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A Pianist’s A–V

Félix Vallotton


Grand master of opera, the piano concerto, the concert aria, and the string quintet. His piano sonatas seem to me, with few exceptions, underrated. Artur Schnabel has splendidly summed up why: they were too easy for children and too difficult for artists. For the most part, the sounds they suggest are those of a wind divertimento; others, like the famous A-Major Sonata K. 331 and the C-Minor Sonata K. 457, are distinctly orchestral. So, too, is the C-Minor Fantasy K. 475. Orchestral versions of the two latter works emerged soon after Mozart’s death. Mozart’s relatively rare works in minor keys are particularly precious: the A-Minor Rondo K. 511 and the B-Minor Adagio K. 540 are soliloquies of the most personal kind. Stupendous in their chromatic boldness are the Minuet K. 355/576b and the Gigue K. 574. Wagner admired Mozart as a great chromaticist.

Mozart—to quote myself—is made neither of porcelain, nor of marble, nor of sugar. The cute Mozart, the perfumed Mozart, the permanently ecstatic Mozart, the “touch-me-not” Mozart, the sentimentally bloated Mozart must all be avoided. An important key to Mozart playing is operatic singing.

The grown-up Mozart said what he intended to say with a perfection rarely encountered in compositions of the highest order. More commonly, the minor masters smooth out what may sound rugged, bold, or odd in the music of their great precursors. In Busoni’s beautiful “Mozart Aphorisms” we find the sentence: “Along with the riddle, he presents us with its solution.”


The pedal belongs exclusively to the piano—I am not here concerned with the organ or the harp—and is our most precious and personal artistic tool. I am speaking, of course, of the right pedal, which sustains the sound up to the next change of pedaling but also reacts to the most minute pedal vibrations. In addition, the pianos of Beethoven’s time provided the so-called Pianozug that reduced soft playing to a ghostly whisper. On Biedermeier pianos, one could find half a dozen pedals; one of them, the cymbal crash pedal, would have made Mozart laugh if he could have employed it in his Rondo alla turca.

There are laymen and purists who believe that the pedal mostly serves the purpose of concealing bad technique and placing the sound under water, echoing the admonitions of one’s earliest piano teacher. If used expertly, the pedal creates color and atmosphere, adds warmth and declamation to the singing line, and makes the notes, written as shorter note values because the fingers cannot, or must not, hold them, continue to sound. Without the pedal, many compositions would be virtually disfigured. Many of Schubert’s works require sustained voices in the background or a third dimension of depth in their sound. Good pedaling also boosts the volume: where it needs to be increased, the sound, as a rule, ought to appear widened and not sharpened.

The pianist who plays “into the pedal” often needs to employ a different kind of articulation. His own ear—including the inner one—will be the mobilizing and controlling instance. Passages in the lower part of the piano generally tolerate less pedal while the treble of a Steinway yearns for it.

Although Liszt tended, in his pedal markings, to be rather cursory, and left a work like the B-Minor Sonata without any pedal indications, dealing with his piano compositions gives us incomparable insight into the pedal’s body and soul.


A glance at the scope and wealth of piano literature makes us realize: this instrument works wonders. But the piano must be an instrument, not a fetish. It serves a purpose. Without the music, it’s a piece of furniture with black and white teeth. A violin is, and stays, a violin. The piano is an object of transformation. It permits, if the pianist so desires, the suggestion of the singing voice, the timbres of other instruments, of the orchestra. It might even conjure up the rainbow or the spheres. This propensity for metamorphosis, this alchemy, is our supreme treasure.

To accomplish it we need an instrument of superior quality. What may the discerning pianist expect? The piano should have an even sound from treble to bass, and be even in timbre and dynamic volume. It should be brilliant enough without sounding short and clanky in the upper register, or drowning out the singing upper half with its lower one. The soft pedal sound shouldn’t be thin and “grotesque” but round and lyrical, its dynamics reaching up to mezzoforte. Its action should be well measured in key depth and key resistance. And it should, ideally, be suited for a concerto no less than for a lieder recital. For the noisiest piano concertos, however, a particularly powerful concert grand may be the only answer.

There are pianists who are content just to play the piano. Their ambition stops at what the instrument has to offer if it is only played in “the beautiful and right way.” In contrast, the most important piano composers—apart from Chopin—have not been piano specialists; they enriched music in its entirety. The piano is the vessel to which a multitude of sounds are entrusted, the more so since one single player is authorized to control the whole piece. In his solo playing, the pianist is independent of other players. But he bears sole responsibility as his own conductor and singer.

For these reasons, it is not my most pressing concern to take, for authenticity’s sake, a certain harpsichord, hammerclavier, or Pleyel piano of 1840 as a yardstick because the composer may have favored such an instrument. What matters more to me is to make manifest the sounds that a piano piece latently contains. The modern piano with its extensive dynamic and coloristic possibilities is well equipped to do this. The pianist should make himself acquainted with the orchestral, vocal, and chamber works of the masters.

