When Beethoven first published his sonata opus 27 number 1, the title page said (in Italian) “Sonata, almost a fantasia, for harpsichord or pianoforte”. The received wisdom is that it was always supposed to be a piano piece, and the harpsichord bit was just marketing to sell a few more copies. But I think it could have been a different story if the Electric Distortion Harpsichord had been around in Beethoven’s lifetime!
Every pianist should spend some time playing harpsichords. At first, it’s frustrating. On the piano, you’re used to two main tools for expression: dynamics (loud and soft) and sustain pedal. The harpsichord has neither. Playing the harpsichord expressively is a much more subtle affair. The instrument has a fantastically precise attack to each note, so that small variations in articulation and timing become far more meaningful. Good harpsichord performances have a wonderful intimacy to them — but in a large modern concert hall, they don’t have the same impact as a grand piano.
What if you could have the best of both worlds, combining the grace and precision of the harpsichord with the dynamic range and power of the piano? Now I know there will be some purists out there telling me I’ve actually got the worst of both worlds here. But I’m not relying on album sales for a living, so let’s have some fun creating a new instrument.
In this piece I’ve crossed a line: you’re no longer hearing sounds that are possible on an acoustic piano. It starts off sounding normal enough, but a couple of minutes in you’ll notice something interesting.
I first discovered this piece late last century, when soprano Natalia Bezrodnova invited me to accompany a recital of Russian songs. A decade later, I was delighted to find out that Rachmaninoff had transcribed it for piano solo. Rachmaninoff’s most famous transcriptions are the ones of Bach and Kreisler’s violin pieces, and of course The Flight of the Bumblebee, but I’m surprised that this one isn’t played more often.
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.