an expert than under those of an amateur; but does that make it a good piano? To 'carry the day' on a badly regulated, unequally registered, faultily voiced, dull or noisy instrument implies as often as not that one has violated the music for which one is responsible, that control and refinement have been pushed aside, that the 'personal approach' has been greatly exaggerated and a dubious sort of mystique has taken over, far removed from the effect the piece should legitimately produce.

How often does the player find a piano he can rely on, a piano which will do justice to the exactness of his vision? Is it to be wondered at that many of his performances remain compromises? After all, he should not have to struggle with the instrument, or impose his will tyrannically upon it, any more than the instrument should turn into a fetish, an object of idolization that dominates him. On the contrary, the player should make friends with the piano and assure himself of its services -- especially when Pianism with a capital P is to be transcended. He should give the instrument its due by showing how capable it is of transforming itself.

A piano is not a mass-produced article. Every instrument, even from the same renowned maker, presents the pianist with a new experience. What shapes his reaction is not only the 'individuality' of a particular instrument, but also the materials used in it and the processes of manufacture -- in other words, the difference in quality between one instrument and another. Enviously he watches the cellist dragging his own cello around; his only consolation is that the adjustment problems of organists and harpsichordists exceed his own. What energy is sometimes needed to 'listen into' a particular piano, and what pertinacity to make it amenable to a certain piece of music! The pianist will find that the instrument readily responds to some pieces, but balks at others. He may, unexpectedly, be reminded of the piano he used in his youth, or on which he studied a certain piece: intention and execution suddenly coalesce once more; something of the joy and concentration of his early strivings comes back to him; old, crumpled fingerings regain their pristine smoothness -- it is a homecoming into the lower reaches of memory.

Once in a while a piano will surprise the player by demonstrating to him the nature of the instrument on which a composer conceived a particular work: a piano with a singing tone, a tender treble, gentle bass, and a harp-like, whispering soft pedal will bring Liszt's Bénédiction to life, and the lower middle range of a Bösendorfer will remove Schubert's accompaniment figures to their proper distance. A Pleyel upright amidst velvet draperies, cushions, carpets and plush furnishings might perhaps reveal the sense of Chopin's pedal markings. Pianos and rooms are generally interdependent: anyone who has ever travelled with a piano knows that the same Steinway or Bösendorfer not only sounds different in different halls, but also seems to react differently in its mechanism. Indeed, the resistance of the key, over and above the measurable mechanical aspect, is a psychological factor. The characteristics of a concert hall -- its greater or lesser resonance, brightness, clarity, and spaciousness of sound -- are reflected in the player's technical approach and have an influence on his sense of well-being. There are halls that coarsen or deaden the sound; others absorb one's pedalling like blotting-paper or, conversely, require constant non-legato playing. Thus (to return to Chopin's pedal signs) there can be no universally valid pedalling instructions -- these exist only in the imagination of some piano teachers. Excepted, of course, are pedal markings which determine the colour of entire sections, indicate pedal points, or ask for some kind of pedalling which is not self-evident; most of Beethoven's infrequent pedal markings belong in these categories.

Much will depend on the previous concert: are the new hall and instrument reassuringly similar, or will the pianist have to readjust himself? If the latter, his aural and technical reorientation before the concert will have the additional aim of ridding his memory as far as possible of all recently acquired habits of listening and playing. However, the pianist's attempts to adapt himself to instrument and hall are beset by a multitude of difficulties.

In the first place, the full hall during the concert sometimes sounds completely different from the empty one during the rehearsal. The halls of the Vienna Musikverein, for instance, famous for their acoustics, overflow in a welter of sound when empty. (The only time that Viennese orchestral musicians can hear one another at all clearly is during the performance.)

