Distinguish Voices By Defining Their Individual Dynamic Arcs

A big part of newly conceiving the possibilities within notation is our re-examining our reaction to dynamic markings. As pianists, we see forte right between the treble & bass clefs of our staff, suggesting that notes under its immediate purview should all be played, by both hands, forte. One can make allowances to wanting to keep the melody foremost, but I’m reminded of DiCaprio’s Jack Dawson in Titanic, handcuffed to the rail while the water rises. When I had the privilege to perform Rachmaninoff: Concerto No. 3 with Maestro Jospeh Silverstein and the Utah Symphony. For the first time in my performing experience (though this should have come as no surprise having listened to the Boston Symphony with SIlverstein as Concertmaster for many years), Joey kept the orchestra at such a dynamic remove as to make me know that I had no need to merely project my part to be heard, but that I had room to yield as well; the water no longer at my neck but a deferential distance, say rib-cage height.
I conceive of dynamics as descriptive of a general demanour within which a certain health & generosity to the sound is presumed. Within that framework, how we choose to begin a phrase, motive, or most problematically a fugue subject, is a responsibility we must determine.

Another formative memory of legend, Vladimir Horowitz, I remember his own formulation of dynamic areas as the confluence of wide dynamic difference between melody & accompaniment. A lyric passage in a Chopin-notated mezzo piano was in his hands (and this was the technical answer to How Does He Make The Piano Sing Like That?) likely a quite outsize, heroically projected forte, while the supportive voices wafted far below at ppp. The resultant sound was wholly in fulfillment of the score’s directive, confluent but divergent, in fact contrasting, conflicting dynamic roles for main & subsidiary voices, the consequent sound wholly experienced as a true, if attenuated, mezzo piano.

The main reason i find myself momentarily unsympathetic, even in his celebratory year, to the music of Beethoven, has undoubtedly to do with how his absolute integrity, the visceral consistency of emphatic and repeating articulation patterns (opening of the Waldstein Sonata), and the sudden, gut-punch dynamic shifts would seem to make my new perspective irrelevant: if you play the dynamics as he prescribes, constantly & irrevocably, and keep Fate’s knocking at the door with inexorable consistency, unadorned by nuances of varied touch, the music sounds very well indeed. Appropriate to our evocations of lyric quality, my Horowitz-inspired dynamic contrasts worked perfectly in the operatic Concerto No. 2. I recently taught a student the Variation movement of Op. 109 based on my varied parameters of possibility, our varied tools of foreground & background, trajectory & arc, how one voice in a chord can be held longer than the rest to give it a prominence without pronouncement; that extra length to that one note gives it a resonance, a true lyricism. One often eschews the repeats in that movement. With out tools & perspective, there are endless possibilities in articulation, dynamic complement or contrast, elective length. We could’ve repeated those sections happily, endlessly.

Particularly in the Fugues of the 48, we have incumbent upon us to declaim the theme clearly, respectfully. It also points up one of my Most Depressing Things About Playing The Piano: every stroke we make is a down-stroke. Imagine if violinists were only allowed downbows; there’s something to be emulated, as pianists, to the very concept of the up-bow; a sense of physically manifesting a skyward motion, a weightlessness, an effervescence, the miracle of flight. (In practice, quite a lot of string players in my experience tend to make a swooping crescendo instead of that yielding sense with their up-bows.)

I feel it imperative we explore, through the yin/yang elements (syllables in Ralph Kirkpatrick’s parlance; his examination of the 48 is essential reading & was formative in directing my own explorations) within a Fugue subject. There is always a discernible difference in character on the cellular, elemental components of the theme. One element may in fact have a more declarative, Beethovenianly fateful nature, to be cultivated in contrast with another side of the theme, an element more searching, less authoritative, and therefore likely starting in a more yielding, floating way,

All is not simply the theme’s imperial foreground against a rabble of supporting voices. Each counter-subject, each inversion of the theme(s) we must discover & instill each of them with their integral arc, their own yin/yang between their own elements. There is no accompaniment, only elevated & informed colloquy.

As we proceed, exploring & experimenting on alternative dramatic, dynamic & articulative arcs & contrasts, clarity is enhanced & achieved through heightened contrast, true juxtaposition, coalescnce of opposites. The most interesting, expressive, characterful textures are not matters of consonance, agreement, but of just this type of contrast, the more unprecedented juxtapositions, the better, the clearer our cumulative & distinctive sound.

I advise an even more cellular sense of micro-dynamic management. In the c minor Fugue, I, when that paired 16th note C is an upbeat to a longer 8th note C, it is incumbent we begin dynamically from Ground Zero so the resultant lyric impulse will have room to grow to the ultimate 2nd C, not dunning the C’s identically, indiscriminately.

It’s a wonderful sense of discovery, finding the right character for each iteration of the subject (sometimes evolving through the course of the Fugue, each element omni-potentially protean), each counter-subject’s recasting of character through our panoply of articulative, dynamic, durational tools. Admittedly this is not the kind of contrast & contour available to the keyboards of Bach’s time (durational variation, & the variegated local, cellular gravity or distinction between repeating rhythmic patterns being central to his contemporary instruments), but was certainly achievable in a mixed ensemble. With our two hands, we should effect & cultivate this depth of independence & characterization, making it a primary responsibility & font of inspiration & imagination.


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