The singing Piano, Schumann – 2nd. movement Sonate in G minor op.22.
Pianist are funny people: first they choose an instrument which is basically a percussive one, striking strings with a hammer. Then they spend most of their time practicing to make the audience forget that fact by trying to produce a beautiful tone and make the instrument “sing”.
I’m myself one of those funny people, striving to master the art of playing cantabile, bel canto.
The human voice is undoubtedly the most intimate and expressive musical instrument. Your own body being the instrument, the musical vehicle. How close can one get? Dynamic change in one tone, real tied legato in one breath, vibrato. It’s all there.
Yes, some instruments come close. Though being an avid piano lover I must admit I sometimes envy the violin.
So, it’s all about the singing tone and the perfect legato.
In the Romantic era, pianists and their composers were not only intrigued by cantabile playing but also “borrowed” the singers most specific composition form: the Song, Das Lied. We all know “Lieder ohne Worte” by Mendelssohn.
For this blog I recorded a “special case” : the second movement of Schumann’s Sonata in G minor, opus 22.
Not only inspired by The Song but actually based on one of his Jugendlieder, Im Herbste.
First: the singing tone. I think everyone interested in piano music can hear the vast differences in tone colour pianists produce. As already discussed in the “Blending the Sound” blog, the creative use of the pedal(s) plays a major role in this.
But first of all there is the touch, “le toucher”, the way of handling the key to start the movement of the hammer towards the strings and produce the (desired) sound. Do we strike it actively and fast or let the weight of the hand sink into the key? The instrument will respond quite differently, ranging from a sharp attack with fast decay to a more gentle, broad and sustained sound.
Many books have been written on this subject with sometimes conflicting theories and consequential advice on how to play cantabile.
As in life itself, probably the best way is our own way. Study the books, learn from your teachers and go your own way.
Obviously, every instrument has its own character. Of sound and of “feel” for the pianist. How does the piano mechanism react to our toucher? On the other hand, much depends on how the pianist is able to adapt his technique to “unlock” the piano at hand. How to seduce as it were the piano to sound beautiful and singing?
It takes two to tango, they say.
Some years ago I attended a recital by Maria João Pires in Utrecht, Vredenburg. She brought a younger pianist with her. They played some quatre mains and took turns in playing solo. It was quite stunning, the way the grand piano sounded totally different under his fingers. So much so I even wondered for a moment whether the instrument had been replaced during the intermission. I must say, I felt some compassion for the young man because after Maria João he couldn’t quite get the piano to sing as she did.
When discussing playing legato, things get more mysterious. Do we hear what we hear? Or do we, in our head, make more of the sound coming in?
How beautiful and singing the piano may sound, we only play “the dots on the line”. No actual “going from here to there” legato.
When reading a book or the newspaper we all know our mind can fill in lacking information to “get the whole picture”. Connecting underlying thoughts etc.
This may also be the case when listening to piano music.
With clever use of the dynamics, a well-chosen timing ánd (again) the creative use of the pedal we can create the impression (illusion, if you like) of a well tied melody.
The pianist shows the way and the listener’s mind fills in the gaps.
I’m aware being on thin ice here and there may be no scientific evidence for it. But in the world of music we are sometimes crossing borders into an imaginative world, one could even call that the power of music.
Let me tell you one example of the things the mind can make up out of my own experience: when I started studying jazz there was the subject of the left hand rootles voicings. Rootless because the bass player will take care of that enabling the pianist to play more “extensions” of the chord. When practising I used to play the root with my righthand to hear the final result as it would be when playing with a bass player. For example, for Dm9 I played the left hand voicing FACE, adding the D below with my righthand. After a while I didn’t need to do that anymore: when playing FACE I could hear the sound being completed with the root D in my head.
The power of the mind, but not very useful when I really want to play (and hear) FACE….. 😉
To end this blog: so it seems our pianist playing beautifully is actually faking then?
Let me put it otherwise, nicer: a good pianist is capable of transcending the limitations of the instrument and evoke a sound palet which we thought not possible to come from a percussive instrument😊.
Watch Horowitz speaking of his liking the piano to sing, 1986 Amsterdam. Click here.