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Studying Performance Practice Through Sound Recordings: Piano

A guide by Historical Sound Recordings (HSR) on using sound recordings when researching performance practice since the early 20th century.


Early sound recordings of pianists leave a rich legacy of performance practices, many of which were evolving throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Both acoustic and electric recordings demonstrate the interpretive styles of pianists including Vladimir de Pachmann, Ignaz Paderewski, Moriz Rosenthal, Eduard Erdmann, Frederic Lamond, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Josef Lhévinne, and Adelina de Lara, to name but a few of the figures who were renowned as performers. Many of these pianists, who have significant recording outputs, can be linked to earlier giants such as Chopin, Liszt, and Schumann through their tutelage and career. The distinctive interpretations of Romantic-era pianists point toward important aspects of performance practice with regard to solo piano repertory. 

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, critics wrote in great detail about the playing styles of individual pianists, as well as larger evolving trends. One critic, James Huneker (1857-1921), under the pseudonym, "Old Fogy" describes styles of the late 19th century, in contrast with the practices of the early 20th century: "It is only in recent years that tone has become an important factor in the scheme - thanks to Chopin, [Sigismond] Thalberg, and Liszt. In the early sixties we believed in velocity and clearness and brilliancy. [Friedrich] Kalkbrenner, [Henri] Herz, [Alexander] Dreyschock, [Theodor] Döhler, Thalberg - those were the lively boys who patrolled the keyboard like the north wind - brisk but chilly. I must add that the most luscious and melting tone I ever heard on the piano was produced by Thalberg and after him [Adolf von] Henselt. Today Paderewski is the best exponent of their school; of course, modified by modern ideas and a Slavic temperament... So tone, not technic alone, is our shibboleth" (Huneker, 61-63). 


Vladimir de Pachmann

Ignacy Jan Paderewski

Moriz Rosenthal

John Crown

Suggestions for further reading

Vladimir de Pachmann

Biographical Sketch:

Vladimir de Pachmann (1848-1933) was a pianist of Ukrainian origin, born in Odessa. He commenced his studies with his father, who was an amateur violinist, and then studied piano with Joseph Dachs and theory with Anton Bruckner at the Vienna Conservatory. Upon hearing the Polish pianist Carl Tausig in 1870, Pachmann was so impressed that he was impelled to spend an additional eight years studying alone before continuing to give concerts. Pachmann made his London debut in 1882 and his American debut in 1890. He became renowned throughout Europe and America, praised especially for his performances of Chopin. In addition, Pachmann formed a piano duo with his former student and wife for seven years, Maggie Okey. He was also widely publicized for his eccentricities as a performer, including his humorous commentary to the audience both before, after, and sometimes during his playing. 

In his 1911 essay, "Originality in Pianoforte Playing," from Great Pianists on Piano Playing (1917), Pachmann describes his personal approach to musical interpretation: “Originality in pianoforte playing, what does it really mean? Nothing more than the interpretation of one’s real self instead of the artificial self which traditions, mistaken advisors and our own natural sense of mimicry impose upon us. Seek for originality and it is gone like a gossamer shining in the morning grass. Originality is in one’s self. It is the true voice of the heart. I would enjoin students to listen to their own inner voices. I do not desire to deprecate teachers, but I think that many teachers are in error when they fail to encourage their pupils to form their own opinions."

A Closer Look: 

Pachmann's playing style evolved over the course of his career, which is demonstrated in two recordings of the Chopin Nocturne in D-flat, Op. 27/2, one from 1916 and another from 1925. A striking feature of the 1916 recording is the independence of the left and right hands, which correspond to the accompaniment and melody, respectively. Rather than lining up each pulse in exact coordination, Pachmann plays the melodic line with an elastic rhythm freedom, while the accompaniment generally follows a more patterned sense of pulse. In this way, the downbeats do not always line up between the hands -- rather, the melody or bass line may arrive earlier than the other, creating a temporal independence in the listener's ear. As an explanation of this style, Chopin used to say to his pupils: "Play freely with the right hand, but let the left one act as your conductor and keep time." While the listener does not hear metronomic regularity in Pachmann's left hand, Chopin's quote reflects the relationship between the hands, which Pachmann demonstrates. In the 1925 recording of the Nocturne in D-flat, Op. 27/2, Pachmann's interpretive style differs in both tempo, phrasing and coordination of the melody and accompaniment. Taking a faster tempo, Pachmann's sense of rubato is directed at larger musical phrases, often moving toward larger structural points such as climaxes and ends of phrases. In general, the right and left hands sound more coordinated in their rubato. Notably, at the return of the theme, Pachmann plays more assertively in the 1925 recording, while taking a softer, more reflective approach to the return of the theme in the 1916 recording. 

Suggested recordings in the collection: 

Request CD W-901, "De Pachmann Transfers": Chopin: Nocturne in D flat major, Op. 27 No. 2; Chopin: Etude in F major, Op. 25 No. 3; Chopin: Valse in C sharp minor, Op. 64 No. 2; Chopin: Nocturne in D flat major, Op. 27 No. 2; Brahms: Capriccio in C sharp minor, Op. 76 No. 5

Vladimir de Pachmann (OPAL CD 9840)

Vladimir de Pachmann: Complete Recordings, Volume 1 (HPC056 Dante)

Ignacy Jan Paderewski

Biographical Sketch: 

Polish pianist, composer, and statesman Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941) began piano studies at an early age with Piotr Sowiński, Filip Runowski, and Michał Babiański. In 1872, at the age of 12, he entered the Warsaw Conservatory, studying with Jan Śliwiński and Juliusz Janotha. In addition to his studies as a pianist, Paderewski also played trombone in the Warsaw Conservatory's orchestra and sang in the school's choir. While enrolled at the Conservatory, he also took lessons in literature and French with the poet and teacher Klemensa Podwysocki. While Paderewski had trouble earning a living throughout the 1870s and early 1880s, Paderewski's career began to take off when he met Richard Strauss and Anton Rubinstein -- Rubinstein provided important encouragement for the young pianist to continue pursuing his career as a pianist and composer. He later visited Vienna, where he took lessons from Theodor Leschetizky, which led him to be appointed to a teaching post at the Strasbourg Conservatoire (1885-1886) and later in Paris in 1888. From here, Paderewski rapidly became a success, making highly successful concert tours throughout Europe and America. Paderewski was renowned for his interpretive imagination, which some felt were too extreme in terms of taking liberties with the score. His widespread fame lead him to star in the 1937 film, Moonlight Sonata, which preserves rare footage of Paderewski performing at the piano. Throughout his lifetime, he was also active in politics, which included serving as the 2nd Prime Minister of Poland in 1919, and as head of the National Council of Poland in 1940. 

In "Paderewski on Tempo Rubato," the pianist explains his technical and conceptual approach to the expression of music through flexible pulse: "Rhythm is order. But this order in music cannot progress with the cosmic regularity of a planet, nor with the automatic uniformity of a clock. It reflects life, organic human life, with all its attributes, therefore it is subject to moods and emotions, to rapture and depression. There is in music no absolute rate of movement. The tempo, as we usually call it, depends on physiological and physical conditions. It is influenced by interior or exterior temperature, by surroundings, instruments, acoustics. There is no absolute rhythm. In the course of the dramatic development of a musical composition, the initial themes change their character, consequently rhythm changes also, and, in conformity with that character, it has to be energetic or languishing, crisp or elastic, steady or capricious. Rhythm is life." 

A Closer Look: 

Paderewski's execution of tempo rubato in his recordings is consistent with his description from "Paderewski on Tempo Rubato." Two Paderewski recordings of the famous Nocturne, op. 15, no. 2, one from 1917 and another from 1927, show varying approaches to the "rapture and depression" of pulse that Paderewski describes. Paderewski takes a slightly slower tempo in the 1917 recording than in the 1927 version. In the earlier recording, Paderewski's more significant changes in pulse occur at the ends of phrases. In addition, Paderewski does not strike the melody together with the accompaniment. Rather, he frequently places the accompaniment in advance of the melody, as if the left hand gently moves the pulse forward while the melody is executed more freely. In the 1927 recording, Paderewski takes a slightly faster tempo, creating gradual arcs of tempo rubato across phrases: for instance, in the first phrase, Paderewski gently moves ahead, while in the second phrase, Paderewski gradually slows the tempo. When these two phrases return later on in the piece, Paderewski gives them a more hesitant character, performing this theme at a slightly slower tempo, until it opens up into the melodies in the higher register toward the end of the piece. The return of the theme in the 1927 recording contrasts with the 1917 recording; in the latter, the return of the theme more closely matches its presentation in the beginning of the piece. 

