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Here are some (but not all) of the devices that can be used by pianists in order to increase their expressive potential. All can be justified by reference to old recordings of indubitably great masters such as Paderewski, Rachmaninoff, Rosenthal, Friedman and others:

  • Strummed chords in order to increase sonority;
  • Broken chords in accompaniment figures to increase rhythmic motion;
  • Disengaging the melody line so that it floats against the beat (cf Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, both masters. Highly characteristic of Chopin's music);
  • Pedaling through harmonic changes;
  • Acceleration of the pulse in climatic moments;
  • Massive surges of sound created by the left hand and the pedal;
  • Anticipating the beat by fractional amounts on single chords or notes (Blues singers do this all the time to express pain and suffering);
  • Emphasizing inner voices at the expense of principle melodies.

Interestingly, there are three recordings of Anton Rubinstein's celebrated Valse-Caprice by Ignace Jan Paderewski, Josef Hofmann and Ignaz Friedman. Paderewski and Hofmann both certainly heard Rubinstein and Hofmann studied with him. Friedman may have heard Rubinstein, though when quite young. However, he did study with Theodor Leschetitzky who was a close friend and colleague of Rubinstein. Paderewski's performance was especially mocked by Harold Schonberg for its plethora of wrong notes, though Paderewski does not miss a single one of the treacherous leaps (Paderewski recorded this piece twice, and I have heard only the earlier 1912 recording. It is possible that the 1928 is truly bad and also the one that Schonberg heard. The 1928 recording is not available on CD. Thanks to my colleague Mark Arnest for reminding me of this).

But when listening to Hofmann and Friedman, both superb technicians whose technical resources have never been questioned like Paderewki's, one hears such extremes of pianism, such colossal sonorities, such madcap races and such peculiar 'misreadings' of the score, along with such infelicities that only a kindly person would not call errors, that it is magnificently evident that something drastically else is musically, pianistically and stylistically afoot. It turns out that all of these versions sound very similar, as if they were based on the same template. Clearly the mighty spirit of Rubinstein lurks not far in the background. This simple waltz is turned into a kaleidoscopic frenzy by all three pianists and all three pianists border on exceeding their pianistic resources. Paderewski's version now seems far less inaccurate (and certainly he does not play as many wrong notes as Schonberg claims) while also far less technically insecure. Indeed, some of the phrasing and structure that he brings to the design of the work are marvelously illuminating. But all three performances are wild and furious.

In the legendary description of Rubinstein called How Ruby Played, once a staple of the elocutionist's art, the author Bagby writes this:

'Then all of a sudden, old Rubin changed his tune. He ripped out and he rared, he tipped and he tared, he pranced and he charged like the grand entry to a circus. "Peared to me that all the gas in the house was turned on at once, things got so bright, and I hilt up my head, ready to look any man in the face, and not afraid of nothin". It was a circus, and a brass band, and a big ball all goin' on at the same time. He lit into them keys like a thousand of brick; he gave 'em no rest day or night; he set every livin' joint in me a-goin' ...'

This is the Valse Caprice!!! It can be no other. And in listening to the older pianists we catch a glimmer of Rubinstein the wildman, the artist possessed.

Of all the nineteenth century composers Rubinstein is most prey to the error of over caution. For, put kindly, many -- but by no means all -- of his works are weak (though he was by no means the fount of bad music that some critics have called him) and all need wise performance to bring them to life. Rubinstein must be played with fire and brimstone -- this in spite of the almost Mendelssohnian manner of his harmonic and melodic method. But by bringing something 'extra' to the performance, Rubinstein's music is raised to a higher level, as it was under his own hands. To play in such a fashion is in fact the best kind of authenticity.

Copyright © 20 July 2003 Gordon Rumson, Calgary, Canada


Anton Rubinstein: Pièces pour piano / Fabio Grasso

SOCD 202 HDCD 76'25" 2002 Disques du Solstice

Fabio Grasso, piano

6 Etudes pour piano Op 81 (1870); 3 Morceaux pour piano Op 71 (1867); 5 Morceaux pour piano Op 69 (1867)


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