Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Mendelssohn and sempre pedale

Mendelssohn’s Fantasie, Op. 28 stands out among his wide-ranging output for piano. I think it's certainly one of his more challenging works, especially the final Presto. That’s probably why it’s one of the few Mendelssohn piano pieces on the circulating repertoire of our super-virtuosi, along with the G minor concerto. But the first two movements are so quirky—if I didn’t know the music, I doubt I would guess Mendelssohn as the composer. I'd go for Schumann, probably, especially with the bizarre asymmetrical phrasing in the second movement.

I’m currently working the piece up for the Art of Piano festival at CCM next week, and I played it through for James Tocco a few days ago. I don't think I've ever had a teacher who was more concerned about detail—Tocco has a musicologist’s mind for tiny things in the music that too many of us wouldn't give a second thought. But he manages to draw out so much meaning from these breadcrumbs off the composer’s table that he completely transforms my understanding of the music.

What would you make of this sempre pedale marking?
I probably thought what 90 percent of pianist would think: Mendelssohn is asking me to change the pedal here and hold it for the next five measures. There a similar passage in Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata, where the pedal blurs a single-line melody:

Mendelssohn was, of course, very much into Beethoven, and was one of the first pianists to tackle his monumental “Hammerklavier” sonata. He was surely familiar with this passage and might have been paying homage.

But Tocco suggested a more radical interpretation: The sempre pedale could indicate that the pedal remains sustained, not a change of pedal. Then there would a single pedal starting nine measures earlier, lasting for a total of fourteen measures! This pedal would blur through the B minor-F sharp major chord changes on the second line of the example. More strikingly, F sharp major would blur with F sharp minor as Mendelssohn suddenly reverts to the opening tonality six measures before the end.

It might seem out of character for Mendelssohn. The image of Beethoven as a raving genius who thrust the Classical world kicking and screaming into the Romantic era matches perfectly with uncomfortably messy pedaling. But Mendelssohn? From a respectable upper middle class family, stylistically conservative, who according to Taruskin, never outgrew his precocious early style? On the other hand, Mendelssohn was very clear with his markings and didn’t normally leave pedal markings hanging unended. Surely if he wanted a pedal change, he would have written it.

That evening around midnight, I received an email from Tocco. His meticulous attention to detail hadn’t allowed him to sleep, and he gave me a near-exhaustive list of sempre pedale examples from Beethoven and Mendelssohn. The more you look, the less clear it gets, but he thought—and I agree—that there’s a strong case to be made for a single, fourteen-measure pedal. Beethoven often used sempre pedale to indicate a sustained pedal (no change), for example near the end of the first movement of the “Appassionata”:

Mendelssohn used the term even more frequently than Beethoven. Sometimes it seems to indicate a change of pedal, but more often than not it means to sustain it. One of my favorite examples is in his first sonata, Op. 6, where he writes sempre Pedale after a long cadenza-like movement that leads into a powerful finale:
Tocco classified this one as probably indicating a pedal change. But wouldn’t it be cool if it were sustaining? The sonority that would build up over the course of these seven measures would be pure cacophony on a modern instrument! Unlike in the Fantasie, there is really only one harmony here—a long dominant pedal—even through there are plenty of passing tones.

It’s long been accepted that the differences between Beethoven’s pianos and ours mean that we don’t really need to observe his more eccentric pedalings exactly. For every pianist who plays the “Tempest” passage above with one long full pedal, there are probably three who use shades of half pedal and half changes to keep things under control. I think the same could be said for Mendelssohn.

One more caveat: Sempre is a tricky term. I bet if Beethoven were alive today, he wouldn't use a crazy term like sempre fortissimo quite so easily. Like here:

He writes that at the climax of the first movement of the “Appassionata.” Counting the two measures of fortissimo before, there are seventeen(!) full measures of fortissimo before the next written dynamic, piano. I think everyone understands that the excitement has to wind down somewhere, without a sudden drop of dynamic right at the end of this passage. I think there would also be general agreement about what Beethoven means: this is a powerful, sustained climax. But in the best performances I’ve heard, this passage isn’t necessarily all loud loud loud. Instead it’s volatile, like a pot boiling over on full flame. It’s not surprising that a more considered approach is more exciting and effective than seventeen measures of jackhammer, but thanks to that sempre too many pianists fall into that trap.

Still, sempre fortissimo and sempre pedale are worlds apart. I have a clear preference for pianists who play with too much pedal over those who play too loudly. Too loud is just unmusical, but a good musician who takes chances with the pedal has balls. Or powerful ovaries.

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