Fingering and technique in the 6th Movement


Due to a hard disk failure, the Movement 6 recordings I made in the spring are being redone from September,  and the time since has been valuable to reflect upon the approach to this extraordinary piano writing that I have taken.

The first edition score contains key directions for the pianist, but plenty of room for interpretation with the danger that the performer could forget about the overall indication of style from moment to moment when the texture needs to be maintained.

The technique appreciated for the performance of Ravel, Boulez, Liszt, Sorabji is also needed here for the lightness of touch that sustains a layer of bell like, legatissimo softness in the right hand (initially), alongside which the phrased melodic material can project. The composer indicates that there should be no crescendo in the groupetti layers, and this is the case everywhere except where the crescendo marks state.

The central section is divided into pairs of subsections that set up a kind of call and response, where the composer quotes earlier material from the sonata. The score indication is for a delicate sweetness, and after each response section, it is possible to use a short fermata to bring out the dramatic playfulness of the musical conversation. The rhythmic phrasing and staccato notes have to be full of clarity. A technical challenge in These passages is to play the trills in the left hand, without disturbance by the rhythmic diads also given to the left hand. A good deal of practice is needed, and in my case the right hand is used to assist with some of the seconds so as not to interrupt the trills for their full duration.

The image from the printed score shows part of this middle section including my added indication to use the right hand in the lower voice where necessary to maintain the evenness and technical independence of the trill. In fact for my smallish hands only the lower E flat is taken with the right hand, the G flat manageable with the left hand fifth finger while controlling the trill with thumb and second finger of course.

Tempi in 4 Recordings

Peter Maxwell Davies is himself a pianist, and although he has often written for outstanding musicians (most notably the legendary virtuoso, John Ogdon) it is safe to say that he carefully and purposefully marks his scores as he imagines they should sound. He also has a reputation of uncompromised expectations of his performers, and through writing such music as he does, extended technique evolves and is stretched to new levels. It is also true that tempo is just one musical means of many to an end, and the experience of the music as a whole is more important. The interpreter is wise to consider each indicated tempo, but more importantly understand the fuller aim of the composer. An interpretation will need to strike a balance between technical solutions, score directions, accuracy, and personal discoveries. I think the Italianate descriptors before each movement or section are key indicators of what the audience must hear. If a different tempo better expresses a cantabile, allegro Ma non troppo, or the rhythmic and textural clarity of the composition in the particular acoustic, with the particular instrument, then the choice should be sensitive to that.
It is useful to compare the recorded tempi with those indicated in the score in a general way, by measuring the durations of each interpretation, movement by movement. The measured duration of a movement is directly proportional to the tempi used, even though the two terms are not synonyms. All of these seven movements maintain a consistent divisor beat throughout (apart from a few specific rallentandi, pauses, introductions or codas). There is no supposition of a qualitative comparison to be drawn from the following table, but the approach of each pianist can be better understood with a comparison. The table shows the differences between a duration derived from the score indications (approximated due to a few rallentandi and short pauses), and the three commercial recordings and a privately recorded public performance of my own. Stephen Pruslin’s LP timings were measured during a transfer to tape.

The first observation is those durations I have calculated from the indicated markings.  The composer’s tempi are higher, not just as regards the ambitions of the two scherzo movements, (2 and 6) but in fact, for every movement, including the slower 3rd and 5th, where purely technical demands are not great. The final movement has such a quick indication in relation to every recording, that one wonders whether that speed could ever be attained and whether is even an ‘error’ by printer or composer. The dedicatee Stephen Pruslin follows a metronome mark much nearer to 60 than the indicated 160!

Relationships of tempi

I think that the more important observation is how the duration of movements relate to each other, and such proportional architecture is easy to visualise in the chart below. Every recording follows a similar pattern of these relationships, regardless that some have slower tempi in general e.g. Pruslin, and others quicker overall e.g. Holzman. There are some exceptions ro note which, interestingly, draw my attention to parts of the sonata where problems of interpretation are particularly apparent; with the fourth, central, tripartite ‘Cantabile con moto’ raising the most questions.

Of the four pianists it is only certain that Stephen Pruslin used a score (manuscript or fair copy) other than the first printed Edition, so it is quite possible the metronome marks were not already fixed, or were different. Furthermore as the dedicatee working closely with the composer Pruslin will have had opportunities to discuss the work in detail prior to his performances and recording.

More to follow…

Recordings of the Piano Sonata, by Peter Maxwell Davies

Apart from infrequent performances and broadcasts the way most listeners will have heard this music is more likely to be from one or more of the three released commercial albums. There is much to admire about each of these recordings, and personally I am keen to hear as many inerpretations as possible for myself. In about a year I hope my own studio recording will be available too! The release is likely to programme Maxwell Davies’ piece alongside Beethoven’s Sonata 31 in A flat major (opus 110) and Ravel’s Miroirs.

This post is therefore an opportunity for dialog about these existing recordings (and any others yet to be discovered)! Given or approximated timings for each movement are discussed in another post.  Where possible there are links to online sellers.


Stephen Pruslin  Auracle Records LP AUC 1005 (1982)




img_3236David Holzman, Centaur CRC 2102 (1993)


Richard Casey, Peter Maxwell Davies Piano Works 1949-2009 Prima Facie (2013)