You only have to listen to the same piece played by different pianists to appreciate there is no such thing as the one “correct” way to play it. Tempo and timings, pedalling, style, phrasing – the list of variables goes on and on.

Here is an example of such diversity, Liszt’s La leggierezza study as recorded by Carlo Vidusso, Earl Wild and Georges Cziffra. Each performer plays the piece in his own unique way.

There are some pianists who agonise over each and every detail of their interpretation in the studio, sweating blood until they have crystallised their vision of the music and got it just right. Their one true version remains steadfast, a statue permanently carved in sound.

Here is Clifford Curzon‘s working copy of No. 5 from Schubert’s Moment Musicaux, completely covered with his annotations.

(with thanks to John Humphreys)

(with thanks to John Humphreys)

You can listen to his performance here, from 11:40

Shura Cherkassky, on the other hand, said he never played a work twice in the same way. He didn’t know how he was going to play even as he walked out onto the stage; it was as though he were improvising his interpretation in public. He had the necessary technical control that gave him absolute freedom of expression, and this is one of the reasons his live performances were always so exciting and unpredictable.

A paradox exists in musical interpretation. If we haven’t made any decisions about what we want to do, we have no idea what is going to come out in our performance. It might be wonderful or it might be terrible, but it will certainly be unpredictable.

If our performance decisions are too rigid, our playing risks sounding stiff, staid and boring. We set ourselves an impossible task, since the rigidly planned approach does not take into account the particular qualities of the piano we find ourselves needing to adapt to and control, the performance space, and not least our mood on the day. I once gave a recital in a cathedral and, because my train was delayed, the audience was seated by the time I arrived. I had no chance whatever to try the piano, and the first note I played on it was the first note of my recital. Because of the acoustical properties of the building, I hardly needed to touch the pedal and everything had to be slowed down considerably for the music to sound clearly enough in the reverberation.

The Flexible Interpretation

An amazing performance won’t come out of thin air; it can emerge only after painstaking and creative work in the practice room as we explore all the possibilities the music has to offer. Each time we practise, it is a voyage of discovery.

At a slower tempo, we will need to do things differently from a faster one. If we push the music forward in one spot, we will probably need to pull it back in another. Where is the climax of the phrase? If we’re not sure, we try shaping one way then another until we find out what works. How much of that inner part do we want to bring out? Go with each experiment and follow it through to its logical conclusion before trying it a different way, allowing our imagination and inner ear to guide us.

Leon Fleisher sums this up perfectly:

Technique is the ability to produce what you want; the presupposition is that you want something. So before going to the piano and practising, training your muscles – which is a waste of time because it’s not in the muscles, it’s in the brain, it’s in the inner ear. You have to hear before you play, if you play before you hear what you’re going for it’s an accident and everything is built then on an accident. So, want something, hear it, experiment. Do outrageous things when you’re in the privacy of your studio, what a luxury!

The great conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler had this to say on over-preparing and freedom in performance:

I am told that the more you rehearse, the better you play. This is wrong. We often try to reduce the unforeseen to a controllable level, to prevent a sudden impulse that escapes our ability to control, yet also responds to an obscure desire. Let’s allow improvisation to have its place and play its role. I think that the true interpreter is the one who improvises. We have mechanized the art of conducting to an awful degree, in the quest of perfection rather than of dream. As soon as rubato is obtained and calculated scientifically, it ceases to be true. Music making is something else than searching to achieve an accomplishment. But striving to attain it is beautiful. Some of Michelangelo’s sculptures are perfect, others are just outlined and the latter ones move me more than the first perfect ones because here I find the essence of desire, of the wakening dream. That’s what really moves me: fixing without freezing in cement, allowing chance its opportunity.

If you have got stuck in a rut with a particular piece and want to explore new and different interpretative possibilities, an idea I wrote about in last week’s post might help.

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