Spare a thought for the pianist

photoLast weekend I was at the English Haydn Festival, held annually in and around Bridgnorth in Shropshire. I was giving a performance of Haydn’s London Ladies, accompanied by a pianist with whom I work regularly, Paul Turner. Any chamber musician understands that, despite the pleasures of working with new colleagues and exploring new approaches, there are gigs where one is very pleased to be working with a trusted friend. In this case, it was simply a case of not wanting to deal with anything unexpected in the middle of a very busy period of activity, and we were looking forward to a gentle afternoon performance of some old favourites.

Paul mostly performs these days on modern pianos but we knew that for this concert he would be playing a fortepiano, which he was looking forward to. Most musicians have the luxury of an intimate relationship with their specific instrument, but pianists have to negotiate terms with every new piano they meet. That’s why top-flight soloists often have a preferred instrument or model from a certain maker, which they demand for their performances, in order that they know what they are getting. With a modern piano there is also a level of standardisation that one can generally take for granted – an octave has the same span on ‘standard’ pianos, there are an agreed number of octaves etc. On the whole it is a question of touch rather than scale that distinguishes instruments.

photoNot so on a fortepiano, which is closer to the size of a harpsichord. To me, more used to seeing Paul (who is tall) at a modern grand, it looked as if he was playing a toy. No pedals, of course, but sustain and dampers worked by levers operated with the knees on the underside of the keyboard. Not easy to practice this at home if you don’t have a fortepiano of your own and even then, decisions about whether and when to use these changes of register depends on the sound of the individual instrument, only discoverable on the day. More challenging was the fact that the keys were each a little narrower than a modern piano, so the span of an octave was significantly smaller and the potential for catching the edge of an unwanted note on the way past, greatly increased. Finally, to spice things up still further, the white notes were black and vice versa, so a sneaky downward glance at the keys (lit by an angle poise precariously balanced on an adjacent table) didn’t offer many clues.

This is the point at which I unleash my unbounded admiration for any pianist who can take all these factors on board and remain unruffled by a splashy quarter hour of fact-finding, when the clock is ticking and there is a man lurking at the back of the church, eager to re-tune his beloved fortepiano, which is shifting pitch due to the cool atmosphere. The human brain is truly remarkable and never more clearly demonstrated than on a day like this where I could hear Paul adjusting mid-phrase to the physical dimensions of the instrument and the specific qualities of its sound. I simply had to sing the right notes, remember my words and not trip over the uneven floor tiles, but I could hear Paul exploring even to the last note of the final song. He would say that this is all in a day’s work for any professional pianist but it is easy to overlook how much work is required under such circumstances and how impressive it really is.

As we chewed things over on the drive back, Paul observed that he had studied the harpsichord seriously for some time at the Royal Academy, played the organ a bit (though never as a primary interest) and had done a few rounds with a harmonium. Taken together, these various keyboard experiences had given him resources to draw on when dealing with the challenges of the fortepiano.

The moral of the story, we decided, was to say yes to any opportunity to acquire a new skill because you never know when it will come in handy. A good rule of thumb for life generally, I think.