My second article on touch has just been published by Pianist Magazine. When I was first commissioned to write a series of three articles on touch, dealing with legato and staccato in the first one was relatively straightforward. However, the subsequent article on non-legato touches was rather more challenging and I found myself getting lost in semantics, particularly over the distinction between portato and portamento.
You Say “Portato“…
These two terms are often confused with each other, but only by pianists! Portamento means to glide between two pitches (similar to a glissando, but with all the intermediate pitches). This is the domain of singers, string and (sometimes) wind players and is clearly not possible on the piano. Pianists do sometimes use the term portamento when they might more accurately call it portato, the literal meaning of which is “carried” (implying the notes should be sustained, lengthened, and drawn out). Again, this means to play halfway between staccato and legato, and is indicated by staccato dots under a slur, or by staccato dots under tenuto markings.
You might think of this touch as a sticky staccato which is both non-staccato and non-legato, best realised by separate arm strokes for each note, through a loose and flexible wrist. The use of the wrist to add drag to the release of each key is very appropriate with this touch. Depending on the context, the notes may be played legato (but using separate arm strokes) or the notes may be slightly separated. This notation also has connotations of playing the notes freely, with rubato, or even rather slowly and drawn out, and the effect of portato in a melodic line is to communicate serious and expressive emotions.
The Pedal And Staccato
A vital thing to remember about the piano is that the ear can absolutely perceive staccato whether the pedal is up or down. This may sound surprising, but it is so! Staccato should not always be thought of in literal terms (namely a gap in sound between the notes), but rather as a type or quality of touch. If I were to play staccato in a cathedral, say, you would still perceive this as staccato even though the acoustical properties of the building would cause the sounds to live on and to blend together. It is the touch that determines the sound, irrespective of our pedalling. We use the pedal to add resonance and blend layers of sound together.