Andulko Variations by John Polglase

Over the years, I’ve been privileged to play a number of piano works by John Polglase. This year it’s a shame I can’t do the premiere performance in a live concert. But the silver lining is that instead it’s going out online to an international audience.

John has a style all of his own, and I struggle to describe it in words. So I’ll let the music speak for itself (-: But I will say a few words about how I prepared this performance.

As with the Haydn variations I started with a “live” performance, playing the piece from beginning to end, from memory, as I would do in a concert. I recorded three complete takes one day towards the end of April. It’s taken six weeks of editing and procrastination to turn those into a finished performance.

Why do it from memory when there’s noone else in the room to be impressed? I’m fascinated by the way that classical music is so carefully worked out yet, at its best, sounds like a free flowing improvisation. Memorising the piece helps me get into that flow. I feel more spontaneous playing from memory than reading off the printed page.

Again I’m using the Pianoteq virtual pianos to convert my digital recordings into natural-sounding audio. This time I opted for a modern instrument, a recreation of the Steinway D piano sound. I’m loving the option for “continuous soft pedal”. On a real piano, the una corda pedal has to be either fully down or fully up. If you try to let it up gradually, there’s a moment where the hammers are just catching the edge of the third string, and it can suddenly start buzzing or making strange sounds. So if you’re gradually getting louder, and want to let go of the soft pedal, there’s a nervous moment where you release the pedal and play the next few notes a little more lightly, to avoid a bump in the sound as the pedal comes up. It’s easy to over-compensate and get quieter when you shouldn’t. But on Pianoteq, no problem, you can let the pedal up a little bit at a time and make a smooth transition.

One of the new challenges with this piece is using the high register of the virtual piano. Haydn’s pianos didn’t have the full 88 keys of a modern instrument. But Polglase uses the whole lot, and we hear much more of the upper register. Unfortunately, this is one of the few weaknesses of the Pianoteq software. The sound is just too pure and clean! The high notes don’t have the same “body” of sound as you get from an acoustic piano. Played quietly, they sound beautiful. But at louder volumes, they’re a bit lacking in power. Or if you add a bit of resonance (using sustain pedal or a reverb effect), it takes on a sort of ringing quality that can become harsh and piercing.

To make the high register sound strong but not painful, I had to find ways to “mess up” the sound a little bit. After a few experiments, the best option I found was to mix in the sound of a second piano. Using two different piano sounds seems to break up the resonance a bit, meaning you can add more volume without it getting edgy. And because we’re using digital technology, the two pianos can be synchronised to within a fraction of a millisecond, so you don’t hear it as two separate instruments, it’s just one big piano with an extra couple of strings per note. So most of the way through this piece you’re listening to a Steinway, but occasionally it’s joined by a K2 piano (a fictitious piano brand invented by Pianoteq). I won’t tell you exactly where the K2 is joining in, and hopefully you can’t hear the joins!

Another nice thing about using Pianoteq is that it gives you some extra pedals besides the standard three. (I access the extra pedals by clicking on my computer screen. I don’t actually have ten pedals laid out on the floor here. Although I’ve heard of people who actually do have a substantial pedal collection.) Some European pianos nowadays have something called a harmonic pedal. It’s similar to the sustain pedal in that it raises all the dampers. But when you play and release a key, the damper for that key falls down, while the other dampers stay up. So the strings for that key don’t sustain, but the sympathetic resonance from the rest of the piano strings still lingers on. It’s a little bit like half-pedalling, but more subtle and easier to control.

Variation 9 of the Polglase almost seems tailor-made for the harmonic pedal. But on my first attempt, I tried using that pedal alone, and the sound was a little bit too thin. I’ve ended up with a combination of all three pedals for that variation. Yes, that’s more pedals than I have feet. If the technology lets you do it, then why not?