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Art or pedantry? Pedart?

January 16, 2009 at 4:43 AM


When Hugh Bean talked about the recording sessions in which he was concertmaster and Milstein the soloist he said of the latter’s introduction to the slow movement of the Goldmark that for him it represented the most perfect ideal of violin playing.  Those phrases could serve as a model for violin playing for all time.  I am always on the lookout for recordings of short extracts that correspond to those incredible criteria.   One such is by a violinist it has at times been very fashionable to criticize as less than stellar: Sir Yehudi Menuhin.
The passage in question is from the recording he made of the Schubert piano Trio no.2 (available on DVD with the Franck among other things). To whit, the extended violin solo in the slow movement. During this epiphany the camera pans in on the cellist, Maurice Gendron`s face.  His expression of awe and reverence is just priceless and absolutely justified. If ever an angel played the violin, this was it.
Nonetheless, that recording raises questions for me that I am never able to answer in any satisfactory way but I think do deserve something of an airing.  The difficulty for me arises when I study this version while looking at the Urtext. With all due respect to (at least ;))two of the performers, they are not playing what the composer wrote.  Not note wise of course,   but in terms of the dynamics and articulation.  Were it just in a few places it would not be an issue.  But this is not the case and I have no idea if the performers were using one of the bowdlerized 19th century version of Schubert’s music that have been responsible for softening up so may of his scores or simply , dare one say willfully, expressing their artistic preferences, `This is how I feel it. This is how I am going to play it!` How can one denigrate such a profound performance?  Surely if Schubert heard it he would have been ecstatic? But is it really what we should all aspire to?
I think today’s players do us a great service by applying great energy and scholarship to playing `what the composer wrote,` as far as is possible depending on when the composition was written.  First and foremost must come the dynamics. The trio above would be a markedly more dramatic and violent piece if one really followed Schubert’s markings.   And then nowadays we do hear distinctions between dots and dashes in Mozart performances even….  This approach has greatly enriched and challenged our performance practice and I think teachers have a real responsibility to demand of our students that they take responsibility for a rigorous study of what is actually on the page as well as questioning its veracity.  The only question is, has this resulted in throwing the baby out with the bath water so that there is no longer any space for the great artist who follows Sinatra’s by-line?
Let’s hope we retain the space for both and everything that falls in between.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on January 16, 2009 at 7:48 AM

Buri, very interesting and difficult issue of music interpretation or interpretation in general indeed!  There seems to be a spectrum of school of thoughts/approaches. At one extreme, you try to understand and follow everything literally: what the score meant by this particular composer at that time/stage of his/her composition.  The amount of work required to find the truth can be quite daunting if not a life-time effort in some cases.  At the other extreme, as though everything goes because once the work is done it has the life of its own (a ‘living tree’ as some judge described the Canadian Constitution) and it is forever open for different interpretations and reinterpretations, generation after generation.

Personally, I think when we start to learn any trade, be it music, literature, history, or philosophy, the basic discipline of exploring the literal meaning of each piece of work is absolutely essential part of the good foundation-building.  But the sad thing is that often people get very good at literal interpretation and feel that this is all what interpretation of music/literature/philosophy is all about.  To me this kind of rigidity is very troubling. For one thing, it is so in odd with traditional Chinese calligraphy or painting, namely, you need to constantly do something to destroy what is seemingly so completed/balanced/finished to the point of staleness; you destroy this comfor so you an create artwork that, as it were, the Qi is flowing in the piece.

The “living tree” approach has a lot merits. Doing well, we breathe life into the music. It can be the greatest way to honour the composers. I’m always amazed how many wonderful ways people have interrelated Bach S&Ps:  Enescu, Szigeti, Milstein, Szerying, Hahn, Podger, Apap... just to name a few.  But I have to say, it takes a lot of guts and skills to go beyond what’s written on the score because if it is done poorly, I’m not just a poor violinist, I’m also a whack job.

From Royce Faina
Posted on January 16, 2009 at 3:34 PM

If, though, my observations are correct..... I see more and more students over using and abusing, "I'm Intitled to blah, blah, blah and or self exspression. I am to do my own thing and exspect to be rewarded / awarded for it, I am intitled too, nothing is absolutely wrong except your opinion." Not all students, but it seems to be growing.

Regarding Trees- Detatch it from it's roots... It'll get sick, it'll fall over, and what does it try to do, shoot more roots to get a hold, to get life.



From Adam Wasiel
Posted on January 16, 2009 at 10:27 PM

Very interesting question you raised Buri....I often sit a night pondering it.

From Kris Sargent
Posted on January 18, 2009 at 9:33 PM

In my field (medicine), there are broadly two groups of people: those who make good surgeons and those who make good doctors.  Surgery is all about doing exactly what you've done a zillion times before and doing it exactly the same way every time.  They spend several days teaching new students how to hold scissors properly...

I've long said that people who think like surgeons are naturals for "classical music."  We think of classical music as something already perfectly defined; it's all written down with little marks for exactly how to play each note, how things are supposed to feel, tempi, etc.  On the other end of the spectrum would be jazz, which is often passed down through just Fake Books which list nothing other than the chord progression.  Obviously, perfectionists in the "classical music" mode have a hard time dealing with jazz, which seems too undefined, and vice-versa, where jazz musicians (and apparently Royce's students!) feel that "the repertoire" is too restrictive.

It's really a matter of one's musical tastes.  I never went into surgery because it's not fluid enough for me.  And I like jazz and celtic fiddle, etc; music which feels like it's still "alive".  I've heard some beautiful "classical" performances, but I think the sense that it's all been done perfectly already (and we're doing our best to imitate that "perfect" version) really takes the life out of it, for me.  I suspect that in some students, at least, that contributes to the idea that this music is "dead" and a particular piece has nothing left to say. 

I'm not sure how to change that.  I can only say that if Beethoven and Brahms et. al. were only re-playing the "canon" of music that existed at their times, they would never have written anything new.  For me, the only way for music to be alive in our lives is for us all to feel what the music brings to us, and to share that with others.  For me, that can't happen in trying to "display" someone else's feelings.  But the world needs "surgery people" who think that way; I'm just not one of them.  For those of you who do operate that way: does hearing some piece done "perfectly" make you feel connected to it?  Does it bother you when there are "mistakes?"

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