24 October 2007

Touching-for-Knowing: Christopher Falzone and the Cognitive Psychology of Haptic Piano

Christopher Falzone
Christopher Falzone performed Hindemith’s Sonata No. 3, Scriabin’s Etude in D-sharp minor Op. 8 No. 12, and Liszt’s Transcendental Etude No. 8 ‘Wilde Jagd’, as part of the student recital at The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia on Monday evening. Falzone has received critical acclaim and numerous national and international awards for his piano performances and compositions. (In 2004, he received the prestigious Gilmore Young Artist Award. In recent years, he has appeared at the Banff Music Festival and the Ravinia Festival. Falzone is a member of the Favrile Quartet. In 2002, his ensemble, Orion Trio, received first prize in the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition. Falzone, a native of Richmond, Virginia, presently studies at the Curtis Institute with Leon Fleisher and Claude Frank.)

Christopher’s performance on Monday night was spectacular throughout and delighted the 250 people in attendance at the recital. In particular, Liszt’s etude, ‘Wilde Jagd’, offered insights into Christopher’s physicality. This piece is arguably not as technically demanding as other of Liszt’s works, but it is nonetheless problematic for its many rhythmic challenges, triplets in the LH part, tricky leaps, and large staccato chords.

Liszt, Wilde Jagd, mm. 1 - 8
The left hand should be animated but not over-scaled. The performer’s effect may have panache but should not be preening or demonstrative. Instead, what we hope for is sensitivity alloyed with virtuosity. Falzone delivers this in abundance.

The wild hunt is mostly Presto furioso, except for the cheerful 6/8 hunt in the middle. Toward the conclusion it builds to a stormy climax, a confluence of emotional extravagance and inspiration. The hunt is a recurring theme in representational Romantic compositions and art, often associated with evocation of fright or terror as well as the excitement of the chase. Danger and the real possibility of human death is ever-present in the hunt, looming almost as much as the likelier fate of the quarry. Liszt’s ‘Mazeppa’ (Transcendental Etude No. 4) contains this idea. It is not just the eponymous ‘Jagd’.

In ‘Wilde Jagd’, Liszt is more representational than in other of his compositions. He evokes galloping horses with the persistent dotted rhythmic pattern—thundering hooves are implied by the LH part. The technical challenges of Wilde Jagd include blinding speed, prodigious power, the wide leaps, and repeated chords that demand a flexible wrist.

Liszt, Wilde Jagd, mm. 178 - 185
Falzone’s playing is massive and triumphant—thundering sheets of chords. This is epic pianism. He delivers a rhythmic precision that, olympian though it may be, still admits of flesh-and-blood. He clearly has excellent haptic memory in his fingers, his arms, his back, his entire body. This haptic memory is facilitated by intensive devotion to absorbing the music he performs.

Ultimately, music that is memorized by the mind and by the fingers is played flawlessly by heart. Yes, some pianists play from a score, or at least keep the score on the piano just in case. Falzone plays from memory—not, it seems, as a matter of performance aesthetic or requirement for this recital, but because of this wonderful, physical haptic capability that he is endowed with and has developed. He clearly keeps the notes stored in his mind—measure by measure in his mind, as any capable pianist does—but he also keeps them stored in his body, his arms, his fingers. Touching the piano is inevitable, a foregone conclusion. Magma rises under the earth’s crust; there are tremors; it erupts. Falzone is just such a Force of Nature. Not satisfied with mere sensation, touching and feeling erupt into embodied experiences that are emotional and expressive, personal and interpersonal, and mediated through Steinway technology.

A distinction can be drawn between ‘technical problems’ and ‘technical patterns’ in performance practice. The term ‘pattern’ is maybe best thought of as the sequence of fingering combinations that comprise a solution to a technical problem or challenge. For example, in Clementi’s Gradus ad Parnassum, Etude No. 85, the left hand plays a broken octave pattern with fingers 1 and 5 while fingers 2 and 3 are in a fixed position.

Clementi, Gradus, mm. 1 - 4
But Liszt’s polyphonic problems in Jagd and in other works are different. They require the performer to find some very innovative solutions/patterns and, having found them, to internalize them. When leaping, it’s preferable not to look at your hands. Maybe look at a key about one octave above the written note. Place your thumb there and press down the fifth finger; anticipate the coming chord destination when your hand is in motion, leaping. Linear jumps may be more efficient than arcs, although many accomplished pianists use big arcs successfully. If you are near enough to Falzone at one of his performances, you will see arcs, giant arcs. And probably sparks as well. Lava. Smoke. Brimstone. Exciting, impressive, beautiful!


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