Monday, September 22, 2014

Performing with Personality!

I just read a really well-written article in the Strad about performer personality and musical interpretation. Here, have a look. Here is why it might be that this article is so thoughtful and well-written: it dates from November 1983. Writing on music with this level of intelligence is pretty rare these days...

I think I can offer some comments on this because I can actually wear all three relevant hats: composer, musicologist and performer. As a performer I have often taken the approach of trying to be as much as possible a transparent window on the music at the service of the composer. But I have also taken the view that if an awkwardly-written passage in a concerto needs to be rewritten to be really effective, then I have no qualms about doing so.

Reading the article I felt at first a bit of incongruity because this view that performers must be strict observers of nothing but the composer's intentions has been overshadowed in the last couple of decades by marketing practices. Young violinists nowadays are likely to be projecting nothing but their own personalities! Well, it might be more accurate to say they are projecting their physical appearance...

But the idea that the integrity of the piece of music is the supreme value, while often overshadowed these days by marketing, does still have traction. The article points out:
In most critical observations today, the principal measuring stick by which performances are evaluated is: did or did not the artist fulfill the composer's intentions? Such items as beauty of sound, technical mastery, subtlety of phrasing, commitment or personalised statement are not necessarily discounted, but together they are considered second in importance in fulfilling the composer's intentions. And what, exactly, are these 'intentions'? Who has personally consulted with long-departed composers to verify them?
 The philosophical problem of the composer's intentions is rather a treacherous trap to beware of. The score itself is the only really accurate guide to what the composer wants. His job is to make sure that he makes his intentions clear in the score. But as we all know, it takes an intelligent and talented musician or musicians to bring a score to life. We have all heard soulless but accurate performances, but they are hardly to be recommended.

I think that what is missing from this whole discussion is the audience's point of view. No performance is truly a satisfactory one if it fails to reach and touch the audience. Isn't this what is really important? But the ideal probably requires finding the right balance between the composer's requirements and what is needed to make the expression have an impact on the audience. This is perhaps where the personality of the performer really counts: a colorless nonentity makes little impression on the audience. Mr. Roth writes:
Historically, string artists with strong musical personalities, practically without exception, have been the most successful. It is no different today. Such players as Perlman, Du Pré and Harrell, though reared in the modern atmosphere of more stringent musical discipline, are outstanding examples.
Updating a bit, we might mention a violinist like Hilary Hahn, who certainly does not lack musical personality, but at the same time is very faithful to the integrity of the music. I think at the highest level, this is always the case and the very different musicians Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Grigory Sokolov both come to mind.

At a lower level, artists can go astray in perhaps two different ways: they can be too mechanical, interpreting the letter but not the spirit of the music, or they can be too wayward and self-indulgent with the music. As a good Aristotelian, I recommend the middle path. Let's end by listening to Hilary Hahn play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto:


George strait cds said...

Music is well said to be the speech of angels. Once you start feeling the beauty of it, you are the music while the music lasts.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think this is spam, but since it almost expresses a coherent thought, I think I'll leave it.