The great Italian composer-pianist Ferruccio Busoni is reputed to have said often to his students: “Ladies and Gentlemen, play with character” — an order at once simple yet complex to execute, consisting of equal parts technical command, sonic imagination and artistic self-assurance. The work of “playing with character” can be extensive. One small example of such work came to mind this morning, as I practiced the piano part to Edvard Grieg’s Violin Sonata no. 2 in G major op. 13. Above is an excerpt from its first movement (Allegro vivace, measures 26 – 33).
The soprano melody can easily be rendered in rhythmically stolid fashion, because of the obligations of the thumb on every downbeat. It is when singing that melody away from the keyboard, that one finds the delightful contour of Grieg’s characteristic Nordic voice-leading and quirkily vivacious pulse. Freeing the right hand of its lower-voice burdens is one way of enabling the possibility of playing that melody with more coloristic variety.
Of course, smaller hands may be limited to rendering the piano part exactly as written. But most pianists’ left hands are large enough to stretch upward and take the bulk of the tenor voice in the treble clef, as indicated in my “Execution.” With the right hand now enabled to use its natural fluency and fuller range of all fingers, the possibilities of phrasing and shading are more readily apparent. And even if one eventually decides to play the passage in Grieg’s original arrangement, the practice of playing through such a re-fingered version helps the ear to grow. Thinking non-pianistically while executing pianistically is a key I often use, when striving to find appropriate character in the performance of keyboard music.