piano, piano regulation, piano voicing, XV Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition

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.

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Interpreting piano music: Should we truly realize the composer’s intent?

Matters of interpretation came up at the “Y” Gym yesterday when I bumped into the pianist from a North Berkeley house of worship. Aline is a fine musician who intersperses the service with great masterworks. Recently she played Grieg’s “Wedding March” during the basket-passing which lifted spirits as it amassed $$$$.

At that very instant, I thought about how Edvard Grieg might have rendered his own music. (To hear his personal reading would certainly provide authentic tempo references and suggested phrasing) After all, how many times had piano students been told to worship the composer at his altar –channeling his music as he would have intended.

When I studied Grieg’s “Butterfly” from the Lyric Pieces I managed to dig up a scratchy rendering of Grieg’s that was compelling in its departure from my so-called original edition.

But was His the Holy Bible of interpretation compared to others I sampled on You Tube.

Had the Creator set the piece in stone?

How about this reading?

It seemed warmer with judiciously used sustain pedal.

And my personal favorite played by Sviatoslav Richter–he escapes the tendency to race through.

In summary, I didn’t necessarily embrace the composer’s approach to his own music.



Here Bartok plays his hauntingly beautiful “Evening in the Country” with a wide brush of rubato that makes measuring the piece in notational form nearly impossible.

Compare to another rendering that’s compelling.

And now a more “measured out” performance that doesn’t seem to capture the improvised nature of the folkloric idiom, though one may argue that the reading is a personal expression of the artist that doesn’t have to match up with the composer’s so-called ideal.


Gershwin plays Gershwin

“I Got Rhythm”

Updated and transcribed in a virtuoso framing:


Traveling back over centuries where masterworks have no recorded expressions by their creators, we have treatises by C.P.E. Bach, for example, that inform about ornament execution, tempo, affect, etc.

Yet beyond what’s written by historians, the music itself, including melodic and harmonic flow give the player an interpretive map that is individually followed within the historical period of composition. This seems to be a better overall paradigm for interpretation than trying to be a carbon copy of the composer in any era.

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A pianist is a COLLABORATOR NOT an “accompanist”

The “A” word is officially banished from my vocabulary, even if its residual usage in books, newspapers, old reviews, can’t be controlled.

To boot, anyone who’s been handed a stack of music by the High School vocal teacher to ready for the mid-year Christmas program and a few others in between Thanksgiving and semester break, knows that practicing sonatas, etudes, nocturnes and preludes is ON HOLD for a term of “ancillary” musical service.

NO not ancillary! according to Merriam-Webster
1: subordinate, subsidiary 2: auxiliary, supplementary

Purge this “A” word from the music-related vocabulary!

I must confide that the original verboten “A” word slipped into an e-mail I’d sent to a NY Times editor. And it ruffled the feathers of a world-class soloist and COLLABORATOR who received my prompt apology.


Now here’s a supreme collaborator in a Brahms Piano Quartet performance.


Those of us who’ve “COLLABORATED” know the practicing requirements. They upend family obligations at times, and turn our lives inside out and upside down if you factor in practicing prep, rehearsal schedules and performances.

Take the Beethoven “Spring” Sonata, for example, scored for violin and piano. It’s glaring that the interactive counterpoint between players, precludes thinking of the composition as placing the violinist in a starring role. The SOLOIST domain days are over!

And while pianists may be sitting, THEY WILL INEVITABLY also SIT-IN for proper recognition.

Same for harpsichordists, one of whom stands, gaining long-delayed attention– Elaine Comparone has championed harpsichord rights, erecting a “Brooklyn Bridge” to lift the spirits of her instrument, though she remains a superb collaborator.


In the chamber music venue, I played the Brandenburg Concerto 5 at the Merrywood Music Camp, and my part in the Gigue movement, was no small task. I was “conversing,” overlapping, chattering, through a quick-paced reading with an instrumental group of equals. If I failed, which I did at one point, the music crumbled like a house of cards.


And this whole chatter-boxing dimension of interactive, collaborative performance, brings up the subject of Deborah Tannen’s Book, That’s Not What I Meant.

Collaborators have the challenge of saying what they mean in a musically harmonious fashion.

I remember reading about how Dietrich Fischer-Diskau, with his “strong personality” asked Sviatoslav Richter to tone it down more. And Richter having a robust persona, perhaps didn’t always agree that his contribution should be diminished.. (not literally, of course)

How many times have we heard one collaborator drown out the other, unsettling a balance between them, especially where one of the two had a riveting passage that needed fleshing out.


Naturally, the ART of making musical decisions is pivotal to a convincing performance and begs for good interpersonal communication skills. (consult again, Deborah Tannen, That’s Not What I Meant, You Just Don’t Understand, and I Only Say This because I Love You)

Now back to the High School or Middle School venue.

