Monday, July 30, 2012

A pianist's call to arms

      The other night I heard a virtuosic, energetic and amazingly accurate performance of the Bartok third string quartet, no mean feat. I wondered afterwards, why I was so completely unmoved? Then it occurred to me- simply observing a rest, a dynamic marking, a phrase is never enough, even if done with energy, commitment and grace. In this particular work, there must be terror in the silences, joy in the crescendos, disturbance and chaos reeling all about; and these moments come from the soul of the artist. The directions are not printed on the page for edification and reiteration.
     Today’s worlds of classical music performance, education and criticism seem to have a love/hate relationship with individualism. “Faithfulness” to the score, consistency and complete accuracy of execution are held as the primary goals, and the artist’s “interpretation” of a work, though important, is viewed mostly as it relates to these mandates. How and when did this happen? Speaking to my field of piano, great keyboard artists such as Bach, Beethoven and Chopin were celebrated improvisers, and I find it hard to believe that they ever played one of their compositions the same way twice–or even with the same notes, tempos or phrasing. Don’t get me wrong- we love highly individual performers in every music genre other than classical. But in the “fine” arts this complete freedom of expression is quite subject to criticism. As a modern day performer, I was indoctrinated in this ethic. Suddenly, I see its total wrongness.
     When you listen to a “historic” recording of someone like Alfred Cortot playing a Chopin Nocturne, it is practically unrecognizable from the current standards of romantic performance, and completely free of unnecessary faithfulness to Chopin’s indications. Never would it occur to him to play against his soul’s design in order to honor a hundred year-old dynamic marking. Yet there is never a doubt that he had utterly and completely absorbed the composer’s spirit. The same is true of 19th century writing on music; authors did not hesitate to employ colorful, fanciful imagery. James Huneker on Chopin’s brilliant B-flat minor Prelude: “Its pregnant introduction is like a madly jutting rock from which the eagle spirit of the composer precipitates itself.” For me, this kind of extra-musical imagery does not limit the music to a narrow conception, but inspires the performer to search within for an equally compelling and individual reaction to the score. This truth is what an audience comes to hear.
     As a long time performer of fine art music, I am done with the deadening limitations of modern scholarship and performance mores. I say we all play like we want to play, and damn the torpedoes.


Pamela Paul said...

SO well said, Martie. Something that so many Russian artists do and have done so beautifully is to question the meaning of everything they play. Not just the character which is obvious, as in a leading melody etc, but the internal phrases, the "hidden" fragments of phrases. Like actors who are totally "in character" instead of simply intoning words from a script.
And as for "fidelity" to the score, you know when you have worked with living composers that while some of them are indeed fanatic about every mark on a page, many if not most of them are always open to something that they perhaps did not indicate, but which communicates something special. Music would cease to exist as a performance art if there were only one way to play things. Bravo to you for writing this!

Pamela Paul said...

Martie, I agree absolutely with what you have written. One of the things I have loved about most Russian musicians is their constant questioning of what a phrase might mean - in terms of its emotional character, not how it was constructed. Yes, there is objective knowledge - and a lot of it - behind those self-questionings, but the core of the search is always emotional intent and character, like an extremely good actor. No one who has worked with living composers can have failed to notice that while some of them are indeed fanatic about exactly what they put on a page, many if not most of them are always receptive to a new idea, a new interpretation, if it communicates something. Live music disappears as a performance art once there is only one way to do it, and that one way is simply a mechanical or superficial rendering of "what is on the page".

Elaine Fine said...

Sometimes I think of music in terms of the animal world. Music played within the strict confines of "rules" is sort of like the way animals are in a zoo. Sure, they are safe from disease, they are well fed, and they can even be given mates and reproduce, and they can even continue their species (which might be almost extinct), but they are different from animals in the wild, and they may not even be able to survive in the wild.

Music--the real stuff of music--is animal in nature, and not in captivity.

Ana said...

Dear Martin, I answer your call to arms, with open arms! I feel as though I've been beating this drum for a long time now. Our current notion of "faithfulness" to the score is, to my mind, more often a kind of cowardice, a flat unwillingness to take the risk of having a conviction about the piece one's playing and then make it real in sound. That conviction must be firmly based on the score, of course. But if we were to limit ourselves to simply reproducing what's on the page, we are not interpreters, we are some sort of human MIDI apparatus. As someone who has worked quite a lot with living composers, I second what Pamela Paul says and will go even further: that it is living composers who've taught me so much about how to get inside the skin of a score of Brahms, of Bach, of Mozart.
And speaking of composers who were great pianists and keyboard players, indeed: CPE Bach --renowned, as you must know, for improvising FUGUES!-- in his great treatise, counsels the pianist to "Play from the heart, not like a trained bird". Good advice for life, as well.
I find particularly sad, in this connection, the way so many pianists play new and recent music. So much of the time they play like a bunch of good well-trained little birds. This in turn, I am convinced, has an effect on the music that is written for the piano. This seems to be changing somewhat, at least judging by the music I myself have commissioned, which is overflowing with heart as well as compositional skill.
I could go on. This is something I myself have blogged about ( ) but you have inspired me to take the time to write more.
Many thanks and ¡¡BRAVO!!

Martin Perry said...

Ana, you make SUCH an interesting point about the impact this kind of non-engaged pianism might be making on new composition...I hadn't even considered it, but of course it must be true (sadly); we sow what we reap.