For a long time I thought that the role of the performer was simply to play (or sing) the notes exactly as they were written in the score. It gradually dawned on me that this literal approach to musical performance was rather simple minded. During my come scritto period I thought Toscanini the prince of such an approach to musical performance.
Over the decades I began to realize that there was more to a composition than just the notes on the page. Without knowing who Heinrich Schenker was I came to adopt a musical posture that was a greatly simplified version of his approach to music. Namely, that there was an ethos (for lack of a better word) that was intrinsic to great music that went beyond the notes. It was the performer’s task to realize this inner meaning.
An aside, Schenkerian analysis has gotten caught up in cancel culture. Another example of the madness that has gripped the poseurs pretending to be cultural intelligencia.
All that’s needed to play the notes as written is technique. Musical education at the elite level has produced hundreds, likely thousands, of players and conductors whose technique is masterful. Yet their performances are very different; only a small handful achieve results that that reveal the center of the music. Only then is the audience moved beyond mere appreciation of superior technique. Of course, superior technique is a requirement for a superior performance – it’s just not enough.
What exactly is the ability possessed by the rare artist who is able to convey the beauty inherent in the music – beauty not expressed in literal form by the score? I can’t find the words to define the qualities that distinguish the performer with great technique from the one of genius. All I can do is give examples that uncover the difference.
I’ll start with Chopin’s Nocturne Op 23 No 2. The piece is one of the greatest short compositions for solo piano yet written. Its ethereal beauty takes the listener into a divine space. Here are two readings of the Nocturne. The first played by Arthur Rubinstein, one the acknowledged masters of Chopin’s piano pieces. Rubinstein Chopin Nocturne Op 27 No 2
Another renowned interpreter of Chopin was the Czech pianist Ivan Moravec. Moravec Nocturne in D Flat, Op. 27 No 2 Moravec takes more than a minute longer to play the music. In my opinion, this is a rare example of longer is better. But the greater span is not the sole, or even the main, reason that Moravec’s version is superior. By comparison Rubinstein sounds bland while the Moravec is suffused with poetry. I concede that we’re deep in the realm of taste and opinion.
Next an example not of tempo, but of emphasis making the crucial difference. The last movement of Brahm’s 4th Symphony is extraordinarily difficult to fully realize. Both Arturo Toscanini and Wilhelm Furtwängler conducted this symphony often. First Toscanini’s 1951 recording with the NBC Symphony. His reading of the last movement is a few seconds shorter than Furtwängler’s, but the energy and feeling that the German conductor get’s from the Berlin Philharmonic goes far beyond the notes. The movement is marked Allegro energico e passionato. Energy and passion suffuses his conducting.
Listen to the last minute of the two performances and note the different tempos used. Toscanini performs this passage as indicated in the score. Furtwängler takes the conclusion at a much faster pace that makes a much greater impact on the listener. This impact is felt throughout the movement as well as the entire symphony.
Furtwängler spent a lot of time studying scores with Schenker in the 1920s. The great conductor considered himself one of Schenker’s students. His approach to conducting is consistent with the view that there’s an essence to a score that goes beyond the notes and that it’s the performer’s job to realize this inner core of a great composition.
A photographic analogy clarifies the point I’m trying to make. Ansel Adams, the virtuoso of black and white photography, was also a classically trained pianist. Speaking about photography, he said that the negative was the score while the print was the performance.
Four final examples of the importance of interpretive genius. The Neapolitan song Core ‘ngrato is the fervid lament of a young lover whose heart has been broken by a girl named Catari. Two versions – the first by Luciano Pavarotti, the second sung by Giuseppe Di Stefano whom I’ll return to in July to observe the 100th anniversary of his birth. Both tenors are great singers, but Pavarotti was a northern Italian while Di Stefano was Sicilian. The latter also was famous for both the extraordinary beauty of his voice and the passion of his interpretations. Alas, his voice went south when he was only 35. But for a short while he was a miracle.
Each tenor sings the song in the dialect in which it was written. Pavarotti’s interpretation is excellent. He was a great singer and he gave the song a great performance. Di Stefano’s reading is revelatory. It’s full of nuance and meaning. You don’t need to understand Neapolitan to feel what’s wrong with Catari’s jilted lover.
The same comments apply to the most famous of all Neapolitan songs – O sole mio. Here the distinction is even greater than in the previous song. Di Stefano exudes the passionate abandon that this paean to the southern sun demands.
The importance of the performing artist is nowhere as obvious as in singing. This is because each voice is unique. Even the most brilliant musician really can’t tell the difference between one fine violin from another – there are scientific studies documenting this statement. But one voice is easily distinguished from another by a knowledgeable listener.
The notes on a page are just ink until an artist performs them. No one would rank the greatest of conductors alongside Beethoven, but without the right baton leading the right band the most famous 4 notes in musical history are just an abstraction. The advent of recordings in all their permutations has made permanent an art that up until the very recent past was as transitory as a rainbow.