Moreover, the sound reaching the public in the auditorium only rarely corresponds to that heard on the platform. In extreme cases, the player may know perfectly well what is happening on stage, but not at all what is coming across. He must then try to translate his musical intentions into a presumed sound which he himself can control only indirectly. This acoustic equivalent of reading the tea-leaves can at times lead even the most experienced pianist astray. Unless he has sat in the hall himself as a member of the audience and knows exactly what the sound is like from there, the player will have to rely on the advice of musical friends. At recording sessions, the sound of test tapes through the speakers in the playback room will tell him whether and in what proportions he will have to split his musical personality.

Another problem is that, on the rare occasions when he has the luxury of choice, the pianist cannot often compare the available pianos side by side in the hall. He has to go to the storage room of the hall or hiring firm, or encounter each instrument in a different location. The divergent acoustics can widely mislead him in his choice.

Lastly, there is no denying the fact that we pianists do not always 'function like clockwork'. I am referring not only to the changing lubrication level of our physical apparatus, which at times enables us to throw off with the grace of an acrobat what at other times weighs upon us like a ton of bricks; I am referring also to the quality of our hearing, which may vary under the influence of tiredness or freshness, anxiety or repose.

There are pianists fatalistic enough to assail the platform blissfully unaware. However, they are as rare as albinos. In spite of all the obstacles, the experience gained at the rehearsal will be useful at the performance, even though, as might happen, the pianist may well have to revise his impressions yet again. At any rate, he has overhauled the instrument with the help of the tuner. He has positioned the piano correctly, not too close to the edge of the platform, the keyboard exactly in the centre of the hall. He has removed the music stand, tried and rejected three piano stools (the fourth, at last, did not creak or wobble), arranged the lighting so that no shadow falling on the keys should disturb his concentration, and located an old upright on which to warm up briefly before facing the audience. He has also, with luck, almost at the back of his mind, recalled the whole programme he is to play. Now he may sleep through the afternoon.

II

Reactions to a piano are a personal matter; they are not always sharply defined and are subject to continual change. The pianist has to take into account whether he is going to accompany songs or brave the orchestra in the First Bartók Concerto; whether he is to perform before an audience of fifty or five thousand; whether he is to play Schubert or Stravinsky, Beethoven's Waldstein Sonata or Beethoven's Op. 110. Can one, nevertheless, lay down some general guidelines for the evaluation of an instrument, which could be of assistance to most pianists in most situations? Let me do so by submitting the following propositions:

     1) The piano should be dynamically even in all its registers and at all levels of volume. This evenness can only be achieved by careful regulation of the action, together with the technique of voicing, which I shall come back to later.

     2) The tone of the piano should be bright and radiant, but have no cutting edge. The rounder, duller, blunter the tone, the less chance one has to colour it, to mix timbres, to detach one layer of sound from another. Faced with the choice between a concert grand with an inherently beautiful but invariable tone, and a less noble but more colourful instrument, the pianist will usually prefer the more colourful one.

     3) The volume of the piano should range from a whisper to a roar. This again depends on a carefully regulated action, which does not require the player to possess superhuman strength, and yet is responsive to his control of the most tender sotto voce. Furthermore, resounding splendour must be attainable even in passages and trills within the upper middle range without unduly tiring the hand.

     4) The sustaining pedal must dampen precisely. Even when lowered quite slowly onto the strings, all dampers must remain completely noiseless. The much feared grinding and soughing of the dampers at the point of contact, a chronic complaint in recent years, will, as likely as not, be blamed on the pianist as a technical shortcoming. Without properly shaped and regulated dampers made of good felt, refined, atmospheric pedalling is simply impossible. The lever of the pedal should not have too great a degree of play.

     5) The tone of the soft pedal, i.e. the depressed left pedal, should not be thin and acid, but should retain sufficient lyrical roundness and plasticity of sound variation.

     6) The pitch of the piano should be able to survive a concert without major dislocation. (If a concert grand goes out of tune, the fault often lies not with the instrument, but with the inadequate skill of the tuner.)

