Petite Suite, No. 7 (b):
Scherzo in A flat major
Original recording by Ricardo Viñes:
My recreated performance:
The recreating experience
Ricardo Viñes was a passionate advocate of Russian music and is known to have presented several new works at the Les Apache gatherings, occasionally performing four-hand transcriptions of larger works together with Maurice Ravel. Although Ricardo Viñes had an extensive repertoire, the list of recorded pieces is dominated by contemporary Spanish and South American composers. Alexander Borodin is one of the exceptions and the only piece of a Russian composer Viñes is known to have ever recorded.
The biggest challenge with recreating the Scherzo was to imitate the very light but sparkling touch of Viñes’s playing together with a rich use of the sustain pedal. Having practiced the piece for some time and reached the tempo of Viñes, I couldn’t closely enough imitate the sound of the recording. In my approach, I was too occupied with playing every note precisely, and my arms were too heavy to imitate the seemingly “elevated,” light touch of Viñes. I experimented for some time and eventually found that the solution was to sit a little higher on my piano bench, and to play more detaché. When I combined this with a much richer use of the sustain pedal than I would normally choose, my playing started to resemble that of Viñes. There is an almost constant use of the sustain pedal in this piece, but rapid pedal shifts of 1/3 or ¼ makes it possible to project a lasting reverb effect without “muddying” the harmonies – as if I played very staccato in a grand hall with a long reverb. The most difficult aspect of achieving this “Viñes sonority” was that I had to sacrifice a lot of control that would normally come from firm finger playing deep into the keys. This more vertical “detaché approach” felt “sloppy” and “uncontrolled” to begin with, but became more refined in collaboration with the pedals.
Another important factor in the recreating of this piece was to very slightly “dislocate” the hands. The tempo in the Scherzo is so rapid that it was difficult to say for sure whether Viñes is constantly delaying the melody after the accompaniment in the way he so often does in other pieces. In the meno mosso section however (bars 58-59), there is no doubt that he does delay the melody; in fact, he also alternates this practice between the hands when the melody shifts from one to the other. On the first note this delay is very clear, but the practice becomes subtler during the two bars and is almost inaudible at the end. Inspired by this, I started to practice the piece from the beginning very slowly with an exaggerated use of “dislocation” (much like I did in the beginning of the Tango by Albéniz). I made this “dislocation” increasingly more subtle as I gradually increased the tempo in my practice. At full tempo, it was now almost inaudible, but my sound had dramatically changed. I now felt that I was more able to reproduce the “clarity” of Viñes’s very light sound, while also keeping a very clear and articulated melody line which was distinctly separated from the accompaniment in the sonority. This was an important realization and I found that these extremely subtle “dislocations” in a high tempo could help to produce clarity in the polyphony. This means that in this context, “dislocation” could be applied as a tool in the practicing process, and therefore it does not need to be confined to “romantic” piano playing. Because the dislocation between the hands is more gestural than literal in this piece, I have not marked this in the annotated score, except in the aforementioned meno mosso section, where the practice is evident.
Although the timing of Viñes in this piece is somewhat flexible, it is far from the extreme contrasts we find in other pieces. There is some rushing and slowing down, but the general direction of his tempo is fast and forward moving. I found it to be fascinating that Viñes manages to maintain this constant “propelling energy” throughout the piece.
Comparison to other recordings
In Vladimir Ashkenazy’s recording, the main tempo is clearly faster than in Viñes's. Ashkenazy chooses to emphasize the bass notes on every third beat in the 12/8 time signature. This gives the piece a clear feeling of four beats in a very steady tempo. This feeling of four would in the case of Viñes have been counter-effective to his slightly rushed “forward-moving” propelling effect, which has a feeling of longer lines, rather than a firm beat. There are certainly sparks of energy in Ashkenazy’s performance, but I find that the very accentuated way of playing in Ashkenazy’s playing gives the piece a “march-like” character and thus very much a bar-by-bar kind of phrasing. Viñes plays slower, but in my view still manages to play rhythmically in longer lines. In bars 27 and 28, Ashkenazy plays an A natural instead of the indicated A sharp.
The recording of Marco Rapetti is also generally faster than Viñes’s performance. Where Ashkenazy plays in a rather strict tempo throughout the piece, Rapetti has a slightly more flexible approach. He also plays very slowly at the meno mosso section. Although not quite as accentuated as Ashkenazy, Rapetti tends to “linger” on the bass notes, often making the first beat of the bar slightly tenuto. This creates a subtle restrained tension in the general tempo and is therefore a contrast to Viñes’s more “forward-moving” approach.
Of all these recordings, no one has a more flexible timing than Sergei Rachmaninov. According to the CHARM database, Rachmaninov recorded this Borodin piece in 1935, only five years later than Viñes. This, as well as the fact that Rachmaninov was born only two years before Viñes, makes comparing these recordings interesting. Rachmaninov sets a rather slow tempo in the first bar, but picks up the pace when the main theme is presented. The fastest of the tempos in his range of rubato is certainly the fastest in this comparison. Although Rachmaninov has a wider and more extensive use of rubato, he is like Viñes very consistent in how he uses it. Rachmaninov is, unlike what we hear in the modern recordings, balancing the use of rushing and slowing down. Also, like Viñes he has a constant “forward-moving” direction. There is in my opinion a rhetorical quality in the “tenuto-feeling” he makes in the middle of the phrases. With Rachmaninov’s tendency of rushing after these “landings” in the middle of the phrase, I would argue that the “rubber ball principle” in Viñes’s timing is a good metaphor for Rachmaninov’s playing in this piece as well. His sound is also very much like with Viñes's - “elevated” and light, but with a sparkling quality. Based on my experience from the recreating process, I would suspect that Rachmaninov is using a similar kind of vertical detaché-like technical approach, closely linked with an extensive use of the sustain pedal, much like Viñes.
Although the comparison between these three recordings and that of Viñes are by no means comprehensive, if seen in relation to the other comparisons I make between modern-day and historical recordings throughout these chapters, it remains quite clear also here that we can distinguish between the historical and modern-day recordings. These key differences do not in my opinion lie in the one-or-off realm, especially where the use of practices such as rubato or “dislocated attacks” is concerned, it’s how these effects are used, and in the historical recordings there seems to be a coherent logic to this.
 Borodin, Alexander, Scherzo in A-flat major for piano solo, played by Vladimir Ashkenazy. Vladimir Ashkenazy: Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition / Tchaikovsky: Dumka / Taneyev: Prelude & Fugue / Liadov: A Musical Snuff-Box / Borodin: Scherzo, Decca/London, 1983. YouTube, accessed on November 2, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IyRUgfDwf80
 Borodin, Alexander, Scherzo in A-flat major for piano solo, played by Marco Rapetti. Marco Rapetti: Borodin: Complete Piano Music, Brilliant Classics, 2013. YouTube, accessed on November 2, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=06ZX2BAunn0
 Borodin, Alexander, Scherzo in A-flat major for piano solo, played Sergei Rachmaninov. Sergei Rachmaninov: Piano Solo Recordings, Vol. 2, Naxos, 2011. YouTube, accessed on November 2, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MimBUKTsfHM