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Playing a Sibelius Symphony on the Piano

You might remember my friend and woodwind extraordinary Michael A Grant, composer of 'Miniatures for Piano' that was released earlier this year?

Well, in spite of him being a masterful wind player, he has once again turned his sympathy towards the black and white keys of the piano and, less created a masterpiece than...adapted one.

That masterpiece was Symphony No. 3 in C Major, by none other than Jean Sibelius.

And as anyone who knows anything about symphonies will tell you, they tend to be orchestral!

Yet Michael has taken on (and successfully achieved, I might add) the bold challenge of transcribing an entire orchestral symphony for a piano. Something that is no mean feat, I can assure you. Aside from having to condense orchestration in such a way that impact is not lost yet the piece is achievable by the performer (remember pianists usually only have the two hands), the piano works in fundamentally different ways to almost every instrument in the orchestra, and so clever technique has to be employed.

Michael asked me to record for promotional purposes a video of me performing the first 36 bars of the second movement: "Andantino Con Moto, Quasi Allegretto", and here's what I managed to pull together for him;

So how did I ensure I got the best performance that I could?

Aside from plenty of practice before the take, read on...

Holding Notes Down

The first thing that is true of a piano that is not true of literally any orchestral instrument (except the harp, if you wish to count that) is that it does not have the ability to hold a note down as what is called a 'pedal' note. That is, an indefinitely long note that does not diminish in volume. As soon as you strike a piano key, the note starts to fade away. It's just the nature of the striking action.

Often you'll see orchestral interpretations rely on 'tremolo' technique to counteract this. This is when you play two of the same note one octave apart, but in rapid succession. It is particularly effective in bass notes in the left hand as it gives a false but effective impression of the note being indefinitely long. However, it only really shines through in passages of music that are both

  • quick and

  • loud

...and I dare say this passage is neither.

Therefore, it is of the utmost importance to ensure that we give each note at the beginning of the movement its fully intended finger depression. This way, the notes will at least ring out for as long as they possibly can. You'll see my fingers swapping between each other on those long notes at the beginning, and this is to ensure that I don't let them go. Sure, the pedal would do the job too, but that would do the job for all notes - including the medley that I wanted to slur nicely, but not sustain.

Slightly Splayed 'Staccato' Notes

Composers who orchestrate music vs. the same composers who write music for piano write very differently depending. You can create colours galore from the piano, but the stark contrast between the palette available to you in the orchestra is so tempting that things are interjected and given full change to shine on their own.

This is true of Sibelius' use of pizzicato strings near the beginning of the passage - before the woodwinds come in as in the original orchestration and take the magical melody, the pedal notes are broken up by some very slow but very definite plucks.

It is very difficult to get across any type of interpretation for solo piano whereby this sounds like it's supposed to be a different voice, even though it doesn't necessarily bear any resemblance to the melody itself. However, I always feel that pizzicato strings can best be achieved by slightly splaying them (upwards). For example, each hand takes three rising notes near the beginning of the piece. If the lower one can be offset ever so slightly before the higher one, it creates a much more magical effect that just playing both together.

Don't Ignore Tenuto and Staccato

It is very easy when attempting to play a piano transcription of a fully orchestral score to play it in such a way that would be much more logical for a piano.

Certain bars in this transcription required tenuto notes to be played above staccato notes in the same hands. This makes a lot of sense when orchestrating, as it may be that the winds, for example, can hold some chordal notes on between them whilst underneath, maybe some strings take the staccato (or pizzicato) notes. And it would sound lovely.

Yet it can be tempting for the pianist to not acknowledge these lengths fully. Perhaps to even ignore them. I felt it important for the fluidity of the piece anywhere, even when I played it through first time having not cross referenced against the original orchestration, that all notes were held on for their notated value (where possible), as there are plenty of times within the music whereby not doing would create a one voice effect.

For example, holding on minims in the right hand whilst alternating crotchets play also in the right hand can be misconstrued as not holding the minims on and letting go, giving more a one voice crotchet feel. Yet keeping those notes held on give much more an impression that there are more voices, and needless to say we need to keep as many of these voices honoured in a piano transcription.

Conductor's Rhythmic Interpretation

Us pianists kind of get away with murder anyway. That is, solo pianists.


Because so much music is open to our own interpretation and we can do it how we like. The piano is such a powerful solo instrument that us performers can get caught up in feeling the music to such a point that it doesn't necessarily flow.

However, orchestral music sort of has to.

Granted, there is a conductor at the front of an orchestra who keeps everything in check, but nothing is random. Everything flows perfectly with an orchestra. I tried to imagine that either I myself was conducting or that somebody was conducting me.

And trying to ensure that I kept up with it!

This piece definitely didn't beg for rigidity or strict tempo, but at the same time I didn't want to get too caught up in 'feeling it' if it didn't sound like it would do if an orchestra were performing.

Ease off on the Pedal

This relates entirely to the first point - holding notes on. You know I'm a sucker for correct pedal use anyway, but it has to be said that this is of extra importance here.

The melody needs to be clear and really needs very, very little (if any) pedal use to capture its magic. Too much and it would all become too muddy, and my carefully planned tenuto vs. staccato and carefully choreographed held notes would pale into insignificance.

So whilst I did use it, I just had to be careful not to overuse it!

Visit Michael's website where you can Purchase a copy of the score or download a PDF and get playing Sibelius yourself!


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