To conjure the first sound from the piano, at the beginning of a piece, at the beginning of a concert… In a live performance, this first sound can be made only once. In my mind, I do it over and over again.
More than other instruments, the piano is an instrument of imagination. Most of us don’t travel with our own pianos. Although we may have an ideal piano sound in our mind, we never hear it.
So we’re always adjusting, adapting — sometimes frustrated. We are always compromising. We’re in an ensemble with the piano, with the particular instrument we find ourselves touching. Our solos are chamber music. And sometimes, if we’re lucky, the result of this challenge — the challenge of really paying attention, of really listening to our musical partner of the night — is that we discover music anew. We hear and breathe and feel this exact, unrepeatable way for the first time, for the only time.
Though I’m often disappointed by pianos, it’s also true that a particular instrument (or room), through its physical sound or ease of delivery, can suddenly allow unanticipated insights, or solutions to musical questions lingering for years. And sometimes, a piano emits the sounds we imagine (even if more doubtful pianists might wonder how that’s possible).
It’s wise to aspire tonally and syntactically. I don’t want to settle for what the piano can do easily. Pianos are not sustaining, legato line-makers. In linear music, it’s a huge job just to connect the “dots.” So, I like pianos that seem to offer at least the possibility for one note to be bound to another. It’s an illusion. With the piano, the individual tones remain discrete. The characteristic decay of every piano note, the rapid fading of volume, can be managed, but never really altered.
In my obsession about the first sound of a particular piece, I give myself very specific goals and details to monitor. Put the pedal down before the first note. Touch all the keys with fingertips. Make the shape go forward in time, to the fourth beat. It might be better to be more spontaneous. But at the beginning of a performance we need help. A simple hope to play “beautifully” or expressively or accurately — it’s not enough. Very clear tasks to do, specific musical, textural, and pianistic details to realize — can draw the player in, past apprehension, past fear, past disappointment in the real sound heard in the real room.
A disproportionate amount of time is spent working on the beginnings of things. Theatrical directors and orchestra conductors may use a large part of their rehearsal time working on what will be the first minutes of the performance. What comes later will take care of itself, at least partly, if the beginning is strong — if it really works.
We do have a better chance of playing well all night, if the performance starts well. If we begin poorly, it may be impossible to recover. And, even if we manage to improve as a performance goes on, the audience (or the critics!) may have formed strong opinions based on what they heard “at the top.”
Glenn Gould described what he called the “non-take-twoness” of the concert. Occasionally, Arthur Rubinstein played one or two pieces on a piano backstage for a small group of listeners, before walking out onto the big stage. Jacob Lateiner, acknowledging the enduring difficulty of whatever piece was first in a concert, proposed an elegant solution. “Start with the second piece,” he suggested.
In contrast, Claudio Arrau believed a professional pianist should adapt instantly to concert conditions. He didn’t test pianos or play through recital programs in theaters. With great respect, I have to report that Arrau didn’t do well in a performance of Beethoven’s Opus 109 Sonata that began a New York recital. I suppose he hadn’t touched or listened to the instrument until he played the first note.