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Bell, Brahms and prunes

March 21, 2007 at 11:15 PM

I think I have a reasonable system of testing artistic level. First you buy a car that has a CD player (these days a lot of Japanese ones seem to have only MD which I find odd…)
Then when I want to evaluate a performance I stick it in on the way to work. If I come close to crashing and have to stop and listen it is a masterpiece. Those are quite rare!
If I arrive at work after twenty five minutes or so get out the car and I can’t remember what the CD was then it’s probably not much good. Most of the rest lie in between but there are some exceptions where the system seems to crash.
One such was a second hand CD I picked up of a fairly young Joshua Bell playing some fairly substantial showpieces: Intro and Rondo Capric., Zigeunerweisen, Chausson poeme etc. It didn’t grab my attention much to start with but it nagged at me between bouts of road rage and I started to pay attention to why it is different. Nothing in your face or manic. Not really a huge, aggressive player but something was good. Eventually I concluded that he really just enjoyed playing the violin. He couldn’t care less what other people were doing, wasn’t going to bust his guts to produce a bigger and better CD than all the rest and let himself improvise quite freely. This improvisation is no to do with notes so much as portamento, bowings and fingerings. He has a natural gift for a huge range of expressive devices or makes them up or whatever and just uses them as the muse strikes him. That’s real talent. Sometimes it doesn’t work, sometimes its just glorious.
Now that’s real violin playing!
In another blog someone posed the question about whether Brahms Hungarian Dance no5 is more difficult than DeBeriot 9 and also noting that only the first movement of the de Beriot had been learnt. There always seems to me to be a huge range of questions associated with the most innocuous questions about the violin and music.
The first thing that springs to mind is something that really bugs the heck out of me: Why do people spend their lives only learning one movement of a concerto? Seems to me half the player sin the world can best be described as one third players. Think of all the time off making babies and eating prunes those composers could have had if they had known their third movements were never going to be played! But it’s also a technical and musical issue. A truly effective way of learning a concerto is to start three movement simultaneously, choosing chunks that are linked and adding more of each movement systematically. In this way the whole is never lost sight of. The last movement of a Mozart concerto informs the first and vice versa. The Beethoven is not three ships passing in the night.
What then are difficulties? What does difficulty mean? I think very often this is best answered in terms of the player not the music. It really only makes sense to ask `what can this person do at this stage? What can they not do? What do they need?` If a person cannot grasp the sense and style of the de Beriot but feels the fire and nuance of the Brahms better then DeBeriot is the problem or vice versa. Of course there are technical issues, but again this is deceptive, There are quite a few staple techniques in the de Beriot. Although they are not all that difficult the duration of them is a difficulty in of itself. The relationship between them, creating meaning with them is a technical/musical task of some breadth. The version of the Brahms I do has much shorter passages of double stops which don’t go that much beyond the DeBeriot except maybe a couple of bars in fingered octaves. It’s shorter so it should be easier right?
Mmmm. I think it was Heifetz who really knew how hard it was to track down every little nook and cranny of a `small` work like the Brahms. Miniatures need to be perfect because there is no time to persuade people to forget your mistakes. I also think the Brahms demands that the student study the repertoire and great interpreters of orchestra and piano, never mind violin. It’s a big job. At the end of the day one cannot offer people a flawed jewel.

From Karin Lin
Posted on March 21, 2007 at 11:25 PM
That Bell CD is one of my favorites. There's something so refreshingly honest about his interpretations on it.
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on March 23, 2007 at 3:44 AM
“What then are difficulties? What does difficulty mean? I think very often this is best answered in terms of the player not the music.”

Very true! A difficult task means the task and me are not a good fit. The misfit may be temporary due to my current state or skill set, and I can make the better fit once I’ve properly altered my current state or skill set. But it could also be a misfit with my natural disposition. In such case, the task can be impossibly difficult to me.

I sometimes wonder there may be such fundamental misfit between my violin playing and me. I’ve done some difficult things in life to believe this. I pretty much taught myself English in China. I then finished grad school and law school as an adult ESL. I also did classical voicing (soprano). None of them is as hard as violin playing in the sense that I could figure those supposed very hard stuff out in a short period of time and then things got easier and easier. When it comes to violin, I feel it just gets harder and harder, and after years of playing, I still can’t figure the bloody thing out. I’m afraid offering flawed jewel is all I can do at the end of the day and that’s pretty sad.

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