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David Helbock: Pianist

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David Helbock: Musician and Pianist
David Helbock by Stephan Diethelm
It’s not really difficult to imagine that the piano is only 3016 years old. After all very little by way of musical invention has taken place since Bartolomeo Christofori created the first three pianos during the 1720’s. Or has it really? Perhaps it pays to listen to the purists who seem to have dismissed out of hand early attempts to defile the piano even as the French composer Maurice Delage (1879-1961) wrote his Ragamalika (1912-22), which called for a piece of cardboard to be placed under the B-flat in the second line of the bass clef to dampen the sound, imitating the sound of an Indian drum. Then, in 1922, Henry Cowell (1897-1965) developed “string” techniques for playing the piano in his pieces Aeolian Harp (1923) and The Banshee (1925), which involved having the pianist reach inside the piano and pluck, sweep, scrape, thump, and otherwise manipulate the strings directly, rather than using the keyboard.

As if that were not enough in Brasil there was the Brasilian Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) who created Chôros No. 8, his 1925 work for two pianos and large orchestra, adding to his score instructions that the pianist had insert pieces of paper between the strings and the hammers to attain a certain sonority. And then there is John Cage and his celebrated “prepared piano” employed to play his Sonatas and Interludes (1938), that took the first major step in revolutionising the instrument when he “prepared” 45 of its 88 keys, mostly using screws and various types of bolts, but also with fifteen pieces of rubber, four pieces of plastic, several nuts and one eraser. Still, all of this was about attempting to change the construction of the piano in order to change the way music played on it would sound. In Cage’s case he needed the piano to sound like the whole percussion ensemble that could not be accommodated on stage and it did. How can one ignore that? Still…

In 2014, writing booklets notes for his ambitious album What Becomes (Harmonia Mundi), the Austrian pianist Thomas Larcher said the following: “As a composer, I had wanted for a long time to get away from the piano’s natural sound. This was in part due to the fact that I’d had this sound in my ears every day since my earliest childhood with all the intensity that marks a musician’s relationship to his instrument. Over time, I associated this sound more and more directly with a sense of something worn out, obsolete, at a dead-end. The instrument, for me, was dead, relegated to a position outside the stream of music’s development. Rachmaninov’s Third and Bartók’s Second Piano Concertos represent for me the last authentic high points in which statement, form, and virtuosity are still coherent, in which traditional pianistic methods are still used to say something new.” I am struck, as I read (and quote) Thomas Larcher, by how preposterous and ignorant of history his remarks sound.

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