Where I expect some disagreement is over the question of the soft pedal. There are pianists who prefer a shallow, nasal con sordino tone, decidedly removed from the normal gamut of sound. This 'grotesque' tone can, by virtue of its sharper definition, be of advantage in over-resonant halls. However, it may be so intolerant of nuances that the result is a single, unvaried tone colour. I find this too much of a restriction. Distinct whispering, important as it may be, is after all only a very small part of the musical function of the soft pedal. I recommend three test passages:

     a) The A flat major second subject of Schubert's Impromptu Op. 142, No. 1. (Its many repeated pianissimo notes, surrounded by a halo of pedal, should retain their singing delicacy without an accumulation of ugly metallic noises and unpredictable 'snarl-ups'.)

     b) The high treble trill towards the end of Beethoven's Sonata Op. 111. (Many modern grands turn its atmospheric vibration into an étude-like succession of prickly single notes that pierce the ear like tin-tacks.)

     c) The first lines of Liszt's Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude. (Liszt asks for mezzoforte cantilenas in the middle range! The soft pedal sounds should allow plenty of room for dynamic gradations -- a reproduction, as it were, of the full volume on a reduced scale. It is wrong to believe that the sordino permits only gentle playing. This assumption had already been contradicted in the una corda sections of Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata.

The position of the hammers during the depression of the left pedal is regulated by an easily adjustable screw at the right edge of the keyboard. A nasal-sounding sordino can sometimes be corrected by reducing the distance by which the left pedal shifts the action to the right. If, however, the adjustment of the screw has not achieved the desired result, the voicing prong may work wonders by pricking the left outside edge of the hammer heads.

What does the term 'voicing' mean? It refers to the equalization of volume. When whole sections of the keyboard or single notes have become too loud -- which happens after virtually every concert -- voicing can quickly adapt them again to the general sound level. Notes which are too soft, however, either owing to careless voicing or to defects inherent in the particular instrument, are, in the short term at least, awkward or impossible to deal with. Unfortunately, skilful voicing is rare. The difficulties begin with the prerequisites: the ear must be capable of perceiving the finest gradations of dynamics and timbre; moreover, only a perfectly even piano legato touch will reliably show up unevenness of sound. Neither ability can really be expected from a tuner. The smooth soft legato execution of a chromatic scale falls within the province of the professional pianist: it needs regular, attentive practice.

Besides, sensitivity to colour and dynamics is, of course, less highly developed in a tuner than the capacity for distinguishing minute variations in pitch -- in this, certainly, he surpasses most pianists. I am well aware that my suggestion to take a piano legato touch as one's starting point when testing the evenness of an instrument runs counter to the orthodox method of the technicians. They drop the arm strongly and separately on each key, but in my experience this is of little use in obtaining the subtle distinctions needed in voicing. It does not lead to evenness in the piano, let alone the pianissimo range. Unevenness of volume is, however, musically more disturbing the softer -- and not the louder! -- one plays. Solitary rough notes which rear up like mountain peaks from the undulating contours of a piano phrase may well pass unnoticed within the towering cliffs of a forte phrase. In any case, a good pianist will give a more cragged profile to a forte phrase; his declamation will inhabit a wider dynamic space, and the pronounced differences in level intended from one note to the next may well carry the ear across any unintentional accents caused by unsatisfactory voicing.

Only a collaboration between pianist and tuner can achieve the precise voicing of the instrument in all its registers -- a view readily endorsed by the most expert piano technicians. I say 'can', for the ignorance of some tuners, even in large cities, in matters of voicing is at times alarming. Time and again I meet concert tuners who do not seem to realize that one must check for evenness of volume separately with and without the left pedal, and that one can use the voicing prong independently in both positions of the action! How to prick the felt of the hammer heads without weakening the basic quality of the tone is another unsolved mystery to most. I should like to put on record here some personal observations on the subject of voicing.

