Tiers of dynamics, well-regulated pianos, and expressive playing

CherkasskyThe legendary pianist, Shura Cherkassky made triple ppps (pianississimos) melt in his hands through a fluid keyboard approach that encompassed an array of colors and shadings. In Shura’s exemplary performance of Saint-Saens’ Swan the pianist’s multi-voice tier of dynamics was particularly astounding for its repository of textural timbres. Not surprisingly, the artist’s touch sensitivity intertwined with his uniquely vivid imagination and paired with a well-regulated/voiced piano were important ingredients in his lushly expressive outpourings.

In truth, Cherkassky was known to be ultra concerned with the height of his piano bench and whether it squeaked during his normal shift of body weight at the keyboard, but he also made it a point to check out pianos before a concert for their tone and touch dimensions. In his often perfunctory assessments, he’d breeze over 4 or 5 keys, easily dismissing a whole piano because of one unimpressive register, but for the most part he would not fuss over two nearly matched instruments.

The pianist’s innate sense of “feel” allied to his “sound” ideal had been nursed through years of playing and in one media interview tinged with humor, he confessed that his practicing if overheard, would be akin to the keyboard-wide meanderings of a piano tuner. Perhaps he was NOT fleshing out a percussive approach by analogy, but instead a soft range exploration of peak level responsiveness.

Another fine pianist, Seymour Bernstein, was seen bench hopping from one piano to another in the film Seymour: An Introduction as he assessed a series of concert grands at Steinway 57th in preparation for his Rotunda performance. (This was prior to the company’s relocation) While Seymour muttered unkind words about one particular model ‘D,’ he swooned over another as Ron Coners senior Steinway technician observed him at a safe distance, arms folded.

While Cherkassky and Bernstein both enjoyed the opportunity to choose a desirable concert-level piano before a recital, Sviatoslav Richter, Russian pianist icon, often journeyed to the countryside playing any piano he was given, making the most of what it offered, even if notes failed to produce sound, or jammed because of long-term neglect.

Ironically, it’s no surprise that to this day many impoverished pianists with significant talent can barely afford a decent piano, though they valiantly march on, playing deficient instruments and making the best of it. (Lucas Debargue, 4th place winner in the XV Tchaikovsky International Competition is an example)

My own humble dilemma in playing a super-well regulated NEW piano beside one that is currently full of bumps and blubbers poses many philosophical and performance-related issues. It’s not that I yearn for a big, booming, tone-defined piano, but I want the opposite–an instrument that responds at the softest dynamic imaginable to a finger sensitive approach.

In the recent XV Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, a very able Steinway trained tuner from Sydney, Australia,(Ara Vartoukian) was dispatched to Moscow to keep the Concert grand Steinway in peak playing condition for a slew of first round contestants that eventually whittled down to six Finalists. His riveting journal entries about the whole competition backdrop are of particular interest in this discussion. They lend credence to the meticulous pursuit of providing a touch/tone satisfactory instrument as a funnel for expressive artistry.

piano technician

http://www.themeandvariations.com.au/news-events/news/2015/06/piano-expert-on-the-ground-in-russia

About arioso7: Shirley Kirsten

International piano teacher by Skype, recording artist, composer, piano finder, freelance writer, film maker, story teller: Grad of the NYC HS of Performing Arts, Oberlin Conservatory, NYU (Master of Arts) Studies with Lillian Freundlich and Ena Bronstein; Master classes with Murray Perahia and Oxana Yablonskaya. Studios in BERKELEY and EL CERRITO, California; Member, Music Teachers Assoc. of California, MTAC; Distance learning and Skyped instruction with supplementary videos: SKYPE ID, shirleypiano1 Contact me at: shirley_kirsten@yahoo.com OR http://www.youtube.com/arioso7 or at FACEBOOK: Shirley Smith Kirsten, http://facebook.com /shirley.kirsten TWITTER: http://twitter.com/arioso7 Private fund-raising for non-profits as pianist--Public Speaking re: piano teaching and creative approaches
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9 Responses to Tiers of dynamics, well-regulated pianos, and expressive playing

  1. Pingback: Tiers of dynamics, well-regulated pianos, and expressive playing – Burning Bushes Music

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  4. Fran says:

    Great Blog Shirley! This one was in the works and you put it together masterfully!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Shirley,

    A great article again.

    Lucas Debargue probably practiced on one of these pianos that is lying around Paris in the public for people to play.

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    • Thanks for sharing quite a unique performance in the streets of Paris. Did you see the great interview with Lucas Debargue’s Russian teacher: http://www.ismeneb.com/Blog/Entries/2015/7/7_Lucas_Debargues_teacher_explains_his_genius.html

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      • da96103 says:

        Oh my, that was an emotional read. I thought I was reading a Hallmark movie biopic. What an inspiration!
        Those missed notes in Beethoven Sonata 7th or blurred Scarbo’s repeated notes does not seemed important now compared to what he had to go through in his life.

        To think that the experts in Paris told him they will not listen to Medtner and Medtner turns out to be a hit in Moscow. So embarrassing.

        And he had a wonderful teacher in Rena Shereshevskaya. She was most patient and shared his enthusiasm for literature. And Gaspard by Ravel was based on a French poem. Debargue must have felt this piece is a perfect marriage of poetry and music.

        I think he has shaken traditional piano pedagogy.

        George Li maybe 4 years younger than Debargue in biological age but in music industry age with all its trappings, Debargue is just a child.

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      • It’s certainly admirable that Debargue is steeped in literature, history which gives him an extra depth dimension. The competition circuit is not the best venue for something other than the standard bearing. I think over time, we’ll observe who will make an impact on audiences. Essentially, the “star” system and who nails Gold may be just a drop in the bucket….

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