I am delighted to publish this guest post by Frances Wilson, aka The Cross-Eyed Pianist, entitled Learning from Listening. Over to you, Fran…

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There are many benefits in listening to the repertoire we are working on, on disc or via a streaming service, and in concert, as well as “listening around” the music – works from the same period by the same composer, and works by his/her contemporaries. Such listening gives us a clearer sense of the composer’s individual soundworld, their distinct musical idioms, and an understanding of how aspects such as orchestral writing or string quartet textures are presented in piano music. Keep ears and mind alert to details such as articulation, phrasing and breathing space, dynamic shading and nuance, wit and humour, giving rests their full value (or slightly more) to create drama, tempo, and a sense of the overall architecture and narrative of the piece.

Since November 2014 I have been studying Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata, No. 20 in A, D959. This large-scale work contains many fine examples of Schubert’s skill as a composer of orchestral music and tautly-constructed string quartets, as well as his expert handling of melody and lyricism (as evidenced, of course, by his many Lieder). As part of my study of this music, I have spent a lot of time listening not only to his late piano music (the Impromptus D899 and D935, and of course the other two piano sonatas which form the final triptych), but also to his late string quartets, the ‘Great’ C major symphony, and songs from the Winterreise cycle (composed the year before the A major sonata). Such listening has proved invaluable in my understanding of Schubert’s very distinct soundworld and his handling of different “voices” or instruments, textures and articulation (particularly string articulation) in the music. Incorporating these sounds and textures into my own interpretation of the piano sonata, alongside my own personal “vision” of the work, has enabled me to create a performance which is three-dimensional and rich in orchestral detail.

I have also been to several live performances of symphonies by Schubert and his Viennese compatriot Gustav Mahler, whose music owes much to Schubert in its lyrical fluency and a similar conception of expansive symphonic narrative. This has also been very instructive: seeing and hearing the music in performance offers one greater opportunities to experience the individual and collective “voices” of the orchestra, to understand how motifs and ideas hang together to create narrative, especially in a large-scale piece, and to observe a conductor at work. As pianists we often have to be our own “inner conductor”, and while we may not use the same physical gestures as a conductor directing an orchestra, we can take to the piano ideas about flow and suspense, drama and breathing space, which are drawn from the conductor’s art. I have also listened to dozens of recordings of the Sonata, from the earliest by Artur Schnabel to Shura Cherkassy, Radu Lupu, Andras Schiff, Richard Goode, Murray Perahia, Elisabeth Leonskaja and Mitsuko Uchida, and more recent recordings by Leif Ove Andsnes, Inon Barnatan and Shai Wosner. Each one offers a pianist’s personal view on the music. This is not an attempt to imitate the great pianists or try to replicate a “beautiful moment” they have created in the music (to do so would be contrived and artificial), but rather to hear how each pianist brings his or her own personality and musical insights to the work.

Some composers’ music lends itself more readily to this kind of “extra curricular” work. Mozart’s piano music, for example, seems to contain, in microcosm, all the elements of everything else he wrote – from beautiful arias (the slow movement of the piano sonata K310, for example), to string quartet articulation, grand operatic statements, recitative and symphonic writing, and extensive “listening around” to other works by Mozart will undoubtedly inform one’s approach to his piano music. The same is true of Beethoven; but even for those composers who are mostly closely connected to the piano – Chopin, for example – “listening around” can be enormously helpful to give one an appreciation of the breadth of the composer’s output and his/her personal sound.

Listening does have its pitfalls too. Recorded performances capture a moment in time and while they can certainly offer ideas and inspiration, they can also become embedded in our memory and may influence our sense of a piece or obscure our own original thoughts about the music. This may lead us to attempt to imitate a another performer, and so it is important that we form our own special relationship with our music and take ownership of it. In order to do that we must invest time and effort in our study, while remaining open-minded and receptive to new ideas or approaches.

The other problem with recordings is that some performers may take liberties with the score to make certain passages or an entire piece more personal. This tends to happen in very well known repertoire, where an artist will put their own mark on the music to make it more distinctively their own, while not always remaining completely faithful to the score. Thus, some recordings may not truly represent what the composer intended, yet these recordings have become the benchmark or “correct” version. So when we listen we should do so with an advisory note to self: that recordings and YouTube clips can be helpful, but we should never seek to imitate what we hear. It is the work we do ourselves on our music which is most important: going through the score to understand what makes it special, and listening around the music to gain a deeper understanding of the composer’s intentions so that our own interpretation is both personal and faithful.

Most of us are limited by our own imagination, experience and knowledge and great performances and interpretations can broaden our horizons, inspire us and inform our own approach to music, and enable us to bring our music to life with colour and vitality.

Frances Wilson is a pianist, piano teacher, concert reviewer, writer and blogger on classical music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist. A keen concert-goer, she reviews for international concert and opera listings site Bachtrack and is a regular writer for Hong Kong-based classical music site InterludeHK and German streaming service IDAGIO. In addition, she has contributed guest articles to a number of other classical music and music education websites around the world. She is currently writing a series of articles about Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata for ‘The Schubertian’, the journal of the Schubert Institute (UK).


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