In general I use a voicing instrument with three prongs, in special cases one with a single short prong. The hammer head must never be pierced horizontally -- in its effect on tone, this would be like pricking a balloon. Nor is it usually advisable to push vertically into the crown, where the hammer touches the string. One should aim along the crown of the hammer head at a slight angle in the direction of its centre. These thrusts may be deep and forceful. Gentle prickings of the crown itself -- exactly vertically into the grooves according to the Bechstein method, or at a right angle to them -- will not remain effective for long, but will after a while threaten the tone quality itself. Obtrusive con sordino notes are in many cases voiced (or rounded out with sandpaper on the outermost left rim of the hammer head. (This rounding out of the left edges in the piano's middle and higher registers should become a standard procedure.) If this method does not help, the hammer head must be 'auscultated' while the strings are being stopped; it will then become apparent which portion of the hammer head is producing the harsh sound. Sometimes the correct position of the hammer will only be found by moving it to right or left. (If, when the sordino pedal is fully depressed, a single hammer simultaneously strikes two notes, it must be slightly drawn to the left with the help of an adjusting screw.)

Two remarks are frequently made by piano technicians: 'Voicing is a matter of taste,' and 'There's never an end to the job of voicing.' But if one starts from the principle that the brightness of the upper half of a piano should not be reduced except in extreme cases, and if one restricts oneself to the general aim of dynamic evenness, i.e. the adjustment of over-prominent notes or groups of notes to the overall level of sound, then voicing becomes not so much a question of taste as one of skill. Where there is skill, and also sufficient time and patience, one can certainly bring to completion the voicing of a well regulated piano. It is only when the tuner disturbs the core of the tone or overshoots the mark, instead of carefully doing what needs to be done in progressive stages, that he will 'never come to the end of it'. For if he is careless he will be forced, as his work proceeds, to take the notes that have become too soft as a new point of reference, adapting neighbouring notes to their level. Dullness of tone is the likely result.

Piano tuners and technicians should be given every possible encouragement in their profession. Their status and standard of living needs to be improved in many countries; they should be supported by scholarships during their long training period. Today, we have an incomparably larger number of passable pianists than of piano technicians. The few good concert tuners are usually overworked, and after doing their jobs in concert halls, recording studios and radio stations have no time left in which to impart their skill. Some of them anxiously guard their secrets. If only one could make some piano players understand that they would be of greater service to music as piano technicians! The training of the tuner should, in any case, put more emphasis on the artistic education of the ear. And tuners should -- in my Utopian view -- be better pianists. On the other hand, all pianists should be expert voicers -- if only in self-defence. A course on the regulating and voicing of pianos should be obligatory for all piano students at music schools. (An examination in organ building for organ students has already been introduced at some musical institutes.)

Much of the uncertainty and indifference of tuners has its roots in the ignorance of pianists, who are unable to perceive clearly and put into words what worries them about an instrument. Many pianists do not even realize how much they are entitled to expect from a concert grand. It almost seems as if the piano firms turn that ignorance to their advantage and sometimes release from their factories instruments with the most amazing congenital defects or teething troubles. Looked at from this angle, the statement 'There are no bad pianos, only bad pianists' reads like the motto of a piano dealer trying to divert attention from the impending decline in the art of piano building. I have played on brand-new concert grands whose dynamic range in the upper middle register would have been just adequate for accompanying an elderly singer in Die Winterreise. I have played on others where whole bundles of notes failed to react to forceful repetition: they just did not work. Many pianos are like unmade beds; a tuner, apart from his actual tuning, will rarely have the initiative to prepare a piano thoroughly for a concert. He will say to himself, 'When the pianist tries it, he will soon tell me what he wants done.' This means that the pianist has to expend precious time on mechanical matters -- time he would much rather give to his music, or spend in relaxation, such as taking a walk, visiting a museum, or having a nap. It also means that, considering the shortness of time available and the sorry state in which so many pianos are found, it will be possible to undertake only part of the necessary work. The remaining defects of the instrument will then press upon the pianist during the performance, and he will have to make a conscious effort to ward them off.

