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Legato Octaves

Question: In bars 5-7 of the Capriccio in D minor by Brahms, the right hand is supposed to play legato octaves (the melody) while holding down a middle voice as well. How can you create this smooth legato effect at a presto energico tempo without the use of the pedal? Thanks for your advice in advance.

Albert’s reply: You’re referring to the opening of Op. 116, No. 1:

 

Brahms Capriccio in D minor, Op. 116, No. 1

I’ve highlighted the relevant section in red. I should first point out that it’s absolutely proper to use the pedal in this passage; I don’t think this passage would sound convincing without any sustaining pedal.

That said, I do recommend practicing it without pedal much of the time. Mozart’s student Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) called the pedal the “Sündendecker” (the “sin coverer”) for its ability to cover up problems that should be resolved by the fingers. This passage is one such problem.

There are primarily two ways to address this passage. The first is by playing the top voice legato. It’s not possible to play both voices of an octave passage legato, at least not with one hand. The top voice is usually played as smoothly connected (legato) as possible.

This solution works well in this passage, especially when the pedal is pressed together with the first chord in each group (the sforzato chords) and gradually released with subsequent octaves. Assuming your hands are large enough, I recommend playing the held (middle) note with finger 2, and fingering the top voice 5, 4, 3.

This doesn’t work in all such situations. When playing an extended octave passage, sooner or later it will be impossible to play a perfect legato even in one voice.

This leads to a second possible solution. Try articulating both voices of the octave evenly. This means playing only as legato in one voice as you can play in the other. Similarly, it means that the passage as a whole should be evenly articulated.

If you listen to Chopin’s “grandpupil” Raoul von Koczalski playing Chopin’s “Octave” Etude, Op. 25, No. 10, you’ll discover that he does exactly this. Even where it’s possible to connect notes, he chooses to articulate all the notes evenly rather than disrupt the line:

Both solutions are valid options, though I recommend the first for this passage.