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.