In my undergraduate piano literature class covering Baroque music, one of our assignments for the listening exam was to study 4 recordings by different pianists of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E major from Book 2 of the Well-Tempered Clavier such that we could blindly identify the pianist. I remember two of the pianists were Edwin Fischer and Glenn Gould, and whoever the other two were, they continued the trend of reasonable interpretive distinctiveness. I was fascinated to compare and contrast these different performances, and found the assignment manageable but learned more by studying the recordings with classmates who had much difficulty distinguishing the performers. So often we listen to the work, how often do we listen to the performers?
I think this is one of the greatest deficiencies of advanced musical study today: we spend so much time talking about great composers that we rarely talk about great performers. Academically, we ask what makes composers great, distinctive, creative? We really only ask the same thing of performers obliquely by talking of ticket sales, numbers of commercial recordings, and who is the most exciting to watch live. Rare is it to see performance of canonical literature treated to an academic analysis, as if music need only be between a composer and the audience.
In large part I’d hazard that this is due to the focus in teaching performers on the “composer’s intentions”. Interpretation is an act of properly conveying notational symbols in the score with sound. I don’t buy that, and I fall more in line with the Richard Taruskin quote to the right when I’m studying a piece and preparing it for performance. This is a common theme in my thinking, and my own academic work (and thus, why I’ve titled this blog “Performer’s Intentions”). As a pianist, I am an intrinsic part of the musical circle, and while my musical decisions are based in the score, I’m not a slave to tradition because traditions are often wrong (as I will write about in future posts).
I’ve just begun working on Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Since this work is commonly heard, I’ve decided to inundate myself with different recordings, to see the variety of approaches pianists have taken. There are many similarities, so many performers today painstakingly playing the sometimes awkward or unnecessary passagework that the non-pianist Mussorgsky wrote. There’s some virtue there, but there’s also virtue in finding new solutions to convey the musical work. There’s a fantastic recording my Maria Yudina, someone with an appropriate musical lineage and geographic authority to be taken seriously. One of my favorite tricks that she uses is inserting a glissando into the Baba-Yaga movement (measure 74, or hear it here). The grace-notes written are a physical nuisance to play, why not amplify the effect while making it easier? Continue listening through the rest of her recording: her ability to manipulate time is highly dramatic and effective.
"Modern performers seem to regard their performances as texts rather than acts, and to prepare for them with the same goal as present-day textual editors: to clear away accretions. Not that this is not a laudable and necessary step; but what is an ultimate step for an editor should be only a first step for a performer, as the very temporal relationship between the functions of editing and performing already suggests." -Richard Taruskin, Text and Act