Piano Technique and Repertoire: Does making fingering/hand adjustments constitute a “swindle?”
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Seymour Bernstein, author of With Your Own Two Hands, remarked that “Chopin wrote out an outline for an intended method of teaching piano. And when he died he left it to Charles Alkan who never finished it. Wouldn’t you think that Chopin would stress at the beginning that everything depends upon a deep emotional involvement with the music, or something like that? Well at the outset, Chopin wrote, ‘Everything depends upon the correct fingering.’ He knew that unless you were comfortable, there was no music-making.”
Bernstein had forwarded me a few of his tried and true fingering/hand shuffles as he’d notated them in a Romantic era composition. Did they amount to “swindles,” tongue in cheek, of course, incubating for a full length volume on the subject?
I’ll get back to that later.
In Conversations with Arrau, by Joseph Horowitz, the pianist weaves stories about fingering, and how his specific choices or those of his teachers, unlocked the mystery of playing bravura passages smoothly and effortlessly.
As testimony, one of the maestro’s former students, the late, Philip Lorenz, who assisted him with editing the complete set of Beethoven sonatas commented that fingering appeared to be “a conspicuous editorial feature” of their collaboration.
For example, in the opening of the Sonata Appassionata, Arrau’s autograph is revealed by these choices.
As Lorenz described them: “They insured tremendous security by keeping the hand balled and totally relaxed. It was like lining up the fingers in a natal position.
“The right hand makes a little circle down to the thumb; the left hand does the opposite, starting with a low thumb and circling up to the fifth. This way you don’t have to play with the hands spread open, which already risks tension or nervous trembling at the very beginning.
Horowitz then prompted Lorenz to discuss Arrau’s fingering of staccato bass notes in measure 10, where the pianist assigned fingers 3 to 5 in a stepwise interval, instead of ending with 4.
True to the form and attitude of his mentor, Lorenz emphasized that Arrau believed the sound could be “more controlled with the fifth finger than with the fourth.”
“Because the fourth finger doesn’t have a separate tendon in the hand—you can’t move the fourth by itself.
“Going from the third to the fifth–you have more possibility to rotate.
“So throughout the Beethoven Sonata edition, you find that he goes from the third to the fifth finger skipping the fourth.
“The fourth he eliminates quite rigorously for being weak and hard to control.”
Seymour Bernstein disclosed his own particular fingering secrets as applied to playing various measures of the Faschingsschwank aus Wien Intermezzo by Robert Schumann. It was with an eye and ear toward executing extremely tricky passages that would otherwise be incomparably challenging. Above all, phrasing and nuance were at the top of his list of considerations.
In any case, the Romantic era composer, by and large composed music for solo piano that frequently appeared to require more than a single pair of hands. Inevitably, performers would have to make fingering/hand accommodations as needed.
Here’s Nikolai Lugansky playing the Schumann Intermezzo in its original form followed by Bernstein’s page 1 fingering changes and hand re-assignments as pertained.
In the same spirit, I found myself scoping out scores, often changing the editor’s fingerings, etc. so I, too, could more easily achieve technical/musical mastery.
My decisions were driven by what felt comfortable together with how these choices improved phrasing.
For example, I might take a whole section of music denoted for the left hand, and shift it to the right, largely because it sounded better and was easier to execute. Some might say, I was guilty of a swindle. (There’s that verboten word again) Or perhaps, a strict, conservative teacher would argue that I would more efficiently spend time improving my left hand.
Well, here’s my open confession. As I rendered Scarlatti Sonata in E Major, K. 380, notice how I played measures 5 through 8 with my right hand instead of the left. Not to forget, that in the process I had crossed my left hand over right to execute the ornaments that were intended for the right. You will also observe that I continued a passage in 16th notes, measure 10, with my right hand going into the bass where it had been formerly designated for the left.
Here’s the score before I altered it:
My sense was that if I could better realize the composer’s intent by using one hand as opposed to another in a set of measures, then I could feel exonerated. Some may differ.
In Gershwin’s opener to the Prelude no. 2, many pianists cannot reach a tenth between C# and E in the bass, yet the composer doesn’t show a roll for these notes. And to make it doubly challenging, Gershwin has indicated a smooth flowing legato in these introductory measures. The bass, in an ostinato form, will recur at various points of the piece, except in the contrasting middle section. Breaking the tenth would be less noticeable within the fabric of other voices as the composition progresses. Yet the very naked and exposed opening could definitely use a fingering fix. (Seymour Bernstein again titillates by using the term “swindle.”)
One solution, at least as applies to the beginning, is to re-finger a whole set of measures, with a hand/finger shuffle as demonstrated by this pianist in a You Tube video performance.
You can get a good close-up of how he avoids the broken tenth from C# to E scored for the Left Hand, and then the way he continues in later measures. Once the piece adds more voices, the shuffle is no longer possible.
Here’s the original scoring before adjustments were made:
This video could not be embedded:
His alteration worked and smoothed out the opening.
So now that I’ve delivered my brief sermon on why these “swindles” are just innocent, well-intended fingering adjustments meant to improve musical performance, I can relieve myself and other pianists of any guilt attached to them.
Feel free to share your own personal finger/hand shuffles, and don’t be afraid to come out of the closet.