In a discussion on legato, a contributor to Piano Forum opined that she didn’t accept the notion that the piano is a
percussive instrument. This is like not accepting the notion that the earth is round. I have my faults, certainly, but I’ve learned to accept and deal with the laws of physics. When my head stopped spinning I thought to myself, well, she is probably lost in that world where we artistic types often go, the world of wishful thinking. I responded: “My piano has hammers that strike strings. What does your piano have?” I heard back: "Good point. My piano has a choir inside, with an organ to accompany it. Sounds like yours has a wrecking crew. What the heck, to each his own." This was a good response, I thought, and quite funny. And food for thought.
That writer has identified the place where opinion and fact collide. Or to put it in more useful terms, where imagery and practice collide. On the one hand, imagery is great. It can help us to conceptualize a desired result and for some pianists, some of the time, that may be enough. But if it isn't enough, what then? For me, knowledge wins out over fancy; I want to know how.
Legato on the piano is an illusion at best because the piano is a percussive instrument. Some of the advice offered in the forum discussion was right on the money, i.e., a finger legato is about over-holding until the next note is depressed. There is another important factor, though, and that is how the finger connects with the key. For a finger legato, always play from the key, not from above the key. This cushions the attack and makes the connections seem more legato. Since "quality is determined by the number and prominence of overtones," the faster you strike the key, the more the upper, more dissonant partials are set in motion, making an even more percussive sound. Isn’t physics a great science?
Consider playing succeeding notes in or under the decay of the preceding note. This will give a very nice
simulation of legato; it also implies a dimenuendo, which may not be called for. In any case, take care to consider where in the phrase hierarchy each succeeding note belongs. After a long melodic note, for example, listen well to how the phrase continues. Does the phrase require a new impetus? Or should it sound like a continuation of the long note? Is the phrase rising dynamically or falling? Music is not a democracy; not every note gets an equal vote.
Finally, perhaps more importantly, it's the legato pedal, sometimes referred to as syncopated pedal, that needs particular attention. The pedal gives us the ability to over-hold a particular note while moving away from it, thus creating a sense of legato. The way in which the key is depressed is still important. With the pedal down, strike the next note with just enough weight to override the reverberating sound, to give the illusion of connectedness, the new note floating above the din.
Another contributor to the forum remarked, somewhat haphazardly, that everyone plays legato all the time and it isn’t necessary to practice it particularly. He maintained, “if it isn’t legato, it’s staccato.” At first I opted to let this go as, well, sloppy thinking, but it began to eat away at me.
Does everyone play legato all the time, even in Czerny studies (shudder), as he says? We know that up to Mozart’s time the default articulation was detached, changing with Beethoven, who reportedly quipped that “Mozart’s playing sounded like so many chickens dancing on the keys.” Since Beethoven’s time pianists have worked to develop a singing style, a legato touch. I think here the operative word is worked. I decided that arbitrarily putting one finger down after another thoughtlessly won’t necessarily produce the illusion of legato. It’s important to consider 1) over-holding slightly; 2) the manner of attack, i.e., from the key, not from above; 3) where the note comes in the musical hierarchy of the phrase; 4) how to use the pedal.
Armed with this information, when imagery isn't sufficient, we can perhaps use the laws of physics to our advantage and bring that world of wishful thinking closer to a musical reality.