A well-known musician has advised young pianists to spend two years browsing through the entire piano literature. I’d rather spend the time dealing with the other music the composer wrote. Such an extension of one’s horizon might enable the player to differentiate the first movement of Bach’s “Italian” Concerto as an orchestral piece that alternates tuttis with solos, the second as an aria for oboe and continuo, and the third, for once, as a harpsichord piece.

Concert grands of recent decades progressively tended toward the harsh and percussive—or so it seems to me while writing this in 2012. (The great old pianists would have turned away in despair.) Pianos of the past displayed an inner resonance that gave the sound length and warmth. Yet even today it is possible to find, once in a while, a wonderful, magnificent instrument. Frequently, it has been monitored by one of the leading concert technicians. My collaborations with the finest exponents of this trade count among the happiest experiences of my musical life.


Record producers and sound engineers are modern magicians. They can render musicians incalculable service, and even administer, to the cheeks of a pale performance, a touch of rouge. But they also can be driven by an ambition to make every line of the score equally audible. By turning the sound into some kind of two-dimensionality they make us long to return to a good concert hall where the strings are still sitting in front of the winds and the priorities of the conductor remain respected.


Creator of an all-embracing world of over six hundred songs, with magnificent contributions to chamber music and symphony. Grand master of four-hand piano music.

Schubert may well be the most astonishing phenomenon in musical history. The richness of what he accomplished in a life of merely thirty-one years defies comparison.

I should mention his two-hand piano works. With the exception of the Impromptus and Moments Musicaux, most of them were neglected for many years. The works composed between 1822 and 1828 take us from the “Wanderer” Fantasy to the B-flat Sonata. They are worthy of superlative honors. The drama of their development sections alone disproves the myth of Schubert the exclusive lyricist. In the “Wanderer” Fantasy, the piano is turned into an orchestra more drastically than had ever been attempted before. It seems almost miraculous that a composer who had not been a virtuoso player himself could display such an instinct for novel and forward-looking possibilities of piano sound and texture. All of the later sonatas are orchestral in design, with the exception of the last three, which, to me, seem closer to the sound of a string quintet. Schubert’s piano style belies the opinion that he did not add anything new to the treatment of the instrument. It has its own, highly authentic aura, an aura that, to become effective, relies on sensitive and inspired pedaling.


A grand master of the Romantic piano and the lied. In the splendid sequence of his earlier piano works we find a special predilection for the profane reality of amusement parks and ballrooms, next to messages of love addressed to Clara. In the Kinderszenen, we find virtuosity under the spell of Paganini next to the poetic empathy with children. The orchestral piano stakes its claim: in his Symphonic Etudes, Schumann brings together variations, etudes, and the full power of the symphonic orchestra. His Papillons preserve glimpses of the moment, following in the footsteps of Beethoven’s Bagatelles op. 119, while the Faschingsschwank depicts the whirl of Viennese dancing. In addition, Carnaval exhibits a gallery of masks and portraits. In the Humoreske, affectionate intimacy complements the leaps and bounds of a whimsy to which the title refers. The pieces of Kreisleriana point by turns to Kapellmeister Kreisler (G minor) and Clara (B flat major), whereas the great C-Major Fantasy, in its passion and introspection, has remained “the emblem of the piano’s soul” (Edwin Fischer).

Notwithstanding the fantastic turbulence of his music, Schumann remains a German composer. Romanticizing him in a French or Russian manner leads the player astray. In a piece like the first movement of the C-Major Fantasy it is the quirky and passionate element in particular that cries out for a cohesive overview. Among Alfred Cortot’s variable Schumann recordings from the 1930s, the Symphonic Etudes (apart from the finale) and Carnaval (apart from its introduction and conclusion) have remained unrivaled.


Baffling, daredevil, and unprecedented? Countless notes delivered in the shortest possible time? Thunder, zestfully unleashed? This sounds like bravura for bravura’s sake. A sizable section of the public will acknowledge it with rapture. But the Romantic etude aimed higher. Triggered by Paganini’s Caprices, the technically new and unheard-of had to be counterbalanced and vindicated by musical novelty, boldness, and poetry. Next to the pinnacle of Chopin’s Etudes, those of Schumann, Liszt, and Brahms (“Paganini” Variations), as well as of Debussy, Bartók, and Ligeti, give pianists the chance to prove that, in their playing, music retains the upper hand. Virtuosity, by the way, will prove to be useful even if we don’t spend the majority of our working hours tackling etudes, and particularly so.

Frequently, when faced with runs and fast figuration, players cannot help getting faster. There will be an involuntary speeding up in the playing of technically gifted pianists—unless their musicianship checks their fingers. Playing too fast may well be the lesser physical strain than the cultivation of a discipline that controls each single fingertip.

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