Alfred Brendel – Coping with pianos

In the essay “Coping with Pianos” Alfred Brendel writes about what he looks for in the voice of a piano, and how to manage with different (sometimes the same!) piano at concert venues. I thought I’d put here an excerpt of his thoughts about what a piano should sound like:

“Reactions to a piano are a personal matter; they are not always sharply defined and are subject to continual change. The pianist has to take into account whether he is going to accompany songs or brave the orchestra in the First Bartók Concerto; whether he is to perform before an audience of fifty or five thousand; whether he is to play Schubert or Stravinsky, Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata or Beethoven’s Op. 110. Can one, nevertheless, lay down some general guidelines for the evaluation of an instrument, which could be of assistance to most pianists in most situations? Let me do so by submitting the following propositions:

  1. The piano should be dynamically even in all its registers and at all levels of volume. This evenness can only be achieved by careful regulation of the action, together with the technique of voicing, which I shall come back to later.
  2. The tone of the piano should be bright and radiant, but have no cutting edge. The rounder, duller, blunter the tone, the less chance one has to colour it, to mix timbres, to detach one layer of sound from another. Faced with the choice between a concert grand with an inherently beautiful but invariable tone, and a less noble but more colourful instrument, the pianist will usually prefer the more colourful one.
  3. The volume of the piano should range from a whisper to a roar. This again depends on a carefully regulated action, which does not require the player to possess superhuman strength, and yet is responsive to his control of the most tender sotto voce. Furthermore, resounding splendour must be attainable even in passages and trills within the upper middle range without unduly tiring the hand.
  4. The sustaining pedal must dampen precisely. Even when lowered quite slowly onto the strings, all dampers must remain completely noiseless. The much feared grinding and soughing of the dampers at the point of contact, a chronic complaint in recent years, will, as likely as not, be blamed on the pianist as a technical shortcoming. Without properly shaped and regulated dampers made of good felt, refined, atmospheric pedalling is simply impossible. The lever of the pedal should not have too great a degree of play.
  5. The tone of the soft pedal, i.e. the depressed left pedal, should not be thin and acid, but should retain sufficient lyrical roundness and plasticity of sound variation.
  6. The pitch of the piano should be able to survive a concert without major dislocation. (If a concert grand goes out of tune, the fault often lies not with the instrument, but with the inadequate skill of the tuner.) Where I expect some disagreement is over the question of the soft pedal. There are pianists who prefer a shallow, nasal con sordino tone, decidedly removed from the normal gamut of sound. This ‘grotesque’ tone can, by virtue of its sharper definition, be of advantage in over-resonant halls. However, it may be so intolerant of nuances that the result is a single, unvaried tone colour. I find this too much of a restriction. Distinct whispering, important as it may be, is after all only a very small part of the musical function of the soft pedal.”
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