105 • Bel Canto on the piano: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The art of Bel Canto on the piano is a magical skill, a rare achievement, one of the last secrets of the great romantic pianists. Bel Canto needs sublime control of the key and sound; fluid and caressing movements; perfect, almost overlapping legato; a cornucopia of overtones ranging from murmuring parlando to iridescent vibrato; a domineering diva for a right hand and a shy and submissive maestro for the left.

For the melody to sing in Bel Canto style, the timing of counterpoint and attention to bass line have to be sacrificed. In order to sing Bel Canto, one bends all forms to the whim of the melody.

Great for much of Liszt, Chopin, or Rachmaninoff.

Not so good for Beethoven, Brahms, or Berg.

Quite terrible for Mozart, Ravel, or Stravinsky.

That intoxicating distortion is only appropriate for a fraction of the repertoire. All the rest of music needs constant attention to at least two voices; Melody and Bass line. Most music should be played with a singing, dynamically connected tone, but that must include imitating the art song voice, the classical aria, the string quartet, string sections, winds, and even some brass. And in both hands.

In the worst case you will witness the misuse of ugly, i.e. exaggerated and inappropriate, Bel Canto - cantato stronzato - and in the wrong repertoire. An unfortunate and fundamental misunderstanding of stylistic sense and artistic sensibility.


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