The Bad-Tempered Clavier


Anne Dante    October 2014

Our resident grumpy pianist takes a look at the trials and tribulations of being a classical artist


Hello dear readers.

So it has been one of those weeks.  Non-stop shuttling between rehearsals, all of it was accompanying work, everyone demanding and egocentric.  What I'd like to say to them is unrepeatable, but for the sake of the mortgage one has to bite one's lip and be a doormat.  Who knows what havoc will be wreaked by all these years of bottling this up?  Maybe one day during a performance of the Kreutzer Sonata it will all become too much and I'll launch myself at the violinist's throat.  But anyway..... cool blue water, cool blue water....

Talking of which, I'm working on Ravel's Jeux d'Eau right now - that's "fountains" for those of you unfortunate enough not to understand any French.   

It's one of those pieces that you practice for ages while mindful of the old recordings of Marta Argerich or Sviatoslav Richter playing it and don't you just vomit every time at their impossible perfection in performance.  They make it look so easy - no missed notes, no smudges and yes, a rippling water effect.  Oh it's all such a breeze for them.  Meanwhile I spend days repeating bar 6 over and over and it never works.  And it probably won't come off successfully in concert, although I'll play it through gritted teeth and the front row of the audience will wonder if they really heard me growl "crap" under my breath.

There's always the Jean-Yves Thibaudet masterclass to watch on this piece.  If you can stay awake - just the word "masterclass" sends me into a stupor usually only achievable with an industrial-strength sedative.  "This bit has to be magical" he says.  He's right of course but it's not easy to be magical when you've had a tiring journey, two crackers for dinner and six hundred people are waiting to be entertained.   The only magic you feel like performing is sawing the bloody piano in half.

Of course, this is a marvellous piece for "pedal effects".   Pedal effects are one of those things that nobody understands, so everyone has to say "pedal effects" and then studiously avoid discussing any details - you know, like Winnie the Pooh when he pretends to understand something.

"You need pedal effects in bar 37."

"What pedal effects exactly?"

"Pedal effects.  You know.  Oh my, is that the time?"

Anyway, it's an empirically demonstrated fact that audiences mostly couldn't tell the difference between holding the right pedal down continuously throughout a concert and not using it at all.  This is because concert venue acoustics come in only two varieties - 1) incredibly dry where notes die instantly and where no pedaling can help, or 2) incredibly reverberating where you can still hear every note you played echoing after the piece has ended, even if you try to muffle the strings by climbing into the piano and lying on them.  Not that anyone can ever hear anything in a piano recital over the general background noise of coughing, sneezing, programme scrunching and sweet paper rustling.  My mother is the worst.  I can't sit next to her in any concert or theatre because she always seems to have an entire picnic with her - sandwiches in outrageously noisy plastic packaging,  crisp packets, sweets in five layers of wrapping.  How a Chopin Scherzo could possibly be enhanced by consuming salt and vinegar crinkle cut crisps I will never fathom, but my mother has eaten her way through all the major works in the repertoire.

Anyway, dear friends, I keep going with this piece because it's beautiful, clever and I wish I had written it and it has a black key glissando in it which is rather satisfying.  And I much prefer it to Liszt's jeux d'eau piece, which I've tried to play a couple of times but which always lost my interest by the end of the first bar. Yes, I know Liszt's piece inspired Ravel. Everyone knows that.  It's fact number thirty seven that all piano conservatories teach you in the first semester and which you can then regurgitate for the rest of your life as if sixty nine billion people the world over didn't already know it. 

Sigh.  Must practise some more.  Wish me luck.  Da-da da-da da-da dubba dubba......