Henry VIII, Genghis Khan, Pyramids and the Coliseum

What constantly surprises me with young students at, or approaching, conservatoire level, is their insensitivity to the context of their playing. I recall a masterclass where Andras Schiff heavily criticized (though not in an unkind way) the sheer amount of sound an otherwise competent student made. She played Schubert in a small room as though it were Liszt in Carnegie Hall – every ‘ff’ forced at maximum power and all the lesser dynamics scaled according to some relative value. Given the modest-sized room, even her ‘pp’ could be considered a robust ‘mf’. As Schiff commented: “But it’s all too loud.” And how often have I said that to my students!

Of course, any performance should be scaled to both the music and the surroundings in which it’s played. For a truly skilful player, that in no way diminishes the range of expressive possibilities – rather it shows both their intelligence and their sympathy for the music.

Consider any major work of Chopin – passionately deeply felt, and at the same time robust, masculine, full-blooded. Yet the remark contemporary commentators most often make relates to the delicacy of his playing, albeit achieved with no loss of expressiveness. There is no evidence, as is often suggested, it was due to his feeble poor health, because that was not an issue until long after he had given up performing for small, select audiences in the Parisian salons.

That very fact, that he was performing for small, select audiences in the Parisian salons, perhaps is the origin of the myth of his ‘fragile’ playing. Simply that a performer of his sensitivity and consummate technical skill could express his entire world within a dynamic range sympathetic to the surroundings. And that is as much a hallmark of a great performer today as it was then.

It is of course infinitely more difficult (and effective) to convince softly, than to play bombastically loud. Only the finest technique can achieve a cantabile sound at ‘pp’. Only the most technically skilled can find a full range of expression while limiting dynamic extremes.

Something to consider. Mightily impressive is the tallest of the Egyptian Pyramids at 139m – yet surely as monumental is the Coliseum in Rome, less than a third as high. And while Henry VIII was 6’4” tall, Genghis Khan, a mere 5’ 1”, was master of the greatest empire the world has ever known!