It seems that every composer has a piece for keyboard, so why don’t we hear more new piano music? What makes one work better than another? Certainly it’s a matter of programming and the performer’s style and approach to learning a new piece, but it can also be an issue of what I like to think of as “playability.” All new music performers love a challenge (or we wouldn’t be doing this) but some challenges are more fun than others. So, from this pianist’s perspective, here are some thoughts.
We are all different. As with traditional music (i.e. Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, etc.) we all like and are good at different things. While I love to listen to Rubenstein play Chopin, it was not really Glenn Gould’s forte. Horowitz’s Liszt Sonata is unrivalled in my opinion, and listening to the old Schnabel recordings of the Beethoven sonatas is always revealing. As performers we are drawn to the expression of different sounds and varied ways of communicating. Some people are drawn to the passionate and fiery playing of Martha Argerich, while others prefer the more cerebral and intellectual playing of Peter Serkin. Both are wonderful pianists, and both have very different things to say. The same is true when performers select the new music they want to champion. The intellectual and technical demands of the Carter Sonata are different than the challenges of the Crumb Makrokosmos. Berio is different than Babbitt. Shapiro is different than Singleton. Just like traditional classical music, it’s all good, and all varied. Different styles of music require different techniques and musical expression and the commitment to communicate those clearly. Passion and understanding for a piece of music always makes a difference.
The piano is a difficult instrument to write for. While it spans the complete Western harmonic language, its equal temperament can make it sound bland or too homogenous in the wrong style, and its technical challenges can make it awkward in the most talented hands. Brahms’s piano music can be very difficult to play on the piano, while Chopin’s music is idiomatic to the keyboard. Much of the standard keyboard repertoire was written by virtuoso player/composers who knew and understood the advantages and limitations of the keyboard. While it’s not necessary to be a first-rate pianist to write fine piano music, it does help to understand what sounds good on the piano, and what does not. It’s also helpful to know what is difficult to play for even the best pianist. Large five note chord clusters that span a tenth in each hand may sound great in concept, but will only be played by pianists with really large “Rachmaninoff hands.” Similarly, repeated notes are a great effect, but some pianos don’t have a very fast double action. Traveling with such pieces can be tricky. The same is true for special pedal effects; they may work great on my beautiful Steinway, but pedals are adjusted differently on each piano.
I love the sounds of strings plucked and strummed on the inside of a piano, but the crossbar lies in a different place on each grand piano and often varies from one model of piano to another, so it’s good to keep that in mind when writing with extended techniques. Each piano is different, and since most of us don’t have the luxury of traveling with our own instrument, we have to take what’s there. It may be hard to believe, but even 75+ years after Henry Cowell wrote The Banshee, many piano technicians are still leery of visiting pianists playing works on the inside of the piano. All of these issues should be confronted before you get to the hall, but sometimes I have planned a program with extended techniques, only to find that I am “not allowed” to play that way on the available concert grand when I arrive, or worse, that I have to sneak around to do it.
Genre of piano music can influence a pianist’s choice as well. Playing etudes is different from playing sonatas. Etudes require a shorter, more intense attention span, while sonatas require the depth and breadth of a longer work of fiction. Playing contemporary piano rags can be like summer reading, and modern preludes and fugues can be every bit as difficult as Bach. I am attracted to all of these genres, and all these different styles, but like anyone, I find I am good at some things, and better at others. Again, choosing to play short pieces versus longer works may be a matter of programming, or it may be a matter of endurance. Longer works usually take more time to learn and require more commitment. However, I have played plenty of short works that are every bit as difficult as their longer counterparts. Some pianists love short flashy works that show off their bravura technique while others are programming more weighty pieces (think Horowitz versus Rudolf Serkin). Some pianists will only program one contemporary piece on a recital program, and they may consider Bartók and Schoenberg as “new.” In this same category I am often asked if I play Lowell Liebermann’s Gargoyles. These are beautiful pieces that could have been written a hundred years ago. Yes, I play them, but I wouldn’t consider them adventurous programming.
All of these issues aside, I believe there are wonderful keyboard pieces being written all the time. From my perspective, I simply want to play music that challenges me to respect it and like it. I don’t care if it’s difficult, or even presents some technical challenges. But if those challenges become the focus of the experience, then I may not feel like playing the piece more than once, or even at all. Like all good piano classics that came before, new pieces must command my attention enough to want to return to them again and again. They need to hold a place in the repertoire that is unique. Performers who don’t play a lot of new music often ask me, “Do you think this piece will be around in a hundred years?” Well, I hope so. I certainly want to be part of an art form that is living and breathing, not lying on a shelf collecting dust. I want new music to have a life that is beyond its initial premiere, and I hope the experience will be so rewarding that I contemplate programming these new works whenever I can. When another performer asks me about a specific work, I want to be able to say, “Oh, it’s terrific—you should learn it!” When I record the piece, I want other performers to like it so much that they request a copy of the score from the composer. In essence, I guess I want all of these new works to be classics. And why shouldn’t they be?