I was at a piano recital on Sunday, part of our chamber music series, and it did prompt some thoughts. The piano is a marvelous musical instrument, there is no doubt. It is the pinnacle of a long development of keyboard instruments that include the organ, harpsichord and virginal, among others. The piano is the most successful of these because it avoids the problems of the others. The organ is quite a remarkable instrument but until the invention of the electronic organ, it was simply not available in private homes. The virginal is an excellent domestic instrument, but very limited in dynamics. The harpsichord was a huge success in the 17th and 18th centuries, but its sonority is not to everyone's taste. Segovia described it as two skeletons making love on a tin roof! Around 1700 an Italian named Bartolomeo Cristofori invented a new kind of keyboard instrument where the strings were hit with little hammers as opposed to plucked with quills as in the harpsichord. This allowed greater volume and, even more important, the control of dynamics from soft piano to loud forte. For this reason the new instrument was called the "pianoforte." The 18th century piano was much lighter in sound and had less range than the later versions developed in the 19th and 20th centuries. Nowadays when a performance is given on one of these earlier versions, such as was played by Mozart, the instrument is referred to as a "fortepiano." As far as I can tell, this is a very recent coinage.
But all pianos have in common the fact that they are instruments designed to play a lot of notes quickly and easily and, with the recent designs, to do so at pretty loud volume. A lot of the development in the 19th century was to enable people like Franz Liszt to perform in very large halls seating a couple of thousand people, and still be heard. When Mozart premiered his piano concertos at the Lenten Concerts in Vienna, a typical audience was around 120 people!
The interesting thing is that the very strengths of the piano highlight the weaknesses of the player. The great danger for pianists is to replace subtlety and articulation with banging out the notes loudly in a muddy blur. This is exacerbated by the use of the sustain pedal, a little pedal, depressed by the foot, that raises all the dampers and allows the strings to keep ringing even when the keys are not pressed down. That is a fairly simple mechanism, but the action that enables the hammers to strike the keys quickly and for the sound to be damped as soon as the finger lets the key up, is amazingly complex, the result of a long development:
We guitarists, on the other hand, use our fingers and carefully shaped fingernails on the right hand. So the piano is a kind of musical factory designed to produce large numbers of notes at different volumes as easily as possible. It makes it possible to play very dense textures and even reductions of orchestral scores, something Liszt was famous for.
But, as I was saying, this can lead to the characteristic weaknesses of mediocre pianists. What are they? Well, the temptation is to bang out the notes as loud as possible and to play scales and arpeggios as fast as possible. Most of the audience will love it and applaud loudly. But the problem is that this is pretty boring really and steamrollers over the music. The poor pianists can play very loud: the great pianists can play very soft!
The first piece on the program on Sunday was a sonata by Haydn and he, and Mozart, are the cruelest tests of a mediocre pianist. There were some quite fast scales and every one of them was a inarticulate blur. This meant that there was no rhythmic vitality, which pretty well kills off Haydn! A scale has to be articulated, especially in the Classical style, and it has to have direction and shape.
Now the fellow playing the concert was not a bad pianist: he played a lot of things well. Slow movements went better than fast and his memory was excellent. But that whole banging stuff out and ripping through fast passages with no sensitivity or articulation tendency meant I was wincing through much of the concert. And my companion was just bored.
Just to be fair, you want to know what the characteristic strengths and weaknesses of the guitar are? Sure: unless you amplify it is simply too soft to play in a large or even medium hall and concertos are really a problem. Also, it is difficult to play in keys with too many sharps or flats and the complexity of textures is severely limited.
I used to know a producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation who would call me up and ask my opinion about different pianists. I asked him why and he said that a guitarist was more objective about pianists than another pianist would be. And you never ask one soprano's opinion of another soprano! No, indeed.
Let's hear a fine pianist playing a Mozart concerto on a fortepiano, a copy of Mozart's own instrument. This is Malcolm Bilson with the English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner in the C major concerto, K. 467: