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#2054586 - 03/26/13 01:57 PM Balance problems in piano concerti  
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Janus K. Sachs Offline
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Betelgeuse, baby!
Now that I'm working on a piano concerto (as well as arranging a solo piano repertoire work for piano and orchestra as a study, like what Mozart did in his first four piano concerti), I'd like to discuss passages in piano concerti where the composer miscalculates and the orchestra is likely to cover up the soloist, as touched upon in another thread. Of course, it is possible for a full orchestra to play a tutti softly (the effective subito piano in the Fidelio Overture comes to mind), and of course in a recording one can give the soloist an audio boost (pretty much standard in concerto recordings nowadays, and sometimes taken to ridiculous extremes, such as in many of Zimerman's concerto recordings). If a passage doesn't work live as written it may require changing dynamics or even changing the orchestration. I wish to have these passages pointed out so that I can avoid such miscalculations in my own work. I'll get the ball rolling (oh, and I wish to limit the discussion to passages that don't work as written in live performance, since one can do almost anything with balances in recordings).

Grieg: the big tune glorification in the third movement is probably the most infamous example of the orchestra covering up a soloist unless the orchestra holds back dynamically (especially the trumpets and trombones). Of course the affect (grandeur/majesty/orgasm/whatever) is modified/lost when the orchestra holds back. I haven't heard the work live though, but on paper it certainly looks like a miscalculation. Or am I mistaken?

Schumann: aside from the bass notes, I can't fathom how the piano can be heard in the four loud measures of the tutti (in A major) towards the end of the first movement (the last hurrah before the cadenza). As I haven't heard this work live, I wasn't even aware that the figuration in the right hand continued in this passage until I saw the score!

Prokofiev First Piano Concerto: I heard this live only once, and the piano was completely swamped in the main theme's final statement. The soloist was reticent (completely unsuitable for the work IMHO), so I suppose the passage can be made to work. I've also noticed how some recordings dynamically modify the last four measures from the score's written fff to sffp cresc. fff so that the piano's ascending right hand chords can be heard. Some pianists even double the chords an octave lower in the left hand -- a sensible modification IMHO, since the original left hand's repeated Db - Ab alteration strikes me as superfluous.

Now, for queries:

Do the big tune glorifications in the finales of Tchaikovsky's First Concerto and Rachmaninov's Second and Third Concerti work? To me, they seem well calculated, at least on paper. I haven't heard the Rachmaninov works live. I heard the Tchaikovsky live, but I can't recall if balance was an issue. It doesn't help that (then and now) it is my least favorite piano concerto.

What about the busy coda of the finale of Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto? Again, I haven't heard it live. The piano's upper register can be resonant if necessary, but the tutti looks formidable on paper.

What about the piano's resonant octaves in the second movement of Brahms's Second Piano Concerto, when the orchestra states the primary theme forte soon after the A section returns? Again, it looks good on paper, though it may also depend on the number of strings employed.

In any case, please mention more passages from piano concerti where balance may be an issue. I'm also eager to hear from those of you who have performed concerti and how problematic balances were dealt with.

Thanks in advance!

P.S. My main concern is the piano being inaudible, rather than simply blending in with the overall texture but still being audibly present (which is the impression one gets in the coda of studio recordings of the Grieg).


Die Krebs gehn zurücke,
Die Stockfisch bleiben dicke,
Die Karpfen viel fressen,
Die Predigt vergessen.

Die Predigt hat g'fallen.
Sie bleiben wie alle.
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#2054592 - 03/26/13 02:12 PM Re: Balance problems in piano concerti [Re: Janus K. Sachs]  
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The best example I know of is in Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto, right after the first-movement cadenza. The soloist has a complicated series of chords and arpeggios which are completely obliterated by fortissimo trombones. Would I change it? Absolutely not.

#2054598 - 03/26/13 02:20 PM Re: Balance problems in piano concerti [Re: jeffreyjones]  
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Originally Posted by jeffreyjones
The best example I know of is in Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto, right after the first-movement cadenza. The soloist has a complicated series of chords and arpeggios which are completely obliterated by fortissimo trombones. Would I change it? Absolutely not.
Oh gods, yes, I forgot about that passage. Rather similar to the Grieg -- one can hold back the orchestra dynamically so that the piano can be heard, but the affect is modified, and the effect is lost.


Die Krebs gehn zurücke,
Die Stockfisch bleiben dicke,
Die Karpfen viel fressen,
Die Predigt vergessen.

Die Predigt hat g'fallen.
Sie bleiben wie alle.
#2054600 - 03/26/13 02:22 PM Re: Balance problems in piano concerti [Re: Janus K. Sachs]  
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Alongside with what jeffreyjones said, I think that the struggle to come out as the soloist at all times is part of the game sometimes, for example in said place in the Prokofiev concerto. The very end of the 3rd concerto is a similar case perhaps, but from personal experience; all the adrenaline you have by the end of that concerto usually helps giving you the power needed. Unless the conductor chooses a tempo that is out of your reach, hehe.

Dmitri Bashkirov is giving masterclasses at my academy all week, and one of the things he talked about with a pianist working on a concerto was to really think differently when playing with an orchestra compared to playing solo. We can't play the way that sounds convincing to us in a practicing room - we adapt according to how a piece is orchestrated...

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#2054605 - 03/26/13 02:35 PM Re: Balance problems in piano concerti [Re: Janus K. Sachs]  
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Is it not possible that the composer intended the piano to get lost in ( or, in fact, become part of ) the overall sound being produced at that moment? This is quite common in concerti played in period performance practice ( e.g., Beethoven played on a piano forte with a period orchestra) .

#2054616 - 03/26/13 02:59 PM Re: Balance problems in piano concerti [Re: Mwm]  
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Janus K. Sachs Offline
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Originally Posted by Mwm
Is it not possible that the composer intended the piano to get lost in ( or, in fact, become part of ) the overall sound being produced at that moment? This is quite common in concerti played in period performance practice ( e.g., Beethoven played on a piano forte with a period orchestra) .
Well, if the piano isn't audible as a distinct sound entity no matter how hard the pianist tries, might as well not have the piano play in such passages. Though it doesn't seem to be much of a problem in Mozart and Beethoven piano concerti, since the division between solo and tutti is very clear, and the orchestration in solo passages is very transparent. Unless of course you're referring to non-solo passages when the soloist improvises continuo (which Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven did -- Haydn even in his symphonies, including the late ones), where the soloist can indeed get lost in the louder tuttis.


Die Krebs gehn zurücke,
Die Stockfisch bleiben dicke,
Die Karpfen viel fressen,
Die Predigt vergessen.

Die Predigt hat g'fallen.
Sie bleiben wie alle.
#2054621 - 03/26/13 03:10 PM Re: Balance problems in piano concerti [Re: Janus K. Sachs]  
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Mwm Offline
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Originally Posted by Janus K. Sachs
Originally Posted by Mwm
Is it not possible that the composer intended the piano to get lost in ( or, in fact, become part of ) the overall sound being produced at that moment? This is quite common in concerti played in period performance practice ( e.g., Beethoven played on a piano forte with a period orchestra) .
Well, if the piano isn't audible as a distinct sound entity no matter how hard the pianist tries, might as well not have the piano play in such passages.


I disagree with your statement above. Why should the piano always be heard as a distinct entity? What about ensemble sound? There are times (not necessarily the ones this thread is about) when a solo instrument is meant to add to the overall sonority. If the piano was tacit during that passage, the work would suffer. If the pianist is banging away trying to be heard above the orchestra, the work will also suffer.

#2054622 - 03/26/13 03:10 PM Re: Balance problems in piano concerti [Re: Janus K. Sachs]  
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I am inclined to agree with Mwm. In some instances - the Grieg being one of them - the piano is just a thread in the total fabric of sound. You may not clearly hear the piano as a distinct entity over and above the orchestra at a particular point, but it is still there and part of the overall sound. I wouldn't change the orchestration in the Grieg for a moment and, believing that Grieg knew what he was doing, I don't think he would change it either.

The other side of this coin " ... if the piano isn't audible as a distinct sound entity no matter how hard the pianist tries, might as well not have the piano play in such passages." is a thought I don't agree with, for the reason stated above. Sometimes it's not piano against orchestra or piano with orchestra, but piano and orchestra that make up the overall sound palette.

Regards,


BruceD
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#2054623 - 03/26/13 03:14 PM Re: Balance problems in piano concerti [Re: Janus K. Sachs]  
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Also Janus,

Please, be careful about remaining at your current location. There is considerable evidence that Betelgeuse has already gone supernova, which implies that you will receive our replies too late to be of use.

Last edited by Mwm; 03/26/13 03:15 PM.
#2054634 - 03/26/13 03:31 PM Re: Balance problems in piano concerti [Re: Mwm]  
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Originally Posted by Mwm
Originally Posted by Janus K. Sachs
Originally Posted by Mwm
Is it not possible that the composer intended the piano to get lost in ( or, in fact, become part of ) the overall sound being produced at that moment? This is quite common in concerti played in period performance practice ( e.g., Beethoven played on a piano forte with a period orchestra) .
Well, if the piano isn't audible as a distinct sound entity no matter how hard the pianist tries, might as well not have the piano play in such passages.


I disagree with your statement above. Why should the piano always be heard as a distinct entity? What about ensemble sound? There are times (not necessarily the ones this thread is about) when a solo instrument is meant to add to the overall sonority. If the piano was tacit during that passage, the work would suffer. If the pianist is banging away trying to be heard above the orchestra, the work will also suffer.
I don't mind if the piano is a little covered in passages where it is simply doubling a few orchestral parts -- in such passages the piano is simply contributing to the overall decibel level and colour. But it seems a little of a waste if absolutely nothing can be heard from the piano in miscalculated tuttis, especially if the piano has a line or figuration that is not doubled in the orchestra but also has absolutely no chance of being audible. And I really mean inaudibility, rather than blending in with the overall texture but still being audibly present (which is the impression one gets in the coda of studio recordings of the Grieg).

P.S.: My previous location was Rigel.


Die Krebs gehn zurücke,
Die Stockfisch bleiben dicke,
Die Karpfen viel fressen,
Die Predigt vergessen.

Die Predigt hat g'fallen.
Sie bleiben wie alle.
#2054636 - 03/26/13 03:34 PM Re: Balance problems in piano concerti [Re: Janus K. Sachs]  
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Mwm Offline
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I hear Rigel 7 is quite pleasant at this time of year.

#2054639 - 03/26/13 03:39 PM Re: Balance problems in piano concerti [Re: Janus K. Sachs]  
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Mwm Offline
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Originally Posted by Janus K. Sachs
Originally Posted by Mwm
Originally Posted by Janus K. Sachs
Originally Posted by Mwm
Is it not possible that the composer intended the piano to get lost in ( or, in fact, become part of ) the overall sound being produced at that moment? This is quite common in concerti played in period performance practice ( e.g., Beethoven played on a piano forte with a period orchestra) .
Well, if the piano isn't audible as a distinct sound entity no matter how hard the pianist tries, might as well not have the piano play in such passages.


I disagree with your statement above. Why should the piano always be heard as a distinct entity? What about ensemble sound? There are times (not necessarily the ones this thread is about) when a solo instrument is meant to add to the overall sonority. If the piano was tacit during that passage, the work would suffer. If the pianist is banging away trying to be heard above the orchestra, the work will also suffer.
I don't mind if the piano is a little covered in passages where it is simply doubling a few orchestral parts -- in such passages the piano is simply contributing to the overall decibel level and colour. But it seems a little of a waste if absolutely nothing can be heard from the piano in miscalculated tuttis, especially if the piano has a line or figuration that is not doubled in the orchestra but also has absolutely no chance of being audible. And I really mean inaudibility, rather than blending in with the overall texture but still being audibly present.

P.S.: My previous location was Rigel.


I know what you mean. I heard the Ravel live recently and the pianist and/or piano, a S&S D, were not able to be heard at many points even though the conductor was careful to modulate the orchestral amplitude well. I don't think the composer was at fault in this case.

#2054641 - 03/26/13 03:40 PM Re: Balance problems in piano concerti [Re: Mwm]  
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Originally Posted by Mwm
I hear Rigel 7 is quite pleasant at this time of year.
Being tidally locked doesn't help.


Die Krebs gehn zurücke,
Die Stockfisch bleiben dicke,
Die Karpfen viel fressen,
Die Predigt vergessen.

Die Predigt hat g'fallen.
Sie bleiben wie alle.
#2054644 - 03/26/13 03:43 PM Re: Balance problems in piano concerti [Re: Mwm]  
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Janus K. Sachs Offline
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Betelgeuse, baby!
Originally Posted by Mwm
Originally Posted by Janus K. Sachs
Originally Posted by Mwm
Originally Posted by Janus K. Sachs
Originally Posted by Mwm
Is it not possible that the composer intended the piano to get lost in ( or, in fact, become part of ) the overall sound being produced at that moment? This is quite common in concerti played in period performance practice ( e.g., Beethoven played on a piano forte with a period orchestra) .
Well, if the piano isn't audible as a distinct sound entity no matter how hard the pianist tries, might as well not have the piano play in such passages.


I disagree with your statement above. Why should the piano always be heard as a distinct entity? What about ensemble sound? There are times (not necessarily the ones this thread is about) when a solo instrument is meant to add to the overall sonority. If the piano was tacit during that passage, the work would suffer. If the pianist is banging away trying to be heard above the orchestra, the work will also suffer.
I don't mind if the piano is a little covered in passages where it is simply doubling a few orchestral parts -- in such passages the piano is simply contributing to the overall decibel level and colour. But it seems a little of a waste if absolutely nothing can be heard from the piano in miscalculated tuttis, especially if the piano has a line or figuration that is not doubled in the orchestra but also has absolutely no chance of being audible. And I really mean inaudibility, rather than blending in with the overall texture but still being audibly present.

P.S.: My previous location was Rigel.


I know what you mean. I heard the Ravel live recently and the pianist and/or piano, a S&S D, were not able to be heard at many points even though the conductor was careful to modulate the orchestral amplitude well. I don't think the composer was at fault in this case.
Yeah, the Ravel is very transparently orchestrated.


Die Krebs gehn zurücke,
Die Stockfisch bleiben dicke,
Die Karpfen viel fressen,
Die Predigt vergessen.

Die Predigt hat g'fallen.
Sie bleiben wie alle.
#2054650 - 03/26/13 03:53 PM Re: Balance problems in piano concerti [Re: Janus K. Sachs]  
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In many late-Romantic piano concertos, the piano is meant to strain at the leash, battling against the mighty orchestra at times, as well as collaborating, and I don't think the orchestra necessarily needs to hold back in tuttis just because the pianist is also playing. Schumann's and Chopin's (and even Liszt's) aren't in this category, but from Brahms onwards, they mostly are. Even Ravel, the master orchestrator, was not averse to drowning the piano when he felt it appropriate.

I've heard all the concertos mentioned live in concert (some of them many times, from several different pianists), and in general never found any balance problem except on the few occasions when the conductor was rather insensitive or the soloist somewhat lacking in firepower. I hope I'm not being sexist in saying this, but it's in some of the big concertos of this sort that one realises that female pianists don't quite have the power of most of their male counterparts (- Janina Fialkowska in a recent article in International Piano magazine put it even more bluntly), which is usually not evident in solo recitals.

If the piano part lies high up, it's almost always heard unless the orchestra is also playing ff in high registers. In the mid-range, it's more difficult to get heard, but low down, when the pianist is thumping hard in octaves/chords, the overtones are surprisingly audible, and the results can be quite thrilling, as in the ending of Rach 3.


"I don't play accurately - anyone can play accurately - but I play with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte. I keep science for Life."
#2054658 - 03/26/13 04:02 PM Re: Balance problems in piano concerti [Re: Janus K. Sachs]  
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I think that any time you have 96 people playing against 1 person, you're going to have balance issues regardless of instrument. That's why these pieces are performed by people and not by a computer. You can balance out the sound by using your ear, even in the middle of a passage.

I believe that what works and what doesn't work is a matter of orchestra and pianist in the moment, and that a perfect audible balance can be achieved by performers expert enough to be capable of calibrating their individual sound as part of the whole.


Every day we are afforded a new chance. The problem with life is not that you run out of chances. In the end, what you run out of are days.
#2054674 - 03/26/13 04:20 PM Re: Balance problems in piano concerti [Re: Derulux]  
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Originally Posted by Derulux
I think that any time you have 96 people playing against 1 person, you're going to have balance issues regardless of instrument. That's why these pieces are performed by people and not by a computer. You can balance out the sound by using your ear, even in the middle of a passage.

I believe that what works and what doesn't work is a matter of orchestra and pianist in the moment, and that a perfect audible balance can be achieved by performers expert enough to be capable of calibrating their individual sound as part of the whole.
All very true. But as a composer I want to maximize the chances of the music being clearly projected with minimum effort from the performers, especially since rehearsal time is precious -- in short, write the music in such a way so that it is hard to screw up, balance-wise.


Die Krebs gehn zurücke,
Die Stockfisch bleiben dicke,
Die Karpfen viel fressen,
Die Predigt vergessen.

Die Predigt hat g'fallen.
Sie bleiben wie alle.
#2054684 - 03/26/13 04:33 PM Re: Balance problems in piano concerti [Re: Janus K. Sachs]  
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The Prokofiev tutti ending after the cadenze is not such a place. Prokofiev was very clear on what he wanted to do and the piano works, exactly like Bruce says: Adding to the fabric of the orchestral sound...

#2054688 - 03/26/13 04:40 PM Re: Balance problems in piano concerti [Re: Janus K. Sachs]  
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Janus K. Sachs Offline
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Betelgeuse, baby!
^ Have you heard it live?


Die Krebs gehn zurücke,
Die Stockfisch bleiben dicke,
Die Karpfen viel fressen,
Die Predigt vergessen.

Die Predigt hat g'fallen.
Sie bleiben wie alle.
#2054689 - 03/26/13 04:44 PM Re: Balance problems in piano concerti [Re: Janus K. Sachs]  
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Nikolas Offline
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Unfortunately not. Sorry... But I've studied the orchestral score and do think that his intentions are not lost... :-/ I could be mistaken of course, but I think the piano goes along with the woodwinds and high strings in blending this spider web around the F. Hrns and earlier on the Tbns and T.

#2054697 - 03/26/13 05:01 PM Re: Balance problems in piano concerti [Re: Janus K. Sachs]  
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^ Well yes, the texture looks good, but is it feasible to project it clearly as written, without modifying even the dynamics slightly?

To put my query in another way, if a pianist plays a bunch of harmonically clashing/ seemingly random/"atonal" notes in the Prokofiev or Grieg codas and the audience doesn't notice because the piano is literally inaudible -- well, that doesn't speak well about the orchestration, does it?

Or, if a pianist plays a bunch of wrong notes during a tutti, does the piano make a sound?


Die Krebs gehn zurücke,
Die Stockfisch bleiben dicke,
Die Karpfen viel fressen,
Die Predigt vergessen.

Die Predigt hat g'fallen.
Sie bleiben wie alle.
#2054712 - 03/26/13 05:15 PM Re: Balance problems in piano concerti [Re: Janus K. Sachs]  
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Nikolas Offline
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1. The dynamics depend on a lot of factors. First of all we should remember that forte and piano are rather relative terms. Your upright piano in your home will have a different reaction to the same velocity to my grand piano, or a Steinway grand in Disney hall.

2. We should keep in mind that the hall and the size of the orchestra also matters. A lot of classical works do not have exact sizes for the strings, which creates several issues...

3. Finally we need to remember that each one hears things differently in the end, especially depending on where we sit, etc...

So in the case of Prokofiev I do think that his idea was for the piano to act like one of the woodwinds in that instance (same as in the early stages of the cadenze, where it takes the place of the strings). And I think that this works. I think that if someone played something totally off in the coda it would show... I think...

It remains to be tried I guess... grin Anyone up for the task?

#2054723 - 03/26/13 05:26 PM Re: Balance problems in piano concerti [Re: Janus K. Sachs]  
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^ I'll grant you that the Prokofiev coda looks better on paper than the Grieg coda, where the piano's flourishes are independent and undoubled.

One reason why I wish Mahler had written a piano concerto is because it most likely would've been finely balanced, even if he had decided to use a massive orchestra with, say, quadruple winds.


