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What “authentic” edition should a piano student use when learning repertoire of the Masters?

I’m thinking back to my ancient days studying with Lillian Freundlich in New York City. During this period, like any fledgling I relied on my teacher as an “authority” figure to recommend what Mozart Sonata edition, for example, I should buy down at Patelson’s. (This was decades before the quaint hub for musicians seeking authenticity and desired discounts, went out of business.)

Schirmers, by comparison was considered the more pricey location with its yellow churned out publications that became home sweet home hand-me-downs from one generation to another. You might find these in your piano bench collecting dust with a culture of their own. Sometimes albums would crop up in odd places, sandwiched among soft-covered recipe brochures, or old Life Magazines.

I had one particular hard cover, antique edition of the Chopin Waltzes (not Schirmer) bestowed by Ethel Elfenbein, pianist, that literally disintegrated when I opened it. The flakes, spread far and wide over my carpet, were gathered up and moduled on a shelf overlooking my fireplace. So much for the living, breathing presence of Chopin in my musical sanctuary.


Over the years, I realized that Mrs. Freundlich and later teachers at the Oberlin Conservatory would redundantly select the Henle Urtext edition for Mozart and Beethoven Sonatas, as well as for the works of composers from Bach through Brahms, and on into the Impressionistic era. No questions asked, it was BLUE forever! meaning that I might also acquire Beethoven’s death mask or a colorful glossy rendering of a Master in attractive period attire wearing a frilly wig. If nothing else, I could extract a portrait to frame and decorate the walls of my piano studio.

But in a column of negatives, many of the Blues had a sea of emptiness on the page. The open space would befuddle me during my post umbilical cord years, as I journeyed to independence as a private teacher in Fresno, California, of all places. We not only lacked a Patelson’s equivalent, but Miller Sheet Music, our popular mainstay, disappeared one day, when the Internet grabbed the lion’s share of industry commerce.

With some Urtexts lacking simple phrasing and fingering suggestions, I would inevitably hunt around for an edition with more direction. In a word, that’s how Palmer landed on my piano rack.

Before long I had amassed his Introduction to Scarlatti, Mozart, Chopin, etc. with its needed ingredients for my students who were otherwise barely able to adhere to basic fingerings. And what a nice extra  to have an opening set of pages explaining ornamentation, phrasing, and any Period practice formerly plagued by enigma. (I knew my pupils wouldn’t wade through these, but at least I did, so I could pretend to be an “authority” on a particular composer and his era) Little did I know that I might be channeling misinformation.

As an example, I recently posted a You Tube performance of Chopin’s Nocturne in E Minor, Op. 72, No. 1 where I had used Willard A. Palmer’s edition, “from the original sources.”

Here’s what was notated on page 3, for trill execution. (the recommendation was to begin the extended ornament on the upper note)

After I had shared my reading with the distinguished pianist/teacher, Seymour Bernstein, my bubble burst! His comments seriously questioned the edition I used and its trill instruction:

“First, what kind of edition is that with wrong pedal indications and suggestions that those long and some short trills begin on the upper note? Please consult with the Wiener Urtext (Ekier).” (Had I heard “Urtext” a zillion times over in my archived music memory?)

He continued with dismay. “Some theorists hold to Chopin always beginning trills on the upper note, but that practice ceased with late Bach and Mozart. It comes down to personal choice. And choices are usually made on what the melody is doing.”

(At least my “nutty” fingering comment in measure 37, met with Bernstein’s approval. He endorsed my autographed adjustment.)

In stars perfect alignment, I received a timely comment from a reader informing me that Seymour Bernstein had published Chopin Interpreting his Notational Symbols:

Immediately, I raced back to the piano and revised the direction of my trill, to my personal satisfaction. The melody now lingered from the start, without a hint of the Baroque style intruding upon a pervasively Romantic musical landscape.

And speaking of Baroque manuscripts, I’d been startled by performances of Scarlatti’s works posted by fine harpsichordists and pianists that had measures of completely different music than I had practiced for years!

A case in point, where discrepancies abounded, were found in James Friskin’s edition of a dozen or so sonatas in each of two volumes that I was raised on.

From Sonata in A Major, L. 345, K. 113, with its daredevil, crossed-hand passages:

Notice the first page printed below as compared to what is rendered in Gilel’s reading. To my surprise, only one performance of many sampled, reflected what was printed in measures 13 of Friskin. For all intents and purposes a repetitive bar that would have been correct measure 14, was missing. The same played out in measure 18 in most recordings.

Emil Gilels (I wonder what edition he used?)

Here’s one of the few performances that finally matched up with Friskin: (A very sensitive interpretation from Irina Bogdanova)


To further blur the Baroque landscape, I found supposedly missing measures in other Sonatas published by James Friskin, including the celebrated K. 159 in C Major with its hunting horn opener.

Elaine Comparone,  a brilliant harpsichordist with a discography a mile long, prefers to work with manuscripts that are not cluttered with annotations and the rest. She has enough of an erudite, academic and musical background to insert her own phrase marks, fingering, etc. with a high degree of established authority. (

In summary, we may be back to start on what we can trust as the best realization of the masters’compositions.

For certain, there will be clashes of wills and preferences among the finest pianists and scholars, but perhaps it would be instructive to read some of the best treatises and books associated with the composers’ works. Domenico Scarlatti by Ralph Kirkpatrick comes to mind. And I recall having heard Murray Perahia mention Barenreiter in connection with Bach’s manuscripts.

JS Bach.
Catalogues and critical editions

The standard Bach catalogue, with thematic entries, is the Wolfgang Schmieder Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (BWV), first published in 1950. A complete listing of Bach’s works (by Richard Jones), incorporating new dating, is at the end of the “J.S. Bach” article in New Grove. Bach’s collected works were first published by the Bach-Gesellschaft (Bach Society), 1851-1900. A new edition, the Neue Bach Ausgabe, or NBA (Bew Bach Edition), using the techniques of modern scholarship, began publication in 1954 (from Barenreiter), and is still in progress.

More J.S. Bach sources:

5 thoughts on “What “authentic” edition should a piano student use when learning repertoire of the Masters?”

  1. I showed my fancy ABRSM edition of the Beethoven sonatas to a teacher whose automatic reaction was if it wasn’t Henle it wasn’t right. I had to explain that this new edition was based on years and years of research by the editor, Barry Cooper:
    However, this is another one in which the editor insists on most trills starting on the upper note. This generally sounds wrong to me, but what do I know?
    For Bach, I actually like Kalmus, because the editors give you some help with fingerings and explain variations between various manuscripts, but it still looks nice on the page (though I recently bought a Kalmus version of the partitas and it is way too small! They sized down the pages to fit on 8.5 x 11 paper, and it’s just about unreadable; too bad).


  2. Hi Harriet, I commiserate with you. There’s a certain elitism attached to Henle.. and frankly, I had been using Kalmus for Scarlatti after tossing Friskin.. but then again, I just didn’t like some of the phrasing that seemed more in the Romantic style than Baroque–so I’ve looked at any number of editions, like Ricordi, still feeling unsatisfied. One thing is for sure.. I don’t like to see notes on a blank page without suggested fingering and phrasing.. Although once again, some of the editors’ fingerings are nothing short of NUTS!!! Like in the Palmer edition of Nocturne in E minor with that chromatic measure 37–

    Thanks for sharing.. .SK


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