Some years ago, Dame Fanny Waterman gave a masterclass for the BBC (Beethoven Sonata, op. 2 no. 2 , I think it was) and had made some suggestions to the student who then proceeded to play it back, respectfully verbatim. Dame Fanny likened this to loaning the student a dress for a party, but that to prevent it from looking borrowed or passed on, the student would need to add a brooch, a belt or some other accessory to make it her own. The lesson, of course, being that aping someone else’s playing or ideas won’t end up sounding authentic no matter how well you do it.

The first stage of taking ownership of a piece of music is to process all the information from the composer’s score. This is the explicit instruction (notes, rhythm, tempo modifiers, articulations, character descriptions, dynamic markings, etc.) as well as the implicit. Examples of the latter might be the implication of più forte when the composer doubles in octaves a bass line previously written in single notes, or diminuendo when the texture thins out. It may take a while to understand the meaning behind all this so that we come up with our own understanding of the composer’s message, but digest it we must. (Implicit directions are much more significant in baroque music, say, when the composer’s score is devoid of much else, but that’s probably a subject for another post.)

I am sure we have all heard performances where all the notes were there, all the I’s dotted and T’s crossed, but you weren’t moved or stirred. There is nothing worse than a safe, boring, non-committal, grey, correct performance and obeying the composer’s instructions is only the first step – I would far rather hear something a bit rough round the edges where there is fire, passion and personality. Agree with him or not, you can’t help but be affected by the playing of Glenn Gould. There was an artist so totally convinced by what he did that he carried the listener along with him. If you believe in what you are doing strongly enough, chances are you will convince your audience. If you are non-committal or tread the safe middle path, you’ll leave them cold. The great pianist Shura Cherkassky never knew how he was going to play something until he walked onto the stage to perform it, and he never played it the same way twice. He practised slowly and without expression so the muse could visit in the heat of the moment, this spontaneity producing some remarkable results, especially in live performances.

I think of Rachmaninov’s recording of Chopin’s Funeral March. In the reprise of the opening section, Chopin quite clearly marks pianissimo yet Rachmaninov made a conscious decision to disobey this and he played it fortissimo (listen from 3:58). Why? How could he justify this? I think it was because he felt in his innermost being that his own vision of this moment was the only way he could conceive of playing it, and this was justification enough. This is a fascinating area, one addressed in an interview with Cuban pianist Jorge Bolet (listen from 2:09 unless you want to hear some playing first).

I would hate you to get the wrong impression here, that I was encouraging score tampering. What I am saying is that we need to give ourselves permission to express ourselves authentically.

…what bestows upon the performer the status of artist and on the performance the status of art, is the real, full-bloodied possibility of the performer finding a better or at least different way of performing the music from the way the composer has specifically envisioned and explicitly instructed. This is what bestows upon the performance personal style and originality – what makes it the performer’s “version” of the work and not just the composer’s “version”.

Peter Kivy, Authenticities: Philosophical Reflections on Musical Performance (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), 197.

There is no such thing as the one right performance. Neither is there such a thing as the one right tempo, despite the metronome marking – EVEN IF THIS IS FROM THE COMPOSER! I’ll go into this in another post, but suffice it to say that the speed of the music depends on several factors, not least the acoustical properties of the instrument and the space we are playing in, as well as our mood on any given occasion.