I remember hauling a stack of albums home, and grimacing at the very thought of practicing a medley of Christmas Carols. Being paid $9 per hour at the time (while holding a Master’s Degree) my classification was “associate.”

Oops, that’s my cue to EXPUNGE still another “A” word from the language! For heaven sakes, NO ASSOCIATE practices for HOURS, DAYS, WEEKS having a back-up pile of spirituals and movie themes to plow through.

And what about navigating those first, second, third and fourth endings sandwiched between dal segnos. DC al Fine–not to mention sifting through slash marks, revisions, and last-minute cuts made by the conductor.

Case in point–On the day of the BIG Holiday performance, the music director did the UNTHINKABLE!

He slashed 4/4 to 2/2 without a word of warning and sent us all hurtling into musical space at break speed tempo!! (I watched his index finger rise and fall like his twitching nose)

Luckily, we made it in one PIECE to the final cadence amidst earth-shattering applause.

Sadly, this death-defying effort, sealed my retirement as a secondary school collaborator! Kaput! Finished! I was off and running back to the serious practice room where I bathed myself in Bach, Brahms and Beethoven.

Fortunately, earlier opportunities, outside the public school venue, were heaven sent by comparison! And these are enumerated:

Mozart G minor Piano Quartet (Appel Farm Arts Camp, Elmer NJ)
Brandenburg 5–Gigue (Merrywood Music Camp–Lenox, MA)
The Beethoven “Ghost” Trio–Fresno CA
Beethoven: Trio for Clarinet, Cello & Piano in B flat major, Op. 11 (with NYC HS of Performing Arts alums–I recall cellist, Marcia Patelson Popowitz)
Schubert Fantasie in D minor.. 4 hands, one piano (with a student)
Beethoven “Ghost” trio again, 92nd Street Y (Yuval Waldman, violin) don’t remember cellist.
Diabelli duets with my cousin Gregory.. 4 hands, one piano
Bach Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor, BWV1060 (My cousin Greg played the oboe, alongside Uncle Joe on violin)
Bach Double Concerto (I played violin) so I was still collaborating.
Mozart Concerto K. 453 (collaborating in the orchestra) before stepping out as a “soloist” do I dare say!

Shall we ban the word “soloist” from the musical UNIVERSE!!! !

I think there’s movement in this direction!

And speaking of the soloist venue, here’s Morozova playing the very concerto I performed at the New York City High School of Performing Arts Winter Concert.

We can all agree that Mozart in this orchestration, IS chamber music. (Even the pooches heard in the distance were willing “collaborators”)


The Collaborator Blog Spot



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Film art and great pianism fuse in a Richter documentary (The Enigma – Bruno Monsaingeon -1998- Parts I and 2)

sviatoslav richter
The set is plain. Sviatoslav Richter is 80, looking physically like a shadow of himself. He’s seated at a table, sometimes appearing depressed. His memories flow extemporaneously. They’re filled with a wide range of emotions, perhaps a microcosm of his playing.

He can be uplifting, impassioned, regretful, disappointed, inspired, exalted and traumatized as he relives his Russian childhood and family disintegration. A poignant sub theme: his father, a pianist and Odessa Conservatory professor was executed during the era of Soviet purges. A recurring motif of sadness permeates many of his reflections.

In the same vein, we learn that Richter’s father, who taught the child piano, was “horrified” listening to his son’s early practicing efforts at age 8.

He complained to his wife. “He never plays scales or exercises.” And she tempered his anger by saying, “Leave him alone.”

Richter recalls his first piece learned: Chopin’s first Nocturne, followed by the E minor Etude. With that said, Monsaingeon cross fades to the Etude, with a display of the pianist’s jaw-dropping virtuosity!

(Footage of Richter’s performances permeate the documentary affording a historical perspective that matches the pianist’s moving narrative)

Part 1:

Part 2:

We learn over the course of a two part documentary, that “mama” met “papa” at the Odessa Conservatory where she was his piano student. And though considered a privileged, landlord’s daughter, she married what was considered a “commoner.” (Her father registered his disapproval of the marriage)


As an only child, Richter was the favorite of his doddering old aunties who sheltered him for a time during a family separation, and there he gave his first concert, performing the Schumann Concerto at ONE piano.

Every aspect of “Slava’s” life is explored: It includes his early professional engagement as an “accompanist” in theaters and clubs. (for singers, violinists, and circus performers, and his subsequent stint as an opera coach) He intones his love for Wagner as he ingested whole scores at the piano, including those of Verdi.

In a career overview, Richter emphasizes that his Odessa debut was not a professional high point. (Often “politics” clouded what should have been art for its own sake) But what resonates in his self reviews, are self-deprecations that are in glaring contrast to what critics had declared great musical successes!

