Thursday, 17 May 2012

The 'correct' interpretation...or not

It seems to me that classical musicians are expected - by audiences, teachers, and other musicians - to perform music in a stylistically 'correct' way. Therefore, a lush, romantic interpretation of Bach on the piano is frowned upon, a performance of a piece by Chopin or Mendelssohn where the melody doesn't take precedence is 'eccentric', and heaven forbid that anyone play Debussy or Ravel without masses of rubato! (just to clarify: Ravel actually discouraged excessive rubato in his music, claiming that musicians should play only what was indicated on the score.)

I often wonder what the point of being involved in music is if one can't bring something unique and individual to the field. I have nothing against the stylistically correct interpretation of a piece of music, but if musicians limit themselves to playing a piece in a particular style because they think it's the 'only' way, they are limiting their potential to truly understand and appreciate the piece.
They are also missing the opportunity of allowing the audience to hear the music differently; not everybody will understand a piece of music in exactly the same way, and if all a listener ever hears is a stylistically correct interpration which they dislike, there is a lot of wonderful repertoire that person may never be able to appreciate.

I can think of a few examples of this. One is that I had to learn to understand Bach's music in my own way (which I have blogged about). As I recently discovered, playing Bach the way I understand it also involves completely disregarding my piano teacher's preference about how Bach should be played!

Another example is also to do with the interpretation of Baroque music on the piano. Recently I went to see the young virtuoso pianist Bezhod Abduraimov performing at the Melbourne Recital Centre. The first item on his program was a series of sonatas by Scarlatti. I don't know Scarlatti very well so I was hearing those sonatas for the first time. It was an interesting experience, as he played them quite unlike I'd ever heard Baroque music played before - lush, intense and romantic, without being excessively so.
Although I usually prefer the clean, articulated 'typewriter' interpretation of Baroque music, I don't normally find Scarlatti very interesting and it was refreshing and enjoyable to hear it played in such a different way.

I recently attended the open Piano section of my local Eisteddfod. Several competitors played well-known pieces by Chopin - pieces so well-known, in fact, that I've come to really dislike them. One of these was a Barcarolle (the number of which I can't remember) and listening to this performance, I realised that I had never truly heard ALL THE NOTES in that piece before. Most pianists would draw attention to the melody and let all the other little notes in between drift into non-existence, but the Eisteddfod competitor played every note with great clarity.
Afterwards someone commented to me, 'I didn't think it was beautiful enough. I'm used to hearing a particular interpretation of that piece.' I felt like replying, 'So am I, and that's why I hate the piece!'
On a more serious note, however, I think it's a pity that Chopin - and many other composers - agonised over every note they wrote, only for half of them to be barely audible in performance because the musician decides the melody should take precedence.

The point of this post is that interpretation is highly subjective; for both the listener and the performer, it's a matter of taste. In my opinion, as long as someone can appreciate the music, it doesn't matter if it's not played in the 'correct' style. The fact that it's appreciated is enough.

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