Notes from a pianist: Pedalling with the ear

The use of the piano’s sustaining pedal is a vast subject, and in this brief article I wish to mention only a few salient aspects.

It has become fashionable for pianists today to play with very little use of the sustaining pedal and for the prevailing critical taste to praise performances that are predominantly dry and clear in texture as well as fast in tempo. This is in keeping with a modernist sensibility. However, there is an alternative approach to the use of the pedal that is Romantic in origin and spirit.

The editions of Bach and Mozart prepared by leading pianists and musicologists of the Romantic era, typically in the nineteenth-century, are generally shunned by modern pianists who assume that the understanding of such editors as Czerny and Liszt is defective in comparison to their own modernist conceptions of authenticity in the performance of music of the pre-1825 period. Such editions usually include recommendations for pedalling, despite the fact that the modern sustaining pedal (and indeed the modern piano) was not available to the composers in question. Because this is at first sight “inauthentic” a stylistic orthodoxy has therefore developed in which historically-informed performance practice essentially treats the prevailing performing traditions of the nineteenth-century, notably pedalling, as taboo and replaces them with their own concept of what early music should sound like. This aesthetic has since come to encompass much Romantic music as well.

Yet there is another way to see these matters.

In Beethoven, we have the benefit of a number of fortepianos surviving today that represent the traditions of piano-making that Beethoven himself was on record as praising, and also excellent modern copies of the same. Playing and listening to these is often a surprising experience, not least because their sound-world is the opposite of the dryness that now characterizes much Beethoven on the modern piano. Although outside the scope of this article, similar observations might be made of clavichords of Bach’s era, which often resonate very expressively in the right acoustic.

There is a tremendous and extremely attractive resonance built into the Beethoven-era fortepiano. We hear all manner of sympathetic vibrations and related sounds when a chord is played, creating a wider harmonic context. Moreover, Beethoven invites us directly to use and experience that resonance as part of the sound-world of his piano music. The first movement of the famous “Moonlight” Sonata (op. 27 no. 2) contains the direction “Si deve suonare tutto questo pezzo delicatissimamente e senza sordino” (“This whole piece ought to be played with the utmost delicacy and without damper[s]”). This means that the sustaining pedal is to be depressed at the inception of the movement and lifted at its end. This is not a new effect; we find C.P.E. Bach in 1762 advocating a similar use of the undamped effect when playing in an improvisatory and fantasia-like style. Beethoven’s sonata is of course headed “quasi una fantasia”.

It is perhaps testament to the modernism to which I referred earlier that in a search of the many performances of this movement on YouTube it was frequently the case that even those who used fortepianos disregarded Beethoven’s instructions and changed the pedal with the changing harmonies. In the performance of Dmitry Ablogin, however, we can hear rather more of Beethoven’s actual conception:

Schindler, Beethoven’s biographer, tells us that by the 1850s this effect was no longer possible due to the greater volume of the pianos being produced at this time. Most pianists since have agreed with him. And yet, this is surely a challenge to the imagination and technical control of the performer. More modern pianos can be played just as quietly as a fortepiano, and indeed more tonal control is possible in instruments of particularly fine quality. Sustaining pedals on fine instruments are also capable of subtle half-pedalling rather than binary on-off operation. In achieving these effects, it will be obvious that excessive speed is to be avoided if the result is not to be an ugly clash of harmonies.

The control of tonal gradation, speed and expression by the performer can therefore bring about an expressive interpretation of this work on a modern piano, albeit one that may be shocking in its effect. The result may well be a challenge to modern ears, but it will be one that seeks to capture the essence of Beethoven’s imaginative world rather than bowdlerise it for contemporary taste. And it can be applied to much else in Beethoven’s piano works, from the recitatives in the first movement of op. 31 no. 2 to the arioso of op. 110.

In Schubert, too, we can see this resonance at work in the marvellous reading of his last piano sonata by Tobias Koch, who plays an exceptionally sonorous fortepiano by Conrad Graf. Koch takes the first movement at a true molto moderato, unlike many modern pianists, and this expansive tempo allows every expressive nuance to make itself felt, including a much deeper and richer sonority than we usually hear. Is something similar possible on the modern piano? Certainly so.

Such was Romantic taste for resonance that the piano maker Blüthner developed an aliquot system whereby an extra set of strings was provided in the treble that were not struck but instead vibrated sympathetically with the others, producing an expressive silvery haze. I have loved these instruments since I first discovered them many years ago and they provide in many respects an ideal sonority for Romantic repertoire.

For the modern audience, Romantic pedalling is unexpected and often perplexing. Time and again, reviews criticise certain artists for “overpedalling” when in fact the use of the pedal is entirely deliberate as part of their interpretative concept and is authentic within the context of their pianistic tradition. The late John Ogdon, for example, made copious use of the sustaining pedal in Romantic repertoire, drawing on the legacy of such pianistic giants as Busoni and Anton Rubinstein to produce a full-blooded, passionate pianism that could often be colossal in its effect.

Another such artist is Stephen Kovacevich, who often seems to have an orchestral imagination in such composers as Beethoven and Brahms, and uses the sustaining pedal to great expressive effect. His playing is never dry. Indeed, in an interview, he has offered a view that sums up the parsimonious taste of contemporary modernism,

“What do you mean by P[olitically]C[orrect] in a musical context?
Fast, mean, spare

According to authentic perspective?
Yes. Maybe also PC in a deeper, cultural sense as well, who knows? Political correctness is something that enrages me.”

There is nothing politically correct about Romanticism. It calls forth an individual response that, if it is to be spiritually authentic, must be an entirely sincere and committed reflection of the interpreter’s identification with the work in question. It may be too much for a shallow, sound-bite world. The Romantic pianist sees the pedal as an extension of the fingers; a vital expressive dimension to building an edifice in sound.