Directing from the Keyboard

The art of directing from the keyboard is as ancient as the pieces for which it is nowadays applied. The idea is that the soloist communicates directly with the musicians of the orchestra without going through another medium. This encourages players to listen more attentively and respond as if they were playing chamber music. However, directing from the keyboard is not as straightforward. It requires the skills of a conductor in order to convey the messages fully and the ability to multitask, with eye contact and the use of the head often employed when the pianist is busy playing.

I have been directing from the keyboard for over 40 years now and the way in which I have approached the practice has changed with experience. Rather than switching from one role to another, I try to integrate both, allowing musicians to follow with reduced hand gestures, more eye contact and bodily movement.

One of the earlier exponents of the art in modern times was the Swiss pianist Edwin Fischer. In one of his essays, Alfred Brendel praises Fischer’s slow movement of Bach’s C major Concerto for Three Pianos for its perfect unity.

The great Mozartian Géza Anda committed to disc the entire cycle of the Mozart Concerti directing from the keyboard the Camerata Academica des Salzburger Mozarteums. These recordings are revered today as much as they were when they were first released on the DG label back in the early sixties for their sublime beauty, elegance and simplicity. I remember as a teenager listening to K. 456, a work not as frequently performed, and admiring the sheer beauty of sound and graceful phrasing of both the soloist and the orchestra under Anda’s masterful direction.

Murray Perahia’s approach has been to experiment in rehearsals and try out various ways of phrasing leading to performances and recordings of great intelligence which avoid to state the obvious. His recording of Mozart’s K. 491 is a supreme example of beautifully nuanced playing from both him and the ECO.

András Schiff uses few gestures, allowing his players to perform as chamber music partners. He places the piano in a position customary to that of a soloist with conductor, and allows the leader to take charge in ensuring precision from all involved. His Bach recordings are exemplary in portraying true leadership.

I have also been listening to Rudolph Buchbinder directing and playing Beethoven concerti with the Vienna Philharmonic and was taken aback by the sheer mastery of his playing. This is wholesome Beethoven of the kind rarely encountered these days. Like Schiff, he places the piano as normal for a piano concerto and allows the leader to assist in maintaining taut ensemble.

I remember talking to Vladimir Ashkenazy soon after his first experience directing from the keyboard. He was amazed at how little the orchestra required him to do to get the ensemble perfectly together in Mozart’s K.467. His recording on Decca of the complete concerti with the Philharmonia shows him in total control of his art.

Tamas Vasary was a great Chopin interpreter. During his tenure as of the Northern Sinfonia he recorded both Chopin Concerti. Without a conductor in the way, the poetry of his playing is directly communicated to the players who respond admirably.

I have also enjoyed self-direct performances by conductors who mainly occupy the podium but are also excellent instrumentalists such as Leonard Bernstein and Andre Previn.

In 1984, I attempted what many thought would be an impossible task, that of directing Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind from the keyboard, in a recording with the RPO released on the Hyperion label and now available on the Oxford Phil label. The rhythmic impulses that emanated from the keyboard and which had to be strong to do justice to the music, were powerful enough to induce and propel the musicians to follow. At the time, they were pleased that they were put on their toes!

Daniel Barenboim, an artist who is equally at home in both roles, presented the entire cycle of the Mozart concerti at the South Bank in the late 60s and then recorded them for EMI. They remain today landmark recordings of an artist whose conducting skills and pianistic prowess help to unite the performances into an integrated whole. How can one shape or pace a slow movements in Mozart’s K. 482 or Beethoven’s 4th without having the skills of a trained and experienced conductor?

Speaking on Classic FM recently, Barenboim dismissed the ‘player-conductor’ concept when undertaken by non professional conductors: “they call it ‘play and conduct’. They don’t. They play without a conductor.” I fully subscribe to his point of view.