hand choreography and fingering I

Pianist Claudio Arrau was extremely precise in playing the composer’s notation, and refused to divide certain technical difficulties (such as the beginning of Beethoven’s Op. 111) between two hands, if the notation did not call for it (see Joseph Horowitz Conversations with Arrau, Part 2 “Interpretation”, or the article about Arrau in Joachim Kaiser Grosse Pianisten). In the classical and romantic repertoire, such a reluctance to yield to technical convenience often enhances the sounding result. Beethoven might well have been one of the first composers who notated certain passages in an, from a technical viewpoint, unnecessarily awkward manner for the sake of musical expression. Examples of this can be found throughout his works for piano. His contemporaries sometimes had a hard time with his notation. In a conversation book entry from 1819, the piano teacher Joseph Czerny (no relation to Carl) writes, for example, that Nannette Streicher was having particular difficulties with the left-hand leap at the beginning of the Hammerklavier sonata op. 106 (Beethoven Konversationshefte I, p. 109; 53v).

I once saw someone play the Goldberg variations who had reworked the hand division of certain passages. These variations seem to fall under the category of keyboard works where the technical intentions of the composer are clearly expressed in his notation: we better accept them, whether we like them or not. But who knows these things for certain? In earlier music, the links between notation, hand division, a composer’s technical recommendation and his expressive intentions are anyway inherently weaker or – for us – more difficult to understand. Our interpretation of a certain spot depends on too many elements to allow for an automatic literal approach. I only need to mention the problems connected to questions of the nature of a source, source status and source transmission.

There are good reasons for approaching the issue of hand division, playing choreography and fingering in earlier keyboard music from a practical standpoint. When playing on early keyboard instruments, a careful reconsideration of the originally indicated technical approach is in fact a necessity. In a recent interview, Gustav Leonhardt brings our challenges and fears to a point by saying “la précision requise par le clavecin est diabolique” (the precision required by the harpsichord is diabolic). We need to make allowances for the fact that keyboard technique is personal. Who expects that I have hands like Byrd, Couperin or Bach? Do I really take the risk of a crash into the trees along the lane of E-flat major, because I am reluctant to change what I perceive as Text? Certainly not.

So it is only natural that some choreographic hints in the music make much more sense to me than others. For example, the swirling-leaves passages in the final variation of Rameau’s Les Tourbillons are easiest to perform in my chosen tempo if I divide my hands as Rameau indicates. To finger these runs in one hand would slow them down for me. This does, however, not apply to some of Bach’s fast passages in his concertos, where I find the stem up – stem down notation often fiddly and unnecessary (some might disagree: perhaps this notation exhibits articulations that I am neglecting). And I am reluctant to see many of Scarlatti’s cross-hand excesses as anything more, or better, than an unnecessary punishment devoid of a musical message.

A sensible approach to rearranging passages is nevertheless advisable. When I review a piece, I usually review my earlier decisions, and in many cases, I have returned to playing the original notation.

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One Response to “hand choreography and fingering I”

  1. Paúl R. Says:

    Hi, Tilman,
    “We need to make allowances for the fact that keyboard technique is personal. Who expects that I have hands like Byrd, Couperin or Bach?”
    Well, if classical ballet teachers thought this way, they would had never come with the teaching suitable for every hopeful, teaching which would prepare the dancers for both effective, extensive, yet safe usage throughout their career. Surprisingly, there’s been such teaching (although not every national ballet follows it). We, who use the body to much lesser extent, don’t even try to follow their example (hence your words). In the light of the scope of “pianist’s injuries” I believe we should.

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