Since the birth of the historical performance movement in the early 20th century, there has been an increasing rift between those who perform repertory from the Baroque through the early romantic period exclusively on modern piano, and historical performance keyboardists. Those who consider themselves modern pianists often refuse to adhere to period practices in favor of their own interpretation. Many modern pianists today choose to play Bach as if it were Rachmaninoff; adding vast swaths of pedal and massive dynamic contrasts. It is incorrect to assume that one’s own interpretation surpasses the practices of period. Conversely, some fortepianists believe that music should only be played on instruments from the period in which the music was composed. Obviously Bach did not have access to a modern piano and could not even begin to fathom some of those stylistic choices.
Something must be done to unite these two seemingly disparate groups into one coherent whole. We are standing at a crossroads; on one path, harpsichordists and fortepianists in period performance of beloved repertoire in our concert halls and on the other, which I envision, we will find historically informed performances on modern piano.
The historical performance camp should not exclude modern instruments. Living in the 21st century we have access to the pinnacle of piano development. From Bach’s time to the early 20th century the piano was in a constant state of flux; new mechanisms and key ranges were regularly being added. Today pianos have become standardized, giving people across the world essentially the same instrument. This feat of musical globalization must be acknowledged and used to our benefit. Not everyone will have access to a Walter or a Walter replica if they wish to play Mozart. We can however use historically informed performance practice to create an accurate representation of Mozart on a modern instrument.
The late Edmund Battersby, was a pioneer in this field, performing music of Schubert, Schumann and Chopin on a Graf fortepiano as well as on modern piano. His dual recording of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations on modern and period instruments stands as a testament to his belief that both instruments are pianos and should be played by modern pianists as well as fortepianists.
Unfortunately, musicologists who continue as active performers are rare. This is a great loss. One cannot talk about music without performing it and conversely one should not perform without being able to have an informed conversation about the music being played. Musicians are ultimately historians and have a great responsibility to their audiences. In this age of readily available information online, concertgoers are better educated than ever before. This raises the bar and challenges great players to be more, not less, knowledgeable than their audience about the pieces they play.
About the author:
Deiran Manning is a graduate student at the Jacobs School of Music