Recapturing the Interpretive Art of Performance

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have on more than one occasion railed against what I consider the excessive emphasis on "purity" in music today. I have often noted that while no one would wish a performance of a play to reflect the precise intonation and inflection of the first performance that took place with the playwright present, there seems to be a concept in the air today that a good musical performance will simply reproduce the notes printed on the page.  The idea that music, like theater, is an interpretive art--that once a piece of music enters the public arena it is not only open to a range of interpretation, but that this is healthy for the life of the piece--is an idea that has been minimized, if not completely squashed, by the ethic of "purity" or "fidelity to the score."  Stravinsky was famous for instructing performers to just play the notes and not interpret his music. But listen to Stravinsky's performances of his own music recorded over a span of time and you will hear that he had different ideas about what the notes said at different times of his life.
I have observed that if you listen to recordings made by conductors who worked directly and closely with Mahler--Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Willem Mengelberg, Oskar Fried--you will hear astonishing differences between them, sometimes even with music where all four actually heard Mahler rehearse and perform the same piece!  

A very stimulating book came out last year from Oxford University Press, Kenneth Hamilton's After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance. I recommend it to all who care about music, and all who perform music. I will say upfront that the book is somewhat densely written, not an easy read by any means. And it seems at times a bit confused about whether it is meant for the lay music lover or the professional performer. The former will perhaps find some parts of it a bit too technical, but those parts can be skipped. This book is very much worth the effort.

Hamilton recreates, with a great deal of specificity, what we know about performance style in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Although his book is limited to pianists and piano music, its points are applicable across the board--to violinists, singers, conductors, and all of us who care about and enjoy music.

Particularly admirable is the unemotional tone with which Hamilton explores the issues. He does not rail (as I sometimes have) but makes a very convincing case that we have lost something precious in the performance of 19th-century music: the extra frisson that comes from a performer with a completely different take on the meaning of those little black specks on the page--instructions from composers that some of us feel should be a starting point, not an ending point, for music-making. As Hamilton notes, Liszt believed that written music was an imperfect method of notating abstract musical ideas, and that it took "an inspired performer for realization."

I found After the Golden Age extremely absorbing and provocative. And it is well researched, particularly with regard to Liszt, where Hamilton corrects some errors and misleading impressions caused by earlier biographers. Its gentle, intelligent, and cogently argued tone makes this book, in the end, more powerful than a more passionately written exploration might have been. It made me think about my own beliefs, brought some of them into sharper focus, and caused adjustment to some of them. It underlined for me how important it will be to try to bring back to our world the spark of individual personality--of truly great, magnetic, and individual musicians performing in a climate that permits and even encourages experimentation and fantasy.

January 16, 2009 10:43 AM | | Comments (5)



At The Juilliard School, the great teacher Adele Marcus often quoted from the Talmud: 'In order to understand the invisible, one must carefully study the visible'; 'Don't just SEE it, but LOOK at it'; 'Don't just HEAR it, but LISTEN to it'. She never liked 'sterile' performances, but fresh and exciting, moving interpretations, yet adhering to the composer's intentions. Sound was a big thing with Marcus--those who studied with her know what that is all about. We were never allowed to 'distort' for personal favor, but when the modd strikes to electrify an audience with a fiery motion, or the softest PPP to move you to tears, or breathe within a phrase because it makes sense to do so and fits within the stylistic parameter, then go for it. There's just the right balance to make something sound 'good', 'acceptable', but when you go over the edge, it loses conviction and just doesn't sound 'quite right'. In my own new recordings of thew complete Mozart sonatas (the first 3 cds arrive this summer on the Koch label), I decided to do Mozartean embellishments in the repeat sections of all the sonatas. Why? Why not. Did Mozart play everything the same twice--no way. This is the kind of interpretative effect I believe is what Mr. Hamilton refers. Again, a happy medium makes a happy listener.

I've heard about the book and am curious to read it, and no doubt it's very interesting.
Yet the enormously gifted Lang Lang still gets lambasted regularly for taking too many liberties with the music he plays by so many critics, as well as many other contemporary pianists, conductors and other instrumentalists.
I repeat, if musicians today are so pedantically literal, dry and unimaginative interpreters,why are there so many reviews which lambaste them for all the liberties they take with the music?
And the fact remains that sometimes musicians DO distort the music and take unwarranted liberties with the music which have angered and exasperated some composers. There are many recorded examples of this going back centuries.
I think that the best performances are those which find a happy medium between pedantic literalism and wilful distortion of the music.

It's interesting, of course, that Hamilton makes his case for a more improvisational approach to performance (which he can also demonstrate at the piano very impressively, if you ever get the chance to hear him) through the discourse of scholarly research into performance practice that also gave us the 'purity' approach to performance!


The importance of the way a piece is performed can not be taken lightly.It can make or break what the composer intended.For well known classics it is important,for new pieces it is vital. A standard manuscript although well written can not convey every subtlety. As with any business,including orchestras, time is money and learning a new piece takes time and much money.There are now alternatives to composers who wish to put in the extra time,effort and investment.It is now possible to compose and produce your own music.I'm not talking about the usual home computer with some music sofware.I'm talking about investing anyware between 30 and 50 thousand dollars. However with the advent of the latest technology I can now compose and produce a symphony,violin or piano concerto or any other combination of instuments ,including choir, and get results that are not close to, as was once the case, but comparable or superior to a major modern orchestra or soloist.(Audio-file quality to boot)I have complete control of the orchestra and soloists and their enviorment ect.I can make instant changes to the score while composing and hear the results.I have been doing this for many years, however the latest technology along with high speed,large memory computers are now finally up to the task. Many of the composers we know and love never heard a compitant orchestra play their major works, if they infact heard them at all, including Schubert. Myself and other composers no longer have to face this problem. Composers do not have to be at the mercy of the music cliques to hear their pieces if they are willing to make the investments.People who have heard and enjoy my music can in many cases not fathom how it was recorded .After several persons who regularly attend concerts and are regular listners to PBS heard some of my orchestral works they exclaimed, "but what orchestra did you use" even after the process was explained to them.

Harold C Schonberg talked about this quite a bit as does David Dubal.


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