I am currently doing some research on the Commedia dell’arte movement and its development from sixteenth century Italy, which over time spread across Europe. With its gradual diaspora it developed within each region, altering certain details to be relevant to their own cultures. John Rudlin’s Commedia dell’arte: an actor’s handbook goes into the minutest detail of each character, its history, development of personality and other details to bring Commedia alive to the actor studying it – and to guide the performer to consequently bring it to life for the audience.
When talking about the quasi improvisatory nature of the interaction between the Masks, Rudlin comments with regards to something I believe is present in the performance and practice of any collaborative work. He says,
“The Commedia actor never works alone. His virtuoso excursions must never proceed from his own ego. There must be a constant awareness of the whole. He must know and understand his partners, balancing and contrasting them, working together with such sensitivity and unity that we are caught up in their game before we know what has happened.”
As a collaborative pianist this paragraph jumped out at me as I find that this is particularly the case when playing piano quintets. The string quartet is such a close knitted form of matrimony that as the fifth wheel to the cart (playing an instrument that is powerful by nature) it is important to know one’s place – when to tread carefully and when to be courageous. The awareness of each other is in the nature of chamber music. The balance shifts from person to person within the ensemble and when all is going well, I do find that there is a joint listening within the ensemble.
I do find from time to time that the pianist is expected to be on the ball for most of the time, doing most of the alert accommodation of the rest of the ensemble. I wonder how much it has to do with the fact that the pianist usually is the only one in the ensemble usually to have a complete score and therefore being able to see everybody’s part. At times when things are turning confusing, I have regularly had a violinist peak over my shoulder to make sense of the complete texture. As the sort of satelite navigator on these musical journeys the great challenge for the pianist is to balance the role of keeping everything together and balancing the piano’s prominence as required by the piano part.