It's unfashionable these days to play Bach on the piano. This, plus the fact that the authentic piano repertoire is Classical and Romantic, makes it easy for us to forget that the piano is above all a polyphonic instrument. No other keyboard instrument permits such subtle differentiation of parts (voice-leading, as it is called) through variation in the intensity and tone colour separately allotted to them. Yet it was possible for Alfred Brendel to remark in 1976: 'pianists are about to lose the skill of "polyphonic playing", once held in high esteem, a loss that makes itself felt not only in Bach, and not only in dense contrapuntal structures.' He was discussing 'Bach and the Piano' in a dialogue reprinted, with a short reflective coda written in 1989, in his most recent collection of essays, Music Sounded Out. It is typical of the slightly unfocused nature of Brendel's thinking that he should make the telling observation that pianists are about to lose the skill of polyphonic playing, and then fail to register its true, indeed its devastating significance, allowing it to be a matter of taste ('once held in high esteem') and of only slight or partial misfortune ('a loss that makes itself felt'). For if in 1976 pianists really were about to lose the skill of polyphonic piano-playing, then to all intents and purposes the skill of playing the piano was at an end.
LRB 26 March 1992 | PDF Download