Gimme That Old-Time Piano Playing

Even if I don’t play in public (or private) much any more, I’m still a pianist. It’s sort of like being a Texan. It doesn’t matter how long since you’ve left the place; born there, you’re it, period and forever always. Ergo, I’m a Texan. Ergo, I’m a pianist.

As part of preparing for a session on Chopin for my class “The Early Romantics” at San Francisco’s Fromm Institute, I put together a comparison of a number of pianists playing the first two phrases of Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat major, Op. 9 No. 2. It’s a familiar piece, possibly a bit hackneyed by now, but nevertheless a gorgeously well-written bit of aria-like witchcraft for the piano. In listening to newer pianists and older pianists, I was struck anew by how much we have lost by generations of beady-eyed piano teachers cudgelling their students away from certain “bad habits” that, to my ear, are anything but bad.

Item: “breaking” the hands, or playing the melody note (typically in the RH) just a fraction of a beat after the accompaniment. It’s generally condemned by piano teachers—sometimes for good reason if it’s merely the result of inattentiveness—but actually it’s quite an effective way of getting around the piano’s inherent percussiveness. It’s also a time-honored practice, not only on the piano, but on the harpsichord as a method of bringing out a melodic line.

Item: right-hand (melody) dragging behind the left (accompaniment). Stock in trade for pop singers everywhere, it’s a classic method of keeping a melody from becoming too square and too resolutely attached to the underlying beat. Just a bit of lingering behind the beat can work wonders. Listen to Ella Fitzgerald. Listen to Frank Sinatra. Listen to just about everybody. And then listen to masters like Rachmaninoff do more or less the same thing.

Item: arpeggiating left-hand chords. We’re dealing with that pianistic percussiveness again, and rolling a left-hand chord ever so slightly can work wonders to ameliorate the piano’s fundamental brutality. Instead of three notes going BANG all at once, spread them out a bit. It’s like spackle over a hole in the drywall. Some later piano composers such as Scriabin wrote in deliberate polyrhythms as a way of filling in all those gaping holes left by the piano’s inability to sustain in any way other than descrescendo.

Item: taking as much time as you want for melodic ornamentation. At some point during the 20th century pianists changed their overall focus from the melodic line to the underlying beat. They started spouting zero-sum crap along the lines of: if you slow down somewhere, you have speed up somewhere else to make it up. What utter tommyrot. It’s not accounting, you know, and the rhythmic books don’t have to balance. There are no rhythmic books. If Chopin writes a 22-note ornament over three beats, for heaven’s sake don’t get all weird and try to play a perfect 22:3 polyrhythm to an unruffled steady tempo. When Chopin writes something like that, he’s telling you to indulge yourself. Just play it however you want—and if that means adding extra beats, or extra beats plus some unfathomable extra portion of another beat, then you just go right ahead. Let those 22 notes sing out as you will, and to hell with the beat.

Item: bending and changing notated rhythms to suit yourself. Boy, is this one a hot tamale. But many of our great pianists of the past did precisely that without the slightest worry. Again I offer the example of great pop singers. The rhythm is more or less there, but they’re not rigid automata about getting everything spit-spot to the notated score. It’s a melodic line, not a dictation exercise, in other words.

Item: juicing things up with a few extra bass notes here or there. Well and why not? Even if the piano had been outfitted with 88 keys from the very beginning (absolutely not the case), I see no reason why not to indulge in a little highlighting here or there, if you really think it will help. Hell, even if you’re just feeling expansive at the moment.

Item: “swing” à la Viennese waltz lilt (giving just a bit of English to the 2nd beat of 3/4) or à la Polish hesitation style (that same English applied to the 3rd beat instead). Once so common as to be almost ubiquitous, it has almost disappeared from today’s performances. I’ll allow that the “Polish” rhythm can become a dreadful mannerism, in which 3/4 almost becomes 4/4 due to the lengthening of the 3rd beat. But then again, here’s where taste and careful listening come into play. Do it for musical effectiveness, and don’t let it become an unconscious mannerism.

Item: “preluding” a bit before short pieces. Just a tiddly bit of improv to establish the key, and then you’re off. Josef Hofmann was partial to it even late in his career. How did it happen that pianists—who were once composers as well—became so averse to even the slightest hint of personal creativity? Stop making it up!! I heard from various teachers. Well, why the hell not? Somebody made that piece up originally, after all. I believe the term public domain might have some relevance here.

Now then. Sergei Rachmaninoff is often cited as being a pianist who planned everything out, played precisely, and all that. And yet: just listen to his recording of the Chopin E-flat Nocturne, and be prepared to be shocked if you’re expecting the last word in musical probity and conservatism. Hell, he rolls chords and breaks hands and drags RH behind LH and fiddles with the rhythm and takes his sweet time with the ornaments. And it works, man does it work. Listen to Moriz Rosenthal to hear constant breaking of hands (effective), or Josef Hofmann to hear the nocturne played with a clear Viennese waltz lilt, the second beat just a bit longer than the first or third.

And listen to Alfred Cortot play it—either from the 1920s or 1940s; he was pretty consistent. His performance could be cited as a litany of everything piano teachers inveigh against—breaking of hands, arpeggiating, re-writing RH rhythms, taking time for ornamentation, juicing things up here or there. But it works, and it works gorgeously. I’ll take that any day over certain more modern performances that seem to consist mainly of projecting the RH melody out to the rafters, almost as though shouting to the audience, mostly in perfect time throughout with just the slightest hint of a tapering off at a cadential point, all with brittle but well-projected sound.

No. Play it as though you wrote it, I used to hear from certain piano teachers who weren’t aware of the irony of the statement they were making: i.e., play it as if you wrote it and you’ll kill anybody who modifies so much as a millisecond of it.

Here’s a gloss on that statement: play it as though you’re writing it, right now, here in this moment that will never come again.

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