Suggested recordings in the collection: 

Request CD W-67, "I.J. Paderewski": Chopin: Berceuse; Etude, op. 10, no. 3; Etude, op. 10, no. 3; Etude, op. 10, no. 5; Etude, op. 10, no. 12; 6. Mazurka, op. 33, no. 2; 7. Mazurka, op. 59, no. 2; Mazurka, op. 63, no. 3; Nocturne, op. 9, no. 2; Nocturne, op. 15, no. 2; Nocturne, op. 15, no. 2; Polonaise, op. 26, no. 2; Prelude, op. 28, no. 15; Prelude, op. 28, no. 17; Waltz, op. 18

"The Art of Paderewski" (RCA Camden CAL 310)


Moriz Rosenthal

Moriz Rosenthal (1862-1942) was a Polish pianist whose musical training closely connects him with luminary composers of the 19th century, including Chopin and Liszt. Beginning his studies at the age of eight years old, Rosenthal became a pupil of Karol Mikuli, Chopin's assistant, in 1875. Rosenthal later studied with Rafael Joseffy, a student of Liszt, and eventually with Liszt himself. During the period of his studies with Liszt, Rosenthal also completed a degree in Philosophy at the University of Vienna. Rosenthal was also a direct collaborator and colleague of Brahms, Anton Rubinstein, Saint-Saens, and Johann Strauss II, to name a few. From 1926 to 1928, Rosenthal taught at the Curtis Institute of Music, and in 1938, Rosenthal settled in New York in 1938, where he continued to perform and teach privately.

HSR has all known commercial recordings of Moriz Rosenthal. In addition, HSR has several test pressing of interest, which are listed below in their digitized form in the W-file catalog. 

Suggested recordings in the collection: 

Request W-840, "Rosenthal Plays Chopin": Chopin: Valse in A flat major (two test pressings).

The Art of Moriz Rosenthal.

Moriz Rosenthal: The Complete HMV Recordings, 1934-37. 

John Crown

Biographical Sketch: 

English-born American pianist John Crown moved to the United States as a child, returning to Europe to pursue his artistic education. Following his studies for three years in Vienna with Moriz Rosenthal, he gained international renown as a soloist. Later on, Crown moved to Los Angeles, where he served on the faculty of the University of Sourthern California Thornton School of Music for several decades of the mid-twentieth century. During his time in Los Angeles, Crown also performed chamber music with luminary musicians including Jascha Heifetz. Notably, John Crown was the piano teacher of famous conductor and pianist Michael Tilson Thomas, as well as friends with writer William Faulkner.  

Michael Tilson Thomas reminisced in his radio program "Five Degrees of Separation" about former teacher, John Crown: "He had that big Viennese sound that was enveloping and velvety, it kind of surrounded you. It seemed more like singing than playing... [Crown] stressed that the little details of music were very important, but a big open-heartedness in response to music-making was necessary, that people needed to feel like the music was coming directly to them, and that it mattered to the person playing it to make that connection." 

Another one of Crown's students, Ralph Grierson, expressed that his teaching "embodied the whole 19th century idea of the gesture, the grand gesture. The musical gesture being far more important than any note here or there. [It was] the idea that music was not just all these notes, it was what happened when they moved in this line, and what one could say in these big sweeping gestures." 

A Closer Look: 

One clearly hears John Crown as a descendant of the Romantic-era playing style, inheriting the tradiiton of his teacher Moriz Rosenthal. As compared with pianists contemporary to him, Crown plays with ample rubato and tempo fluctuation, emphasizing musical contrasts through a variety of dynamics and articulations. For example, in Chopin's Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53, Crown plays with a crisp, brilliant sound and virtuosic technique. Throughout his interpretation of this polonaise, Crown alters the tempo, frequently stretching the ends of phrases with a song-like lilt. Frequently after more dramatic sections, Crown creates contrast by using a lighter, more distant touch for a gentler affect. Additionally, in Chopin's E Major Etude, Op. 10, No. 3, Crown uses rubato as a means of heightening the relationship between and rhetoric of the musical phrases, preserving a forward sense of direction in his alteration of the pulse. Crown's interpretation of Chopin's Fantasie-Impromptu is also quite notable for its assertive playing, with flexible and winding tempi that create an almost chaotic affect. In the mid-section, however, Crown plays the melody with a more sensitive and spontaneous style, using rubato in a way that heightens the harmony of the accompaniment. 

Suggested recordings in the collection: 

Chopin: Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53, "Héroïque" (Co-Art 5041) 

Chopin: Waltz in D-flat, Op. 64, No. 1, "Minute Waltz"; Prelude in A Major, Op. 28, No. 7; Fantasie-Impromptu, Op. 66 (Co-Art 5042)

Chopin: Etude in E Major, Op. 10, No. 3; Valse in C-sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2 (Co-Art 5047) 

Chopin: Etude in C minor, Op. 10, No. 12, "The Revolutionary"; Valse in A-flat Major, Op. 69, No. 1, "L'Adieu" (Co-Art 5048)

Schumann: Fantasiestücke, Op. 12; Kreisleriana Suite, Op. 16 (Co-Art 5058-5061)