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It seems then that to prettify Rubinstein's music, to play it to plainly, even antiseptically (perhaps a flaw of recording requirements) is to do a disservice to Rubinstein's music. I am not suggesting banging, I am not suggesting the free playing of wrong notes. I am suggesting the employment of perfectly logical expressive devices with the intent of raising the emotional level to the uttermost.

For example, Fabio Grasso has a tendency to end phrases with a dying fall; a slight ritard and decrescendo. I do not think that all of these are marked in the scores. I rather believe it is an attempt at expressivity and that 'aristocratic nonchalance' he mentioned in the notes. This 'expressive device is fine and will earn one marks as musical in exams and competitions, but it also defuses the emotional tension. Why are accelerations not allowed? They would certainly drive the music forward -- perhaps almost out of control ...

Well, the answer lies in part with the limitations of expressive devices placed upon modern pianists by education and the critical environment. Pianists can do a few things such as a ritard to a high note, or a crescendo to a sudden soft (a device notated often in Beethoven's music and also used extensively by Vladimir Horowitz), but they are not allowed to do other things, such as accelerate through sections of greater harmonic tension, or pedal through chords in order to create a blur of sound. Teachers value cleanliness as next to godliness (or musicality) and critics are vociferous in their pursuit of the clean performance. Hence any pianist who asserts a desire to stretch the boundaries, to drive music forward with the blow of a hammer, rather than the chime of a teaspoon, is sure to fall foul of these guardians of musical purity.

I'm all for purity when it is appropriate, and modesty is as becoming of some music as it is in life. But surely too the frenzy of life, the overwhelming horror, the vehemence, the ribaldry, the maniacal lunacy of the human and cosmic spectacle are also fit subject for musical expression. There can be no doubt that the Romantic composers, and Rubinstein as a pianist, cast their expressive nets that far. Liszt visited the prisoner condemned to death, how can such an experience be expressed -- carefully? Rather we need every tool, every technique, every device and every possibility in order to do justice to the musical aspirations of these geniuses, like Rubinstein (for he was).

The limitations of expressive tools is one of the reasons modern pianists tend to sound the same. This is something we need to get over.

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Copyright © 20 July 2003 Gordon Rumson, Calgary, Canada


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