When Glenn Gould regales Richter’s Schubert G Major sonata, as tantamount to a second coming, Richter dilutes his excitement with a lukewarm response: “the playing was unremarkable.”

Suddenly, Richter perks up and springs to life, recounting his years at the Moscow Conservatory as a student of Heinrich Neuhaus. A mouse click to 26:00 Part One through 31 is worth a preview, even before apportioning a large chunk of time to absorb this awe-inspiring film.

Neuhaus was “like a father,” he says, yet more “lighthearted” than his own (The music professor had declared Richter “a genius” after his Conservatory audition)

And how did Neuhaus influence the pianist? Richter views this teacher as his personal idol.

“It was in tone production–he freed up my playing. My sound had to be opened up.”

And conversely, “he taught me how to make silences sound.”

For a sample of Neuhaus’s OWN playing, a snatch (Kreisleriana) from his Moscow Conservatory concert is inserted, supporting Richter’s hyperbole. (He confesses that his mentor played “like a pig” in the first two Schumann openers–comments revealing Sviatoslav’s unabashed candor and sharp-witted humor)

In the entertainment realm, Richter is caught on camera playing “Liszt” in a Russian-made movie about GLINKA. Slava with a wig, in period costume is a sight to behold, rendering a lively Glinka composition. Suddenly, a magical cinematic moment: The composer, Glinka, is standing beside him, shaking his hand.

Richter recalls this “dramatic exchange” as a peak, theatrical moment.

Of note, more than a few of the pianist’s opinionated, though heartfelt responses to people, places, performances, and pianos during his distinguished career:

On America.. “too standardized.” He was not fond of time spent touring the US. (an understatement)

About pianos, and choosing one for a concert. When asked, “what is required of your instrument?”

Answer: “I require more of myself.”

On playing with music in recital: “It’s more honest.. you can play exactly what’s written.”

Whom does Richter prefer, Haydn or Mozart?

Reply: “Mozart!” He says, with authority! (“It’s easier to phrase Haydn….Mozart is too difficult.”) “The secret of playing Mozart” evades him.


Nina Dorliak, singer/recitalist who became Richter’s long-term live-in companion following Richter’s stint as her accompanist, intersperses commentary on his life, practicing routines and performances. (From Wiki: “She accompanied Richter both in his complex life and career. She supported him in his last sickness, and died herself a few months later, on May 17, 1998.”)

She insists, “he practiced 10 to 12 hours per day.”

Not surprisingly, Richter denies it: “No, never. It was three hours.” (The camera pans to what looks like a timer, though it might have been a metronome)

Again a contradiction of observations.

Sadly, the documentary ends on a somber note:

“I don’t like myself,” Richter admits, as he slumps into a reclusive pose. A dimming fade-out to credits brings part 2, to conclusion.

Looking back on Sviatoslav’s colorful musical journey, admirers around the world continue to celebrate his artistry, humanity, and generosity. (Often, he donated free concerts at schools in the countryside and beyond)

And above all, they treasure his recordings and you tube videos that memorialize his musical genius.

So to dearly beloved, Slava,

Rest in Peace.



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Comparing performances of Mozart Sonata in C, K. 545, Movement 1, Allegro (Tempo, alone can make a big difference)

Over time, when we return to a piece that is well-learned, and in some cases has become a bit too predictable without a touch of inspiration, a revitalized, updated version might be worth a try.

In this regard, I’m always re-recording time-honored pieces periodically, to refresh them.

To broaden my perspective, I search You Tube performances for ideas.

Starting with my newest playing that followed by an older rendition, I branched out to other readings for insight about tempo and interpretation.



The editions used by these pianists are unknown:

Christoph Eschenbach (Takes fast tempo)

Why is the second theme played so loudly? And what about accents in the the bass over measures 5to 6; 6 to 7, etc?

Claudia Arrau (slower tempo) Plays the 16ths scales slightly detached. Executes longer trill on the initial ornament. (If you play slower, that’s a lot easier to do)

A bit Romanticized here and there. Has a few jarring cadences where he accents the tonic resolutions which I don’t comprehend. Notice his poco ritardando to the recap of the theme in F Major. (That makes sense)

Mitsuko Uchida

I like her tempo and overall performance.(Nice contrasting second theme) Notice different articulations, however, as compared to the other renderings, and a clipped staccato that I don’t understand. That’s the only part that tweaks my ears, perhaps, because I’m accustomed to the longer staccato of the Classical period. But up for debate. (It does change the character of the movement)

Sviatoslav Richter

Lovely Mozartean tone–refined, beautiful, and tempo seems just right.

Which is your favorite?

