PDA

View Full Version : Brendel on pianos


Chris
03-10-2001, 09:47 PM
Beethoven's piano works pointed far into the future of piano building. Decades had to pass after his death before there were pianos -- and pianists -- equal to the demands of his Hammerklavier Sonata, Op. 106.

If one tries to play on Beethoven's Érard grand of 1803, which is kept in the instrument collection at the Vienna Kunsthistorische Museum, one thing becomes evident at once: its sound, dynamics and action have surprisingly little in common with the pianos of today. The tone of each single note has a distinct 'onset'; within its intimate confines, it is livelier and more flexible, and also more subject to change while it lasts. The difference in sound between bass, middle and top register is considerable (polyphonic playing!). The treble notes are short-lived and thin, and resist dynamic changes; the treble range is not conducive to cantilenas that want to rise above a gentle piano. Even in the clear and transparent, somewhat twangy bass register, the dynamic span is much narrower than on our instrument. One begins to see the reason for the permanent accompanying piano in the orchestral textures of Beethoven's piano concertos -- even though, admittedly, the orchestral sound of his period cannot have been much like ours. If I had to compare the demands the Érard and the modern Steinway make on the physical power of the player, I would tend to think in terms of those made on a watchmaker and on a removal man!

A few years later, with the pianos of Streicher and Graf, a new, more rounded, more even and neutral sound came into being which, while dynamic scope continued to increase, became the norm throughout the nineteenth century. This sound is more closely related to the piano sound of today than to that of the older Hammerklavier, whose timbre was still derived from that of the harpsichord and clavichord. But by the time this new sound had become established, Beethoven had already composed a large portion of his piano works, and was afflicted by deafness.

We have to resign ourselves to the fact that whenever we hear Beethoven on a present-day instrument, we are listening to a sort of transcription. Anyone still having illusions about that will be disabused by a visit to a collection of old instruments. The modern concert grand, which I naturally used for my recordings, not only has the volume of tone demanded by modern orchestras, concert halls and ears; it also -- and of this I am deeply convinced -- does better justice to most of Beethoven's piano works than the Hammerklavier: its tone is far more colourful, orchestral, and rich in contrast, and these qualities do matter in Beethoven, as can be seen from his orchestral and chamber music. Some of the peculiarities of a Hammerklavier can only be approximated on a modern grand -- for instance the sound of the una corda and even more the whisper of the piano stop. (In the studio, however, finesses of this kind did not always turn out as I wished, either because damping noises obliged me to change my style of playing, or because the technical specifications of the microphone did not permit me to go below a
certain dynamic level.)

One must translate other characteristics of the Hammerklavier as best one can. The octave glissandi in the Prestissimo of the Waldstein Sonata, for example, were easier to execute on the older instrument: on the deep, heavy keys of a Steinway they can be brought off only by the use of brute force, which causes
them to lose their scurrying pianissimo character. Very conscientious pianists, who cannot bear an untidy note, curb the tempo here and play wrist octaves. The only safe method of preserving the pianissimo character of this section without the help of a piano stop lies in imitating the sliding progress
of the glissandi by distributing the passages between the hands, while reducing the bass octaves to their lower part.


Interesting, no?

[This message has been edited by Chris (edited 03-10-2001).]

Peter
03-10-2001, 11:03 PM
Yes it is interesting, though I know of a man who'll disagree! Where did you find that article Chris?

I am 'deeply convinced' (to quote Mr.Brendel) that there is no definite right or wrong on this issue . Actually I think if B could come back now, he would spend a good couple of weeks revising the sonatas and then insist on a Steinway!

My original position on period instruments was really one of ignorance - based on a recording I heard some years back, I really felt that these instruments were best confined to history. Although I still prefer the sound of modern instruments and cannot accept that Beethoven's music suffers by being played on a modern piano,I now believe that period instruments bring a different angle to music and have made us think more carefully about how we actually should perform Beethoven today. I find it fascinating to hear the period recordings - it's almost like stepping back 200 years and experiencing it all for the first time!

------------------
'Man know thyself'

Chris
03-10-2001, 11:19 PM
I found it at http://www.geocities.com/Vienna/2192/brendel.html - there's a lot of great Brendel stuff there.

Rod
03-11-2001, 05:41 PM
Originally posted by Chris:
I found it at http://www.geocities.com/Vienna/2192/brendel.html - there's a lot of great Brendel stuff there.

