Piano versus violin: the eternal battle to be the dominant player




The thought-provoking talk on February 10th was given by Keith Pascoe, second violinist of the Vanbrugh Quartet, in connection with tomorrow night’s violin and piano recital by Ray Chen and Julien Quentin. Pascoe came up with a great title, David and Goliath, The Ballet of Unequals: A Stradivari and Model D Steinway Recital. Using videos from YouTube as illustrations (which unfortunately allowed in snippets of a couple of unwanted advertisements), Pascoe began at the beginning, with the emergence of the piano and violin as instruments in their own right, and traced some of the changes they have both undergone in the centuries since.

The piano has become bigger, stronger and louder. Not only were extra notes added to the keyboard, but the early wooden frames were replaced with cast iron. The violin may not have grown externally, but the shape of the body was remoulded, the neck and fingerboard realigned, and internal buttressing extended, all with the intention of producing greater sound.

What composers did with the combination of violin and piano – and before that, violin and harpsichord – changed too. In the typical baroque violin sonata, the violin was to the fore. In the classical era, the roles were reversed, although this reversal has long been dishonoured by performers. And in the 19th century, the balance as we know it today began to take hold. That balance usually presents the two performers in a master-servant relationship, the violinist usually the boss whose bidding is carried out by the pianist.

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