Piano balance problems in chamber music – ‘long or short stick ?’

I have a slight ‘hang-up’ about piano balance in chamber music.   This is based on my experience in hosting over 1000 concerts at St Mary’s Perivale and St Barnabas, Ealing, as detailed on my website, with performances by over 300 pianists. Perhaps 700-800 concerts have involved a pianist performing with at least one other musician, either an instrumentalist (usually a violinist or cellist) or singer, and possibly 250 have been larger ensembles – piano trios, piano quartets or piano quintets.   I estimate that the piano has been definitely and unequivocally too loud in about a quarter of concerts, and slightly too loud in another quarter.   I don’t recall it ever being too soft! Yet the majority of ensemble pianists play with the piano lid fully open, on the long stick. When asked, I always suggest to pianists that they should use the short stick, because this helps to solve many of the balance problems, but this advice is usually ignored, and is sometimes perceived as a grave insult to the pianist’s musicianship or pianism !

The problem is obviously particularly relevant when playing with cellists, either as a duo or in trios or larger ensembles, but also occurs in performance with violinists. To state the obvious, the audience must be able to hear both string parts in a piano trio clearly, at all times, regardless of how thick the piano textures are, and regardless of whether the strings have the melody or are, in effect, accompanying the piano.   The notes which the composer wrote on the page for the violinist and cellist are meant to be heard. This is easily achieved in recordings by using separate ‘mikes’ for each instrument, but in the real world of ‘live’ performance, there isn’t scope for this manipulation, and the pianist must never risk obscuring the other musicians, however slightly.

The reasons why some pianists play too loud in chamber music are several. Firstly, obviously a modern grand piano has a much louder sound than the instrument for which the core masterpieces by Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms were written for. The combination of a modern concert grand piano and a solo string instrument is inherently an unequal contest, and the pianist has to be constantly aware of this imbalance, and adjust his playing accordingly.   Secondly, the pianist has no clear idea of how loud his playing will sound to the audience. Piano sound tends to travels sideways, directed by the lid, towards the audience, rather than towards the pianist. Additionally, his fellow-musicians will be facing away from the pianist, towards the audience.   So a pianist in piano trio or quartet has to make an inspired guess as to whether his playing, as heard by the audience, is too loud, relative to that of the other musicians, and it isn’t easy – however well they ‘listen’ to the other parts.  Thirdly, opening the piano lid fully, rather than on the short stick, obviously increases the risk of imbalance.   Some pianists in my concerts use the long stick, and then proceed to play most of the concert ‘una corda’ (using the so-called ‘soft pedal’) – in order to reduce the sound volume, rather than to produce a different sound world, which is a bad pianistic habit.   If the piano lid is on the ‘short stick’, then this inappropriate use of ‘una corda’ can be avoided. It then becomes much easier to control the dynamic range of the instrument and avoid balance problems.   The position of the piano relative to the musicians and the audience is also relevant. If there is a gap between the strings and the piano, there is more chance that the strings will be easily heard.  Solo violinists and cellists often prefer to perform close to the pianist, rather than placed in front of the piano, to project to the audience.   The latter configuration might make communication between the musicians more difficult, but is important in ensuring that the string players can be heard by the audience. In addition, the tone and penetration of the string sound is obviously important.   The best players make their parts speak regardless of the other players, whereas some violinists (particularly) and cellists have a light sound which soon becomes inaudible against a prominent piano part.

Obviously these gross generalizations don’t apply to many of the superb chamber music pianists who do ‘have the lid up’, and yet maintain excellent balance with their fellow musicians. As with all chamber-music, the secret is listening – listening – listening, and adapting one’s volume and textures accordingly. When listening to a concert as an audience member, I find it useful and instructive to close one’s eyes and pretend that you are at home listening to a CD, and then ask whether the balance is satisfactory. Can you hear all the parts ? Or are they swamped by the piano sound ? If you can’t hear the string parts in their entirety, the pianist is too loud – end of story ! Yet these problems are not restricted to our concerts. ‘Live’ broadcasts in Radio 3 from the Wigmore Hall and other venues, where separate ‘mikes’ are not usually used, often suffer from the same problem. Some modern recordings also seem ‘piano heavy’. I was brought up with chamber music recordings by musicians such as Heifetz and Oistrakh, where the mikes would be almost on the fingerboard, and the piano was in an adjacent room !   But that seemed to get to the heart of the music unerringly – at least one could hear all three performers.   There is a simple rule for pianists – err on being too soft, rather than run any risk of being too loud !

Hugh Mather

Author: hmather@btopenworld.com

Organizer of classical concerts at St Mary’s Perivale and St Barnabas Ealing. Pianist, organist and retired physician

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