Playing with Style – Practising the Piano

There was a time when pianists played from scores that included all sorts of directions from an editor, usually a famous pianist or teacher. There was no way of knowing which markings were from the composer and which had been added later by someone else. However, this didn’t seem to matter as there was much more freedom in interpretation in the 19th and early 20th centuries than there is nowadays.

New Editions

Today, we use Urtext scores that, depending on the period the music was composed in, might have very few markings. To give historically-informed performances (now very much in vogue), those performance directions such as they are from the composer need to be understood and realised. For example, in Baroque music, we need to add our own dynamics and articulation as well as reaching decisions about tempo, pedalling and so on. It’s a bit of a minefield, isn’t it?

I would hope that nobody today would be playing Bach from Carl Czerny’s editions as a primary source, yet his suggestions for phrasing and dynamics might be useful as a starting point to show that we have to add quite a bit to Bach’s blank score to bring it to life and make it expressive and meaningful.

Extract from Czerny edition for Bach’s Prelude in Prelude in B-flat Minor

Here is an early example of an Urtext edition made by Franz Kroll for the Bach Gesellschaft, published by Breitkopf & Härtel in 1866: 

Another version with fewer markings by Albert Schweitzer is also available in the Petrucci Library. He suggests a metronome speed of 88, with a direction of lento.

Be Authentic – to Yourself

How do you feel the music? To be truly authentic we each have to personalise the music or we end up playing in a stilted manner, trying to be “correct” by trying to make the piano sound like a harpsichord (misguided and always fatal) or by impersonating a performance by a Bach specialist. All music is expressive and to play this prelude drily or without feeling communicates absolutely nothing. 

Compare an edition of Mozart’s Sonata in F, K. 332 published by Schirmer in 1893 with an Urtext edition published by C. F. Peters around 1938. Apart from the many other tamperings with the score, what jumps off the page for me is the temerity of Schirmer’s editor, Sigmund Lebert, when he stipulates a smooth legato for the opening phrase when the composer himself actually gives one-bar slurs:

Classical style Mozart K332
Schirmer, 1893
C. F. Peters, c. 1938

The Importance of Stylistic Awareness

What’s the difference and how do we execute this on the pianos we have today (very different from the pianos that Mozart wrote this music for)? If you haven’t already seen Malcolm Bilson’s thought-provoking lecture-demonstration, Knowing the Score, I highly recommend it. In this extract he investigates the opening of this sonata from the perspective of a scholar in the stylistic principles of this music, and discusses different performances on the modern piano:

If you want to explore the field of Classical performance practice in more depth, you can do no better than search on YouTube for pianist and scholar Robert Levin, who brings the subject to life most vividly in his lectures, discussions, and masterclasses:

Online Workshop

The subject of performance practices in the different style periods is a vast one. In my upcoming workshop on 24th September @ 11:30am BST for my new series of London Piano Courses, I will tackle some of the issues that face pianists as we aim to do justice to the Urtext score while playing freely and expressively, covering music from the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods. Tickets for the individual session can be purchased here or for the full day’s events here.

Other sessions

Presentation: How to Learn a New Piece (9:30 – 11:00 BST) – Building firm foundations in the note learning stage pays dividends later, especially if we plan to perform the piece. In this presentation, Graham will use examples from the repertoire to illustrate how best to start the learning process. This will include deep learning and memorisation techniques, which will enhance your appreciation and enjoyment of the craft of practising. As with all the activities during the day, there will be plenty of opportunities for Q&A. 

Performance & Practising Workshops (14:00 – 17:30 BST) – The afternoon sessions feature a performance workshop and a practice Q&A session. The performance workshop is Graham’s take on a masterclass giving in-person participants the chance to play a piece (or part thereof) and then work with Graham directly on general feedback or specific areas. This will be followed by a session in which Graham will address practising-related questions submitted in advance by all participants, including our online audience.  

Ticket Options & Prices

In-person tickets – Join us in-person as an observer or performer for £125 or £175 for the full day. This includes access to all sessions, refreshments, a light lunch and recordings after the event. Performer tickets also include a 30-minute performance or feedback slot in the performance workshop. Click here to book your place!

Online Tickets – If you can’t join us in London, you can still join us online for the full day or one of the individual sessions. Online tickets include access to live streaming of all sessions, the opportunity to participate in Q&A for selected sessions via chat and links to resources and recordings after the event. Tickets for the full day cost £80 (£48 for Online Academy subscribers) and can be purchased here or individually via the following links:

Please visit our event listing page for answers to frequently asked questions or click here to contact us if you have any other questions.