Returning now to the world (after being sidelined for three weeks by an ailment that persisted), I’ve begun to get my piano chops back, practicing 1-2 hours per day. What’s striking to reconsider is how some composers write every time out with the understanding of how a piece feels to play (as well as sounds).
I pulled up as exemplars 3 pieces I’d enjoyed playing in recital in years past: Bach Italian Concerto, Chopin Ballade in F minor, Ravel Tombeau de Couperin. While all three were still ‘in the fingers’, the Bach was relatively swiftly recovered, and the Ravel just purled out straight from my artistic center.
The Ballade was another story, though: It was a feat of will to keep the passage-work clean as both hands lifted, directly repeating the same pattern over (and over) – but one octave higher each time.
Your weight then shifts with each iteration; the positioning of the hands relative one to another also alters; and even the spot at which you strike the key changes, moving front to back. There’s a ‘choreography’ to delivering the music easily, and that was the last thing to be recovered.
It led me to mull again why certain pieces just feel right from the get-go. Bach is sublime this way: Your hands balance beautifully; much of the time you need to assume a very slight ‘grasping’ position to let the notes fall under the fingers perfectly – but when you do, the music feels as natural as sunshine. (For a treat from time to time, I’ll read all the way through the Toccatas, or English Suites – they just flow without knots.)
But the Ravel is in a class by itself. Not only does it fit the hand perfectly, but the balance of activity levels from moment to moment by each hand in turn, or cooperatively, lets you remain oriented by feel alone to the precise weight balance + positioning of the trunk of the body in relationship to the keyboard. Once you do this, playing these passage is as close to effortless as piano music is possible to get.
– And the movements of Tombeau de Couprin have plenty of places where the choreography of the inter-relation of the hands is delicious: Try untangling the inner pages of the Fugue, the chordal melody crossing its lacey accompaniment in the trio of the Menuet, or positioning all those piston-attacks in the Toccata (both soft and plenty loud). It’s an intricate dance whose steps are fascinating and absorbing for each player to work out!
As a composer who has written a fair bit for my instrument — but who waited to open this chapter in my catalog until I felt I had something particular to contribute — I tip my hat to the masters of the past who write with skill and imagination, and yet feeling within themselves what really works for the instrument!