A performance can be true to the composer's intentions, yet sound quite different from the composer's own performance of it. I'm always happy to hear my own music played in a way that is different from how I play it myself, so long as it still gets the essential musical point(s) across. Many of my pieces can still 'work' with different details (tempi, articulations etc.) from how I originally wrote them down. And over time, I change even these details in my own performances.
Conversely, a performance can be highly detailed in many ways, yet somewhat miss the essential musical point(s). So how do you distinguish between the important details, which are necessary--- true *intentions* on the composer's part, and the incidental ones, which can be swapped out either based on a person's particular playing style or the circumstances of a particular concert---- often incorrectly called *intentions*, but maybe better referred to simply as the composer's *expectations* at the time s/he wrote it?
Any simple, black-and-white ideological lens through which to look at everything will eventually produce absurd results in some instances. Even such a basic laudable goal as 'making a piece sound the best it can' may actually go against the composer's intent, if, for example, the piece is meant to be a technical study. Certainly some of the most difficult moments of Kreutzer and Paganini etudes would sound better if they were simplified---- certain slurs shortened, certain double stops rewritten, certain passages played in lower positions that sound clearer--- but then the music has also been gutted of it's raison d'etre, its reason for existing in the first place.
Take staccato as an example. In an etude about staccato, you need to play at least a fair amount of staccato. Also, performing a completely staccatoless Hora Staccato (by Dinicu) makes no sense as it is one of the central points of the piece. However, leaving out a couple of staccato runs in a concerto might be perfectly reasonable, since they're fairly peripheral. Nice if you have it, but not a big deal if you don't.
In short, it's the musical context of the work that provides the clues as to what's important and what's not, and there's no simplistic way to find that out without knowing a fair amount about the purpose of the piece and the construction of music in general.
Some composers are undoubtedly fussier than others, however I've never run across such indiscriminate fussiness as I have with some performers themselves, probably in an attempt to outdo one another with the most 'authentic' performance, usually of music by long-dead composers. This has become a Classical musician stereotype. Probably because both of my parents were professional musicians, I grew up viewing 'Classical music' as living music of my own time---- not a window into an idealized past or a recreation of an historical event. I just saw it as music, usually great music.
Most performers before the 20th Century were also composers, and because of this I think they could more easily separate important details from less-important ones. By the 20th Century, however, we had such specialization that many performers were not trained in composition at all, and (in my opinion) this partially gave rise to the HIP movement, which filled a void in providing answers to legitimate musical questions---- just with historical answers.
So we got ourselves to a place where between endless scholarship, historical recordings etc. we have at our disposal more alleged "composer's intentions" than at any other time in history. Yet, this is exactly what can rob a performance of creativity, personality, and an appropriate adaptation of the work to the circumstances under which it is actually being performed--- because only a subset of them are actually the composer's true *intentions*. Many (most?) are just *expectations* of the time and fairly irrelevant to the composition.
I see more and more performers writing and arranging music today than I did when I was a kid, and I can see the pendulum heading back toward a more reasonable center. I wouldn't want this blog post to be viewed in any way as a plea for relaxed standards; in some ways it's actually for higher standards and an argument against a free-for-all approach to interpretation in cases where it's inappropriate. It's an argument for a balanced perspective of music based on the musical considerations of what's important in the specific piece at hand, not on a one-size-fits all, ideological approach.Tweet
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