Well, I can tell you Beethoven hated everything about the Erard other than it's exteded keyboard compass. He said the instrument was unplayable and he could do nothing with it, he even asked if he could have its English action replaced by a Viennese one (the casing would not allow it however). I need say nothing more!

------------------
"If I were but of noble birth..." - Rod Corkin

Rod
03-12-2001, 12:56 PM
Originally posted by Peter:
Yes it is interesting, though I know of a man who'll disagree! Where did you find that article Chris?

Now I've read this quote properly, alot of what Brendel's saying is nothing I haven't already said myself on the net over the past 3 years. Yet few people took my words seriously - for example the point that what we hear on todays pianos is essentially a 'transcription'. Which one of us is the cleverer? Not everything Brendel says is clever though, indeed he contradicts himself in the above quote! I saw an analysis by him on TV of B's metronome marks which wrote them off in the most amateurish fashion I have ever witnessed. Just because you have the capacity to play the music does not mean that you necessarily KNOW the music.

Originally posted by Peter:

Actually I think if B could come back now, he would spend a good couple of weeks revising the sonatas and then insist on a Steinway!

So you agree with what I have said many times, that if B had a Steinway, he would not have wrote the same music in the same manner, and thus the fp must by default be the prefered instrument. Of course there is no way B would have converted all these works - he briefly considered upgrading some of his 5 octave works to 5.5 when such pianos came available, but he thought better of it, other than, I think, the 3rd concerto which was in continual revision anyway. New instuments by and large require new works!



------------------
"If I were but of noble birth..." - Rod Corkin

Peter
03-12-2001, 01:46 PM
Originally posted by Rod:
Yet few people took my words seriously - for example the point that what we hear on todays pianos is essentially a 'transcription'.

You could argue that anything not played on a Graf is a transription. You could argue that playing the Sonatas of the 1790's on a piano of the 1820's is a transription. You'd be nit picking though.

Just because you have the capacity to play the music does not mean that you necessarily KNOW the music.

I don't see how you can give a convincing performance unless you do 'know' the music , and to imply that an artist of Brendel's stature renowned for his intellectual approach, doesn't 'know' the music is ludicrous.

So you agree with what I have said many times, that if B had a Steinway, he would not have wrote the same music in the same manner, and thus the fp must by default be the prefered instrument.



The changes that would be necessary would largely be in respect to pedalling - something most artists today are fully aware of. Since we know that B pedalled far more than is indicated in the score, this would be a matter of personal choice anyway, dependent on the acoustics and the instrument. Schnabel erred when he took B's pedalling for the 1st movement of the Moonlight literally - on a modern piano it simply doesn't work and allowances have to be made. The idea that the Sonatas would be unrecognisable had B possessed a Steinway is also ludicrous, the changes would be subtle indeed.

------------------
'Man know thyself'

Rod
03-12-2001, 02:30 PM
Originally posted by Peter:
The changes that would be necessary would largely be in respect to pedalling - something most artists today are fully aware of. Since we know that B pedalled far more than is indicated in the score, this would be a matter of personal choice anyway, dependent on the acoustics and the instrument. Schnabel erred when he took B's pedalling for the 1st movement of the Moonlight literally - on a modern piano it simply doesn't work and allowances have to be made. The idea that the Sonatas would be unrecognisable had B possessed a Steinway is also ludicrous, the changes would be subtle indeed.


There is some validity to your remark that earlier works played on the Graf would themselves be transcriptions, but the distance between the Walter and Graf is small compared to that between the Graf and Steinway. So I concede a compromise has to be made if we are to select only one instrument for these works. I only suggest the the Graf is the best compromise as its keyboard can accomodate all of the works yet maintains most of the characteristics associated with the earlier instruments (as my MP3 files can testify).

Regarding Brendel's performance, some of the discs I have by him are far from perfect. Bearing in mind his acknowledgement of the characteristics in B's music that are easier to pull off on the fp, I'm surprised he did not take the bold step to attempt some recordings with the older instruments as did Badura-Skoda (who initially had doubts too). The fact the most of the big names stick like glue to their Steinways even with harpsichord music says more about their love of the Steinway than the music. As a result we have dozen's of the same old safe performances on the same old safe piano's.