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When sight-reading is not enough: Learning a new piano piece from the ground up so we can teach it to our students (Videos)

I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Sviatoslav Richter when asked how he approached a challenging new composition of virtuoso proportion:

His reply– “I read a new piece and then start practicing the place that irritates me the most. After learning that one I move to the next irritation, etc.”

Well, most of us would die to have such comparable talent, but our perfunctory read of a new composition only skims the surface, requiring our deeper commitment to musical and technical discovery.

I will admit that earlier today I dove into a virgin piece, submerging myself for greater than two full hours as I refined fingering, mapped out harmonic rhythm, probed voice layering, and the rest. It was in readiness for my video tutorial of Mendelssohn’s Children’s Piece, Op. 72 No. 1.

This composition, with a hymn-like, singing tone quality, happened to be the second one brought to me by my “new” Bay area adult student. As it turned out, she was very committed to hard work and personal musical development which was one of the rare blessings to come my way over a long teaching career. For me, this was an opportunity to grow along with her and expand my pianistic horizons.

In the embedded video offered, I literally approached the Mendelssohn work as if I were a maiden voyager on a musical journey, wanting to make my student’s foray a bit easier.

Along the way, I encountered a perfectly heart-warming character piece that looked deceptively simple, but wasn’t. And as I dealt with a choir of voices, with a few inner ones needing to be fleshed out, I re-fingered measures that had poor editorial choices, and examined harmonic rhythm and phrasing to ensure a depth of learning that would be long-lasting.

Previously, I’d studied many of the composer’s “Songs without Words” which provided a good Romantic era underpinning for this undertaking, but still, I required quality time to examine a brand new composition that was not in my repertoire. (Separate hand practice could not be avoided)

The video instruction contained baby-step advances that would bode well for a progressive learning and ripening process, and in this effort, I would partner with an enthusiastic adult student who was on the same page with me.



The very first lesson with a new Intermediate or advanced piano student: thinking creatively on your feet


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Picking the right piano to record a selection (Videos)–“Fur Elise” by Beethoven

I’ve heard stories about great pianists such as Richter obsessing over a choice of piano for a concert. Allegedly, he was very fussy, and sometimes regretted the one he picked out for a recital. But when he found himself playing in Siberia and rural parts of the Russian landscape, he rose to the occasion, and made whatever piano was given him, sing to the heavens. No regrets, thank you. (Vladimir Horowitz took his own piano with him, and apparently jetted it to foreign concert halls) Or maybe a boat was involved in the old days. (moisture issues in transit?)

I guess Volodya took things to an extreme.

Others wouldn’t have the luxury to transport a piano thousands of miles to a recital venue.

Lesson learned: Whatever piano you have, make the best of it. Even poorly maintained instruments may have a tad of inspiration tucked away, waiting to be tapped.

Easier said than done.

I talk about land mines when I play my own pianos. And I’ve become very frustrated over and again with poor piano maintenance in a small community such as Fresno.

When my piano needs regulation and the tuner says he doesn’t do that, it’s like a hired house cleaner saying she won’t get into the hard to reach, corner bathroom tiles and scrub them without a mop.

I used to work at the New York State Employment Service of the Department of Labor, Household Division, and we had all kinds of taboos associated with on the “knees scrubbing.” We had to ask the employer if she had a mop, and go no further. Have times changed?

Now we have piano techs deciding that regulation, voicing, are equally out of the mainstream.

Last night, I wanted to re-record Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” for the nth time. This playing would be captured on iMovie with my Yeti external mic. Eliminating the whooshy camcorder sounds was motivation enough. And then I could go High Definition.

Two days ago, I had uploaded a “Fur Elise” that was far too slow, so I raced to delete it. (Playbacks are always defining–especially the morning after review)

My precious Haddorff console, as singable as it was, had some morbidly awful pedal squeaks, and a noisy action. I’d posted a Beethoven reading on Haddy with built-in mouse noises.

Still, I liked Haddy’s basic voice, because it was Old World and daunting. The piano basically sang like a nightingale.

Nevertheless, I opted for the Steinway M Grand in this new reading–knowing I needed to ply it in a way that I could maximize its performance.

Having a few very lazy keys, it was a crap shoot to rely on them.

Being philosophical, a pianist can make the most of what he has until and when a Savior walks through the door, and announces he can tune, voice, and regulate your piano to high standard.

Fat chance. I will be waiting for a time.

In any event, I did record “Fur Elise” on my vintage Steinway grand, M, 1917 and compared it side by to the performance rendered in the past on Haddy.

My verdict is in for me: The Steinway came through more defined, and with greater nuance. (and the mouse was eradicated)

Haddy, no slouch in her own right, had issues but rose to the occasion.

Here’s her version following the most recent Steinway grand rendition:

Haddorff console (1951)

Did I detect some tooth grinding in both? Geeze, if it’s not one thing, it’s another.