Die Krebs gehn zurücke,
Die Stockfisch bleiben dicke,
Die Karpfen viel fressen,
Die Predigt vergessen.

Die Predigt hat g'fallen.
Sie bleiben wie alle.
#2054753 - 03/26/13 06:07 PM Re: Balance problems in piano concerti [Re: Janus K. Sachs]  
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Originally Posted by Janus K. Sachs
Originally Posted by Derulux
I think that any time you have 96 people playing against 1 person, you're going to have balance issues regardless of instrument. That's why these pieces are performed by people and not by a computer. You can balance out the sound by using your ear, even in the middle of a passage.

I believe that what works and what doesn't work is a matter of orchestra and pianist in the moment, and that a perfect audible balance can be achieved by performers expert enough to be capable of calibrating their individual sound as part of the whole.
All very true. But as a composer I want to maximize the chances of the music being clearly projected with minimum effort from the performers, especially since rehearsal time is precious -- in short, write the music in such a way so that it is hard to screw up, balance-wise.

Absolutely, I completely agree. I took a different tack in my post, but I don't deny this at all. smile


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#2054795 - 03/26/13 07:30 PM Re: Balance problems in piano concerti [Re: Nikolas]  
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Originally Posted by Nikolas
Unfortunately not. Sorry... But I've studied the orchestral score and do think that his intentions are not lost... :-/ I could be mistaken of course, but I think the piano goes along with the woodwinds and high strings in blending this spider web around the F. Hrns and earlier on the Tbns and T.


I think you're underestimating how loud and piercing the trombones actually are in that register. You can hear the pianist only in studio recordings, and then only the very highest notes and nothing in the middle.

#2054965 - 03/27/13 05:20 AM Re: Balance problems in piano concerti [Re: Janus K. Sachs]  
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I'm too lazy to go through the score and pick out all the problem spots, but my general impression of Prokofiev's 5th piano concerto is that it has many places, mostly brief, where the piano can't be heard. Sometimes it seems that might be an intentional effect, but it's hard to say, because a lot of the writing for both the piano and the orchestra is fairly unusual. But I remember being surprised at a live concert at how often the piano was simply obliterated, usually by the brass.


#2054967 - 03/27/13 05:31 AM Re: Balance problems in piano concerti [Re: Janus K. Sachs]  
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wr Offline
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Originally Posted by Janus K. Sachs
Originally Posted by Mwm
Is it not possible that the composer intended the piano to get lost in ( or, in fact, become part of ) the overall sound being produced at that moment? This is quite common in concerti played in period performance practice ( e.g., Beethoven played on a piano forte with a period orchestra) .
Well, if the piano isn't audible as a distinct sound entity no matter how hard the pianist tries, might as well not have the piano play in such passages. Though it doesn't seem to be much of a problem in Mozart and Beethoven piano concerti, since the division between solo and tutti is very clear, and the orchestration in solo passages is very transparent. Unless of course you're referring to non-solo passages when the soloist improvises continuo (which Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven did -- Haydn even in his symphonies, including the late ones), where the soloist can indeed get lost in the louder tuttis.


And it's worth mentioning that the balances of everything in the Classical era were quite different than what we hear today when we listen to a modern orchestra and the soloist is using some big concert grand, and the hall is relatively vast. Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven were not writing their concertos for those forces and environment. Mozart, in fact, performed all of his concertos on harpsichord as well as on fortepiano, hard as that may be for us to imagine.





#2055080 - 03/27/13 11:39 AM Re: Balance problems in piano concerti [Re: wr]  
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Originally Posted by wr
I'm too lazy to go through the score and pick out all the problem spots, but my general impression of Prokofiev's 5th piano concerto is that it has many places, mostly brief, where the piano can't be heard. Sometimes it seems that might be an intentional effect, but it's hard to say, because a lot of the writing for both the piano and the orchestra is fairly unusual. But I remember being surprised at a live concert at how often the piano was simply obliterated, usually by the brass.
Thanks. My guess is that the third movement could be especially problematic. I only have the two piano reduction, so I can't see the scoring problems firsthand -- best I can do is listen to recordings.


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