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Hystorical pianists and modern pianists

What is authenticity in piano performance?

Every performer of classical music – just as, one presumes, every listener – aspires to reach the heart of the message that a composer has passed down to us through his works. However, the notation on the score leaves many parameters poorly defined, leaving them to the taste, culture, or the momentary invention of the performer. The notation is also linked to the conventions and keyboard instruments of the epoch, which in the 18th century (but also the 19th, especially in the first half) were quite different from the modern piano: in timbre, dynamics, diversity of the registers, reactivity of the mechanics. The performer, in turn, is inevitably conditioned by the context in which he/she is to play, by the acoustics of the hall, by the reaction of the audience, and so on. This is particularly true for the keyboard literature of the second half of the 18th century, years that saw a gradual transition from the harpsichord to the fortepiano, and in which the two instruments often coexisted. The question of authenticity is, then, complex and of fundamental importance for all musicians, requiring in-depth studies and knowledge of the original documents and sources available today.

In the years following the Second World War, a great deal of research work was carried out on the conventions, sonorities, and the expressive habits in common use at the time of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and, of course, on the instruments they played. We owe much to musicians like Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Roger Norrington, Franz Brüggen, and, especially for the fortepiano, Malcolm Bilson, Robert Levin and Andreas Staier, for the praiseworthy effort they put into the search for the true and deep meaning of musical expression in Viennese classicism (and not only). Thanks to them, the starting point for philological research for all players interested in the question is nowadays much easier, although not all pianists have yet fully realized how the pronunciation of the shape or form of a phrase can condition the musical (that is, poetic and emotional) rendition of a composition. In other words, the risk of misunderstanding the musical sense of a work is lying in wait when one doesn’t know the conventions of the notation and the reactions of the instruments of the epoch.

Even though today all philologists agree on many aspects concerning the reading of articulations and choice of tempos, there nevertheless exists a considerable variety of interpretative results that are based on similar “historically informed” premises. There is, then, no absolute truth about how to realize a determined embellishment, about what is the exact tempo of an Allegro or about which is the ideal instrument for a given Sonata: a comparison of their recordings reveals that each artist adopts an approach equally coherent with their philological knowledge, and yet different and personal. And I'm sure that Mozart himself never played the same Sonata in the same way, but rather adapted naturally and creatively to the stimuli and results provided by the instrument he found beneath his hands on each occasion. [It is also true that only since the early 20th century, with the advent of recording, have performers started to convey their desire to leave an indelible mark on the history of music.]

Hence: the true great experts of philological praxis, like those quoted above, are also sensitive musicians and highly cultured individuals. And they are never dogmatic. Vice versa, it is certainly not enough for someone to claim to play the fortepiano (perhaps after just a few months of practice) in order to assume the role of a paladin of authenticity, nor can one say that whoever plays Haydn or Mozart on a modern Steinway is necessarily far from the authentic spirit of these composers. Unfortunately, still today one can come across reactions that are excessively “integralist”, for or against the historically informed praxis: many pianists, often without any experience or knowledge of historic keyboards, sustain that the modern piano represents the point of arrival in the evolution of the keyboard, almost as if the previous instruments, compared to the Steinway or the Fazioli, were like Neanderthal man with respect to modern man. Personally, the idea that the evolution of the piano moved constantly in the direction of improvement seems to have no justification. The modern piano, especially in the more industrialized models, has certainly responded to the new practical requirements of industrial production and the need to be clearly audible in ever larger concert halls, but it has inevitably lost some of its colors and a certain sensitivity to the minimal nuances of articulation that a hand-crafted instrument of 1820 could instead offer.

Vice versa, with equal presumption, some paladin of historical instruments (maybe an ex pianists, now “repentant”) view with distain a priori anyone who dares to play Bach or Mozart on a Steinway or a Fazioli, taking for granted that any performance on the pianoforte is certainly inferior to one on period instruments. It doesn't always follow, though, that a historical instrument is at all costs the most suitable for a piece from the same period. The difference, also in terms of quality, between “coeval” instruments was much greater then than it is today (but it is still noticeable in modern instruments, depending on how they are tuned and maintained), and not all the fortepianos currently available are in adequate conditions to suit the needs of a concert or a recording: the restoration of a fortepiano is a complex operation that requires great philological care and attention.

All should therefore be considered with good sense, and on the basis of the possibilities and needs of each case. It is certainly possible to play on a wonderful Anton Walter from 1785 in a modern 2,000 seat concert hall, but are we sure that it's the most appropriate choice? What will the audience perceive, and how much will be lost in the passage between the performer and the ear of the listener? As far as recordings are concerned, also the position of the microphones strongly affects the resulting timbre. The dynamic wealth of a fortepiano can be captured by microphones placed near enough to the stringboard, which could however alter in some way the actual sound of the fortepiano, or at least capture it in a very different way to how it is perceived by a listener seated 10 meters away.

During the life of Mozart (and even more so of Haydn, who was born before him and died after), the evolution of the piano went through a phase of constant and rapid updating, and this surely influenced the writing of Sonatas, as is evident if we compare the early Sonatas with the later ones. However, the opposite phenomenon is also true: often it was the composers themselves, Mozart in primis, that urged the constructors to innovate their instruments (suffice it to think that in 1785 he commissioned a pedalpiano from Anton Walter), so that they could meet their latest expressive requirements. Who knows whether in the last years of his life, having at his disposal more evolved pianos, Mozart preferred to play his early Sonatas on the pianos he had written them for, or whether he was more inclined to play them on the newer instruments... We shall never know, but I think such questions are worth asking.

I hope, in conclusion, that all pianists and music enthusiasts will have the chance to sample the world of historical keyboards and will be able to discover the great wealth and variety of expression offered by the pianos of the past. It would be great if all Conservatories were soon to introduce a well-structured (but not dogmatic) course on historically informed performance practice, as an integral part of piano studies, and not only reserved for those intending to specialize in period keyboards. When I was a student at the Conservatory, I never had any opportunity to play a harpsichord or a fortepiano, and I fear that this is still the case for most students today. However, the situation has certainly improved a lot from this point of view and gives one hope for the future.

There still remains, though, a great deal of prejudice on one side or the other: “fortepianists” on the one hand, and “pianofortists” on the other give each other nasty looks, as if they belonged to opposing factions. It would be gratifying, instead, if curiosity and the desire for knowledge and research were to overcome these prejudices and dogmatisms, so that the sharing of findings, experiences and enthusiasm could help us to enjoy music through a serene exchange of ideas and reciprocal enrichment.


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