III

In the age of the gramophone record, concerts on inadequate pianos make less sense than ever. The player should be given the opportunity of competing with his own recordings. But does he have a chance at all, when the instrument used at the recording sessions is more carefully chosen and kept in better order than is usual for concerts? When the tuner is always in attendance, ready to deal with every crackle, every change in pitch, every loud key? Surely, when there is the possibility to repeat and improve things in the studio, to overcome the fluttering of one's heart, to banish the blind spots of concentration, to commune with oneself in perfect peace, to be undistracted by the coughing fits of the audience -- surely all this results in an end product which comes nearer to the player's ideal? And is it not true that the art of the sound engineer, beguiling the ear with the best of all possible piano sounds, makes the listener independent of the acoustic disadvantages of his seat in the concert hall?

Happily for live music-making, the reality is less rosy. In coping with pianos, modern recording technique appears to run into one problem after another. Why was it so easy to make good piano recordings in the nineteen-thirties? When listening to the records of Cortot, Fischer, or Schnabel, I feel as if I were sitting in a good seat in a good hall; the timbre of the great pianist is there, the piano sounds homogeneous in all registers, dynamic climaxes and hushed tones come over with equal conviction. And that impression cannot be shaken by technical explanations designed to prove to me that the limitations of early recording techniques did not permit a faithful musical reproduction.

To me, it seems more likely that with the over-refinements of modern techniques one is apt to miss the wood for the trees. Thus, certain discs nowadays need very special speakers, which, in turn, have to be placed in the right sort of room for the sound to acquire its proper physical consistency -- for otherwise the treble and bass of the piano may split apart as if coming from different instruments or different distances. While the engineers of the old 78-rpm days may still in all innocence have heard the music as a horizontal succession of sounds, their present-day colleagues, with their imposing musical and technical qualifications, have difficulty in breaking away from the habit of vertical listening, the close scrutinizing of knife-edge synchronization of sounds, which the modern practice of tape editing has inculcated in them as second nature.

And what about the artist's self-communings in splendid, peaceful isolation? Is he really impervious to the malice of the instrument, the touchiness of the equipment, the host of possible noises? Does not every visit to the playback room cut off his physical contact with the piano? Does a concert pianist actually want to soliloquize? -- surely only when the composer seems to wish him to do so, as in some of Beethoven's slow movements, where the music withdraws into an inner world. And even here the player's approach is conditioned by his intention to let himself be overheard; even a whispered utterance, an aside, must remain intelligible to the audience. This illusion of the listener being admitted to the player's confidence becomes a moving experience in the concert hall. The individual listener is picked out: the player favours him with his inmost secrets. This shrinking of the distance between audience and platform is an achievement which should never be taken for granted; the player has to work for it. In front of the loudspeakers, the listener's privilege turns into stale reality; he is alone with his gramophone in any case, and he can, if he is so inclined, overhear the 'secret' at double the volume: it will lie before him, huge and penetrating, within arm's reach. The recorded performance does not depend for its success upon the listener's concentrated attention. It has already happened and now rolls along without any contribution from him, until he turns off the machine. In the concert hall, each motionless listener is part of the performance. The concentration of the player charges the electric tension in the auditorium and returns to him magnified; thus the audience makes its contribution, helping the pianist to cope with his instrument. At home, in front of his stereo equipment, the ideal listener will strive to attain a similar state of concentration, drawing on his experience of past concerts -- just as the pianist did when he played in the recording studio for an imaginary audience.

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[Date of original essay: 1974]

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Introduction
"A Case for Live Recordings"
"Coping with Pianos"
"Edwin Fischer: Remembering My Teacher"
"Furtwängler"
"Liszt Misunderstood "
"A Mozart Player Gives Himself Advice"
"Notes on a Complete Recording of Beethoven's Piano Works"

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[ ALFRED BRENDEL ]
[ Biography | Concerts | Selected Recordings | Recent Releases | Brendel's Beethoven | Essays | Interviews ]
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