Friday, 28 January 2011

"Nice Rach II" Rachmaninov's Secrets to Beautiful Piano Playing

Rachmaninov's music is terribly technically difficult yet passionate (with a hint of depression?), enough to tip you over the edge as implied in the 1996 film Shine,  where David Helfgott performs the 'monumental' Rachmaninov 3rd Piano Concerto. If only I could travel back 100 years in time ask Sergei personally, what the secrets are to great piano playing. No need, because an article in Etude Musical Magazine, written by Rachmaninov, in his capacity as supervisor of the leading Russian conservatoires in 1910. The article, now out of copyright, has been digitised on the website. Without further ado, Rachmaninov's article: Ten Important Attributes Of Beautiful Pianoforte Playing. S.V. Rachmaninov I summarise these 10 attributes briefly.
  1. Forming the proper conception of a piece - A conception of the work as a whole...Behind every composition is the architectual plan of the composer.
  2. Technical Proficiency - which was of paramount importance aiming to be clean, fluent, distinct and elastic so that the pianist can adapt to the challenges of . The first five years of technical training in the conservatoires by doing Hanon excercises. He believed they would have practiced these excerises so often that they'd be able to play them by number. He also expected them to be able to change the tempo and key of the excercise at will! Rachamaninov recommends Henselt's Studies which he classed as beautiful as Chopin's etudes.
  3. Proper Phrasing essential to artistic interpretation; Rachmaninov criticises phrasing in certain editions of piano works, therefore a strong grounding for the musician is important, and he gives the example of Bach's keyboards works where minimal phrasing is indicated but it was the skill of the musician of the time to execute them on the fly.
  4. Regulating the Tempo the metronome is designed to set the time [pulse] and should only be used for this purpose. ...This little musical clock,... was never intended to stand like a ruler over every minute of the student's practice. time.
  5. Character in Playing Seek variety constantly.
  6. The Significance of the Pedal called the soul of the piano... and requires a study of a produce some very charming effects
  7. The Danger of Convention It is infinitely better to create than to imitate.This notion criticises idiomatic approaches to playing a particular piece.
  8. Real Musical Understanding rather than focusing on what background information inspired the piece (like a poem or artwork) one must understand what it is that gives the work unity, cohesion, force, or grace, and....know how to bring out these elements. 
  9. Playing to Educate the Public basically, the artist/pianist must perform so that the intentions and beauty of the composition is truly conveyed.
  10. The Vital Spark  the intense artistic interest of the player,... communicating to the audience ideas and musical tone pictures. (this was omitted from the article above)

Further Research 
You'll also find some great articles and interviews from the Scriabin website from great pianists, contemporaries of Rachmaninov, such as the great Hans Von Bulow, Anton Rubinstein, and Leopold Godowsky. You can also find out what piano lessons were like with the great Franz Liszt, from first hand accounts of his students!

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