I think this is one of the greatest dificiencies 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.