Pianist Christina Kobb: Playing it 19th century style

Norwegian pianist explores technique and expression by using older performance methods

Virtually all classical pianists play 19th-century music, but because live recordings of early romantic music don’t exist, no one alive today really knows what 19th-century piano repertoire sounded like in 19th-century performances.

Christina Kobb might have a better idea than most. While studying at Cornell University in 2010, she came across 19th century piano pedagogy books that at first made her giggle because of how much their instructions differed from what Kobb, now Head of Theory at Barratt Due Institute of Music and a Ph.D candidate at the Norwegian Academy of Music, had been taught while growing up in Norway in the 1980s.

“What?” she thought. “I have university degrees in piano and I have never been taught to sit like this or hold my hands like this.” She said she at first dismissed these methodologies as merely cute, old-fashioned approaches. More important than physical approach, she thought, was the sound coming out of the instrument. But eventually she began to wonder: what if we are restricting ourselves to playing the piano based only on what we have been able to hear, what Kobb likes to call “gramophonic stereotypes”? What if by following 19th-century piano pedagogy methods, we are able to access the sound of that century and perhaps discover a more intimate musical connection? She decided to take a risk and try it out.

All Classical Portland and the Scandinavian Heritage Foundation invited Christina Kobb to present her findings through performance and lecture at Nordia House, the new Scandinavian cultural arts center in Southwest Portland.

Elbows in: Christina Kobb demonstrates 19th century piano posture. Photo:

Elbows in: Christina Kobb demonstrates 19th century piano posture. Photo: All Classical Portland.

During her lecture in Portland on Saturday, Kobb outlined the details of her technique and demonstrated 20th/21st century piano technique next to her 19th-century technique, what she calls “reconstructed piano technique.” Rolf Inge Godoy, a professor of musicology at the University of Oslo, recently measured the motion of her hands using optical motion capture and scientifically recorded the change in physical motion. You can read more about that research project in this recent New York Times article.

In Kobb’s Portland demonstration, the reconstructed technique helped her achieve a more fluid and free sound at the keyboard. She played Hummel’s E Major Etude, op. 125 first using the modern technique and then the reconstructed technique. Take one felt heavy, stilted, and stuck in the sludge of weighty arms. Take two felt less constrained and the music flowed not from her arms but from the deft action of her first and second finger joints.

Going home and playing through early Romantic works, I can produce both the weighty, sticky phrasing or the flowing, lighter phrasing using my imagination, albeit employing a more Philistine technique. Her presentation raised questions for me. How does my body motion enhance or detract from the sound I want? What kind of sound am I imagining for early Romantic piano works and how can I broaden this imagination? Does Kobb’s technique provide more breathing space for my musical imagination?

The Nitty Gritty Details

A significant factor in this reconstructed technique is the actual instrument being played. In the early 19th century there were two schools of piano manufacturers: English pianos and German/Viennese piano-fortes. The more resonant English pianos spanned eight octaves, had larger soundboards, and were built to be heard in large concert halls; think of the modern day Steinway. The German/Viennese piano-fortes were smaller, spanning only 5 or 6 octaves and produced drier, clearer, more bell-like tones. The lighter action of the Viennese pianofortes meant that pianists didn’t need to push into the keys to create sounds and could focus on speed and articulation instead. According to Kobb, Clara Schumann, who owned a Viennese piano-forte, complained of the English pianos requiring too much weight and physical effort to produce sound.

There seem to be three main aspects to Kobb’s reconstructed piano technique: the back, the elbows, and the hand.

  • The Back
    Sit straight. Position the neck directly over the shoulders and look at your music. Don’t hunch forward or crane your neck to peer down at the keys.
  • The Elbows
    Sit so that your elbows are above the plane of the keyboard and so that the forearms slope down to the keys. While playing keep the elbows close to your side and use as fulcrums from which the forearm moves to reach higher octaves.
  • The Hand: Wrist and Fingers
    With the elbows close to your body, your wrists will naturally angle outward, allowing the longer fingers (the ring and middle fingers) to reach away from the middle register of the keyboard to the outer keys. Move the fingers primarily from the second knuckle and not the top knuckle so that faster, lighter action is achieved instead of weightier, vertical motion.

The Performance Experience

On Friday night, All Classical Portland presented Christina Kobb in concert at the Scandinavian Heritage Foundation’s brand new cultural center Nordia House in southwest Portland. Two-century  old oak trees grace the property of this fabulous facility designed by Brian Melton of DiLoreto architecture. Gorgeous wooden doors carved by LeRoy Setziol greet every visitor, and the clean lines of slat-roof ceiling, expansive windows and tight-knot cedar siding lend wonderful acoustics to the Great Hall.

The first part of the program featured Oregon Symphony violinist and director of chamber music group 45th Parallel Greg Ewer with Florestan Trio pianist Janet Guggenheim performing works from the golden age of violin repertoire: Debussy’s violin sonata and two spicy works by Fritz Kreisler. Not unlike Kobb, Ewer (who has also performed with the period instrument Portland Baroque Orchestra) is also interested in the performance practices of earlier eras. “I was looking for more efficient ways to express music as it existed in my mind. I turned to early 20th century violin pedagogy for possible answers and found that in doing so, I was inadvertently learning about turn-of-the-century violin performance practice,” he told OAW. “Technique is a means to an end. Once I solve the technical challenges of a piece, the realms of emotion and imagination are much more readily accessible.” Warm, juicy, seemingly effortless, this part of the program was pure ear candy.

The second part of the program featured Christina Kobb performing works by Grieg, Tellefsen, and Chopin. Unfortunately, she was playing on a Grotrian modern grand piano and the techniques she employed, while beautiful to observe (one audience member loudly whispered admiration for Kobb’s hands), did not create captivating sounds on this piano. While scalar passages, like in the Adagio of Tellefesen’s Sonata, Opus 13, floated beautifully back and forth between the hands, it was very difficult to know where the phrases wanted to go or how the characters of the piece were evolving, particularly in Chopin’s scherzo where the mischievous and dangerous imp of a theme is supposed to frolic through various settings of celebration, contemplation, and trickery. I don’t know if the musical ineffectiveness should be blamed more on stilted interpretation or on the 21st-century instrument, which requires modern techniques to navigate its heavier action.

Despite these frustrations, the audience seemed to love the experience and Kobb responded with an encore of Schumann’s Träumerei (Dreaming). Several audience members enjoyed the opportunity of talking extensively with Kobb after the performance while enjoying the reception. Broder Söder, the southwest sister of Portland’s popular Swedish restaurant, conveniently resides in Nordia House, and chef Sonny DeMartini provided a beautiful reception of Scandinavian-inspired cured beef, pickled vegetables and fruits, cheeses and a zesty mustard to complement open-faced finger sandwiches on Vollenkornbrot.

Overall, Kobb’s contribution to the weekend provoked a fascinating discussion about the relation between technique and expression. Every musician is striving to discover freedom in his or her sound; the risk and bravery involved in research and experimentation of sound execution is necessary in order to discover new realms of musical expression. I expect that as Kobb continues to research and apply her techniques to her performance practice she will find that sweet space where her technique, her instrument, and her expression blossom into a cohesive performance — maybe in time for her 2016 Carnegie debut.

Jana Griffin is a piano teacher living in Portland.

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