In the recent New York Review of Books, Alfred Brendel has a piece from a forthcoming work of his called “A Pianist’s A to V.” Honestly, I’m not floored by it, as I hoped to be. (For instance, his entry on Schubert, whom I’ve been obsessed with lately, and whose works Brendel plays beautifully, is fairly uninspired, even if it does praise the composer highly.) But there are a few gems.
A crucial element of sound. No matter how relaxed and physically natural the performer’s approach may be, the result will be found wanting if chords and vertical sound combinations remain undifferentiated or when the balancing is left to the instrument. . . . Balancing suggests terraces and distances, supplies color and character, darkness and light. Rather than bass-heavy players, I prefer those who enable the music to leave the ground and float.
A conductor once lectured me: “If a pianist plays all the notes of a chord equally loudly, then he demonstrates a good technique.” No wonder his own conducting lacked warmth and refinement. Be aware of the middle voices. Chords can be illuminated from within.
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.”
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.