I first published this post in July of 2016. Here it is again with one or two updates – including a link to the Online Academy’s series on spread chords, and the recent video I made for Pianist Magazine.

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I once attended a piano recital where the pianist continually broke the hands, so that the right hand sounded slightly after the left. He did this consistently with all the repertoire on his programme regardless of its period, and after a very short time indeed this had become a major distraction to me. I found I was unable to enjoy the music or appreciate the playing, it was irritating in the extreme.

However, there was a time in the history of piano playing where this sort of desynchronisation of the hands was actually part of style. If you were trained in Leipzig in the nineteenth century you would certainly have done this without giving it a second thought, as well as arpeggiating chords at the drop of a hat. Here is Carl Reinecke in a piano roll recorded in 1905 of the Larghetto from Mozart’s K537. How times change – this style of playing, while prevalent at the time, would simply not be acceptable nowadays.

If this style were based on performance traditions from Mozart’s day, you might expect modern fortepianists to have picked up on it. This cleanly articulated performance by Malcolm Bilson shows otherwise; it is (mercifully) free of such excesses.

Last week I wrote about how Beethoven himself spread the opening chord in his Fourth Piano Concerto.

In the Baroque period, keyboard players routinely rolled chords for expressive purposes –  either slow or fast, downwards as well as upwards. There were signs to indicate this (the wavy lines we are accustomed to today or slashes through note stems), but in music from this period you can spread chords even in the absence of such indications. On the harpsichord, a chord played dead together gives a big accent – rolling it softens the attack. How many of you spread the opening chord of Bach’s Italian Concerto? Some players do, others don’t – there is no right and wrong.

But what are the rules on arpeggiation in piano music? Do it well and it creates a wonderful effect; do it wrong and it can completely mess up your sonic canvas. How magical is this effect from Debussy’s La puerta del Vino (from the second book of Preludes), with the chords rolled inwards (starting with both 5th fingers and ending with the thumbs)?

Screen Shot 2016-07-07 at 08.55.58

For Mark Arnest’s research on this subject, follow this link to his paper “Why Couldn’t They Play With Their Hands Together?”

Supposing a chord seems unplayable but has no marking to spread it? Lots of Rachmaninov’s music seems unmanageable for players with small hands, but there are ways to negotiate it. Have you found some spreads impossible to play to your satisfaction? Often the solution lies in considering the following:

  • Does the spread start on or before the beat?
  • How do I coordinate the hands with the foot?
  • Is the spread fast or slow?
  • Do I spread the chord (one note after the after) or do I split or break it by playing some notes together then other(s) afterwards?

The secret is organisation – knowing what you are doing rather than leaving it to chance or hoping you’ll fudge it somehow.

Schumann’s Träumerei (from Kinderszenen) contains a few spread chords that players often don’t consider properly, either blurring the harmonies by not pedalling cleanly or breaking the line. Here is the first one, in bar 2.

Screen Shot 2016-07-07 at 08.37.46

The solution is surprisingly simple. Hold the pedal through bar 1 (as marked) to the first note of the spread (the B flat in small notation). As you change the pedal on the bass B flat, make sure to hold onto the top RH F (the second quaver of the first beat) until just after you put the pedal down again. You will have changed the harmony completely cleanly and there will be no gap or hiccup whatever in the melodic line.

Here is the video I made on the subject for Pianist Magazine, where I illustrate some of these examples.

For the Online Academy series on spread chords, click here

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