You correctly say that pedal useage does not translate well across the two genres. Brendel mentions the una corda which basically does nothing on the Steinway, but produces a massive change in tone on the fp. Also the point regarding glissando is well observed. I could add a dozen more points for contention. After all this Brendel still prefers the Steinway, despite all the struggles necessary to accomodate B's intentions. I'm lazy and always look for the easy way in life, surely bearing all the above in mind it would be easier for Brendel and Co. just to play the music on the old pianos and live with it as it sounds, good or bad, rather that subjectively state that the music sounds better on the Steinway. I can live with this proposition quite easily and no-one loves Beethoven more than me, certainly not Brendel!

------------------
"If I were but of noble birth..." - Rod Corkin

Michael
03-12-2001, 07:48 PM
Must every topic turn into an argument about old pianos versus new?

Michael

Chris
03-12-2001, 10:42 PM
Also the point regarding glissando is well observed.


The first time I tried to play that part, I thought, "You have got to be freaking kidding me."

Peter
03-13-2001, 10:01 AM
Originally posted by Chris:
The first time I tried to play that part, I thought, "You have got to be freaking kidding me."

I know of fine musicians who have been deterred from attempting the Waldstein because of that passage!

------------------
'Man know thyself'

Rod
03-13-2001, 11:38 AM
Originally posted by Michael:
Must every topic turn into an argument about old pianos versus new?

Michael

This point had occurred to myself, but I hope you will be aware that now it is people other than myself are instigating the subject of pianos. I of course will always respond as it is my favourite subject, but the accusing finger of doom must not be pointed solely at myself! I've just started something that has gone out of control and may take over the world! Dubya Bush didn't give a damn that his own planes bombed his own troops, yet AGAIN, in the Gulf yesterday, he was too busy worrying about the pros and cons of the English action.

------------------
"If I were but of noble birth..." - Rod Corkin

Suzie
03-15-2001, 04:32 AM
[QUOTE]Originally posted by Rod:
[B] This point had occurred to myself, but I hope you will be aware that now it is people other than myself are instigating the subject of pianos. I of course will always respond as it is my favourite subject, but the accusing finger of doom must not be pointed solely at myself! I've just started something that has gone out of control and may take over the world! Dubya Bush didn't give a damn that his own planes bombed his own troops, yet AGAIN, in the Gulf yesterday, he was too busy worrying about the pros and cons of the English action.

Maybe we do have the right President!? Can't we all agree that Rod's logic is impeccable and move on? Where's Serge. He didn't have a 'stroke', I hope?

http://www.gyrix.com/~cgraye/ubb/smile.gif

Rod
03-15-2001, 05:37 PM
Originally posted by Suzie:

Maybe we do have the right President!?


Yep, who would have thought it possible!

Originally posted by Suzie:

Can't we all agree that Rod's logic is impeccable and move on?


Quite right Suz, and I...er.. know.. you are being sincere! I think things have come together quite nicely at long last, and ironically with the unanticipated assistance of Mr. Brendel. The subject (for now!) can be brought to a close. It brings to mind, I think, Handel's last Oratario: 'The Triumph of Time and Truth'.

Originally posted by Suzie:

Where's Serge. He didn't have a 'stroke', I hope?


I think the above remark will bring him out of the grave!


------------------
"If I were but of noble birth..." - Rod Corkin

Serge
03-16-2001, 09:37 PM
"The grave"?! I'm choking on my own rage here! What can I say that hasn't been said over and over? Rod and I will never see eye to eye. Given his penchant for self-assumed superiority and magnanimity for providing us lost souls with God/Rod approved historical performances, I cannot surmount the argument by asking for the possibility that "others" may be right.

Let me do some research to counter Rod, and I'll get back to you.

Rod
03-17-2001, 07:11 PM
Originally posted by Serge:
Rod and I will never see eye to eye. Given his penchant for self-assumed superiority and magnanimity for providing us lost souls with God/Rod approved historical performances, I cannot surmount the argument by asking for the possibility that "others" may be right.

Mmm...'God/Rod'...it has a nice ring to it.

Originally posted by Serge:

Let me do some research to counter Rod, and I'll get back to you.

You'll be hard pushed to find any objective counter argument to the fact that certain tasks reguired of the performer by Beethoven are not really possible in the modern piano, all of which hints at my position that B was writing for the instruments of the day, regardless of what he thought of them subjectively. Happy researching, I'll be waiting sword in hand (I think just a small foil will be needed for this 'duel', Excalibur can stay in its stone, I use that for the tough jobs!).


------------------
"If I were but of noble birth..." - Rod Corkin