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Classical Music 101: The voice and the violin as inspirations for the pianist's fingers

By John Terauds on October 19, 2012

To paraphrase John Donne, no pianist is an island. Using one of the more versatile of Western instruments, this musician sits in front of a wide range of tonal possibilities — and also faces a bewildering array of choices that are not always about the piano itself.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

Yesterday I wrote in my review of  Paul Lewis’s Schubert sonata recital how much of the music requires a singing voice. It’s the same with the music of Mozart.

With these two composers and any others writing monody (melody with accompaniment), the pianist it at once singer and accompanist, needing to play as if breathing between phrases.

But this sort of thinking doesn’t work with contrapuntal music, where two or more voices are present at the same time. Here balance and rhythm and harmony work together in many different ways, depending on the period in which the music was written.

Composers left increasingly detailed instructions on interpretation starting in the 19th century. But what to do with J.S. Bach, who left his keyboard interpreters with very few clues about how to play the music?

That’s why we hear so many different types of interpretations, regardless of the sort of keyboard instrument being used.

Vancouver-based pianist Svetlana Ponomarëva replied to one of my earlier posts with a link to an instructional video she has created as a companion to a Bach teaching manual. In her approach, she suggests the keyboard player should follow the articulation of a Baroque violinist to make the music sound right.

Hearing Ponomarëva explain it, this suggestion makes an awful lot of sense. The results she gets at the piano are at once clean, crisp and very musical.

So, for Bach as well as any other composer of the time writing counterpoint, the modern pianist becomes a string ensemble, her fingers tracing the attack of bow hairs on a string.

Here are Ponomarëva’s two short video presentations, followed by her playing Bach’s fifth French Suite. (I need to add that I’m not endorsing what the pianist says on the two videos, except for the actual practice of translating violin bowing to keyboard articulation):

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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