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Piano is not my main instrument, but I have always been taught that the same rhythms should always sound together. In other words, if both hands play on the downbeat of the measure, both hands should sound simultaneously as opposed to one hand playing slightly earlier or later. The same also applies to harmonies within a single hand: you wouldn’t play your thumb and pinky together but wait a millisecond for your middle finger to join in.
And yet I’ve been finding more and more examples of pianists not doing this. Consider the following example from Chopin’s famous E-minor prelude:
Now consider the following recording of Cortot playing this piece. He rolls some of his left hand chords on beat 1, but pay special attention to his beat fours: the right hand more often than not articulates after the left hand.
I typically find this in older recordings, but not always; you can even sense some of it in a recent recording by Daniil Trifonov, who occasionally plays the right hand slightly before the left hand.
Is there a name to this type of playing? Is it perhaps indicative of a particular era or performance tradition (i.e., a Russian style, etc.)?
Aha, I’ve found the answer:
Asynchrony is a general term which is used to describe playing notes in a separated or not-quite-together fashion where they are written as if they should normally be played at the same time in the score, for example a chord to which an arpeggiation is applied, or a left-hand bass note and right-hand melody note both written on the same beat but actually played with one hand being placed slightly before the other.
It is apparent on many early recordings made of pianists who were born in the nineteenth century and has been the subject of detailed analysis in recent years (see Peres Da Costa’s ‘Off the Record’ cited in the bibliography). It is an area of performance practice that I find personally very interesting for its role in some of the most exquisite and in other instances most eccentric-seeming performances recorded by such artists. By incorporating it into my own playing I have found it of great effectiveness in realising the music of Chopin in particular.
Chopin as Heard: Asynchrony – An Introductory Case Study
So now here’s the resource that my impression of arpeggio rubato is more than only speculation:
Mark Arnest says in his paper
Why Couldn’t They Play With Their Hands Together?
Noncoordination Between and Within the Hands in 19th Century Piano Interpretation
The romantic pianism of a century ago differed from today’s more sober approach in nearly every respect – including attitude towards the text, tempo flexibility, agogic modifications, and even voicing. But no aspect jumps out at a listener more than the noncoordination of the hands: The older pianists don’t keep their hands consistently together.
This noncoordination was an almost universal feature of earlier pianism. A study of recordings and piano rolls by 118 pianists born between 1824 and 1880 shows that all but one engaged in the practice so some degree.
And he explains why they did it:
The purpose of noncoordination was to characterize the music, generally by heightening the expression and clarifying the rhythmic structure.
and referring to Malwine Brée, “The Groundwork of the Leschetizky Method,” Haskell House, Arnest quotes:
Neither should bass tone and melody-note always be taken precisely together, but the melody note may be struck an instant after the bass, which gives it more relief and a softer effect.
“More relief” suggests a musical accent; “a softer effect” could refer to either or both of two things: the acoustic phenomenon in which higher notes appear in the overtone sequence of lower ones, or the idea of rhythmic pulse.
and he names 5 reasons for this practice in the Romantic era like
and what they did:
Noncoordination as a Form of Tempo Rubato
for further reading:
A form of rubato. More specifically ‘playing behind the beat’. Jazz pianist Errol Gardner did something rather similar when he ‘…developed a signature style that involved his right hand playing behind the beat while his left strummed a steady rhythm and punctuation’. Though in the Chopin there’s flexibility of rhythms in both hands, the LH ‘beat-keeping’ isn’t all that strict either! Not uncommon in playing Romantic piano music.
I agree with Laurence “rubato” but I would even go further and say “arpeggio rubato”. One typical feature of preludes is – if not a toccato style – the arpeggio triads.
We know the piano reduction of Bachs preludes notated in block chords.
So I could imagine that these performers are applying to the block chords of eighth notes a certain kind of arpeggio playing. Pure speculation!
Thesis: “24 Preludes Copin op. 28” (M.A. Meier)
Cosmo Buono writes here:
The overall mood of the piece is reflective and even tragic and angry. One way to infuse the piece with emotion and intrigue is to use a great deal of tempo rubato; this approach also prevents the constant eighth note rhythm of the left hand from becoming too predictable.
In many genres of music, it is common to have a soloist perform rhythms rather loosely while the backing musicians follow the noted rhythms rather closely. Because the piano is a polyphonic instrument, it is common for one performer to combine the roles of both a soloist and a backing musician, and thus play some notes with freer rhythms than others.
An important thing to note if one tries to do this, however, is that successfully pulling it off generally requires more skill than playing straightforwardly. By way of analogy, some skilled bakers manage to produce “topsy-turvy” cakes where the layers are tilted at weird angles to yield a whimsical quality that is aesthetically pleasing, but when unskilled bakers try to do the same thing their cakes just look sloppy.
Harmony consist of 4 voices, the upper voice (soprano) should prevail over the others in order to project the melody, in piano technique this is accomplished by deliver extra pressure to the finger that carry the upper note. When we hear Triffonov performance it is played correctly,(together), however, in the Cortot recording you hear Rubato in the right hand in other words the upper note is played after the chord it is not my preference, why did Cortot played like that? probably he liked it and took some liberties.
As to why they are doing it, per the title of your question: compare your example to a very straightforward performance (e.g.,
) – there is very little rubato here, and almost no asynchrony. I wouldn’t say it sounds bad, but it seems to be much less complex and interesting than the recordings you brought up.
Especially for nocturnes and generally Chopin’s emotionally laden works, Cortot’s rendition seems almost superhumanly suspenseful. You could imagine it as foreground music to the most intense key scene in a Hitchcock thriller. Everytime he plays asynchronous, your mind involuntarily is reminded that something is wrong, and looking for resolution. Masterful.