Romantic piano style: towards an historically informed performance

by Dr Charles Tebbs

 

My slightly unusual recording of this famous nocturne was inspired after the discovery of a remarkable book over the summer of 2014:  Neal Peres da Costa’s Off the Record: Performing Practices in Romantic Piano Playing.  The basic premise of the book, argued painstakingly and meticulously throughout, is that early recordings (those by pianists born in the nineteenth century) provide a vital and often overlooked window onto 19th-century piano playing.  Far from being the mannerist distortions that later schools of pianism dismissed in favour of so-called fidelity to the score, Peres Da Costa argues that these recordings embody a performance tradition that is quite probably quite close to the playing of Schumann, Brahms and Chopin.  He also charts some of the changes in playing style that occurred during the course of the twentieth century, during which some of the older expressive approaches were deliberately derided and discarded. He refers to a wealth of recordings, pedagogical texts and contemporary accounts of piano playing in support of his argument, and focuses on Chopin’s D flat Nocturne amongst other works.

The musician who spends time listening to the many audio examples Peres Da Costa provides (via an associated website) as well as to full length recordings available elsewhere (see discography below), will be at the very least intrigued by this remarkably different pianistic universe, though to begin with the sound quality and some of the expressive habits of particular pianists can be annoying or puzzling.  Above all it is an emotional, improvisatory, sometimes wildly spontaneous world, though perhaps for that very reason unsuited to the definitive act of recording in the modern sense, in which a masterpiece is perhaps interpreted in an idealised way that will stand the test of being listened to many times.

Read the full article on Charles’s website

Dr Charles Tebbs is a pianist, accompanist and piano teacher based in Nottingham, with a wealth of experience and a diverse range of musical expertise.  He gives regular concerts and recitals and has made a CD of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.  His doctorate is in musicology (concerning musical endings) and he has also written prize-winning compositions and music for TV.