That is the question that I have been grappling for quite a while now. The art of music is not an easy topic and to express my thoughts I feel a need to take the reader on a little journey of agreements and doubts, which eventually will lead to conclusions that I have arrived at myself. How to perform music is a topic that diminishes me by its sheer magnitude, however, I will try my best to articulate the things that matter to me at this moment.
As Marcel Proust postulates, "is interpretation a work of art in itself"? Can performers be praised for their ideas and delivery using the composer's notes or should they act as the mirror of the work of art written down? Are compositions masterful paintings on the wall, or lifeless blueprints until awakened by the performers. Brahms has mentioned that there is music that sounds better when not performed unless you have a superior performer as Joachim to your side. Can we, musicians make the work of art “better” by adding to it? Definitely, we make it “worse” by subtracting from it. The truth surely lies somewhere in between and here is where the problem is hidden, I suppose.
How much of one or the other? As actors choose their "schools of acting", musicians too, have to come clean and admit to themselves: am I speaking through the music or the music is speaking through me? Is my imagination so wonderful that Beethoven would applaud me for my ideas or changes in his music, or am I too rigid and emotionless following the letter of the score and musicological findings. Again, 21st-century correct answer would be a bit of both. Perfect balance is what we should seek.
But at which point we get to decide which musical phrase belongs to which aesthetic? And aren't we making the performance a bit like a Frankenstein's monster by freely adding here me, here composer? After all, most art scholars and lovers agree that the satisfaction lies in the unity of the variety of parts becoming one. We all seek some unifying factors in the works and in our interpretations but this, in my opinion, leads to standardization of the performance styles and monotony of musical expression.
I have studied the mainstream approach my entire musical life. Brought up on the Moscow Conservatory ideals and trained mostly in the US schools I slowly was opening up to the idea that my own ideas, as long as they are genuine and sincere, they will be convincing to the audiences. This really worked. The more imaginative I allowed myself to be, the more “expressive” and "electric" my concerts were. Audiences started to really respond to my playing and I felt once again that I have found the road.
This was a dead end for me though. Most performers are content with their own findings and interpretations, (most of the time if their teacher is happy too) and seldom challenge themselves musically. The search for success and career takes too much time from seeking answers about art and no one has time to pursue this growth. I also felt that I have found my true-self and that am able to color the BW music with my own colors. Apparently, I just needed to exclude most composers and play only music that most vividly reflected my own personality. In my case, it was Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich that I have connected to. Then I realized that that is exactly what most musicians do. They express themselves (whether they find their fit with Prokofiev, Mozart, Haydn or Brahms) and mend all others into the same mold. What I mean is the following: Rostropovich was unrivaled in his interpretations of Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky. These were the composers he connected to the most. Therefore his Saint-Saens or Bach were exactly as Dimitri and Piotr would compose them. Nothing wrong with it, If they would indeed ever compose those works though...
As a cellist, I always struggled with the limited repertoire. As a pianist, you can play exclusively Chopin or Beethoven and never run out of food for intellect and emotion and recitals. But as a cellist, you must navigate all styles from Bach to today and I always felt that each composer deserves a separate consideration of style. Pure, "good" cello playing was never enough for me, as much as I tried learning it. Of course, being self-critical, I always blamed my technical and musical deficiencies for the unsatisfactory performances and spiraled down in my self-esteem every time I had to touch Beethoven or Bach, and had a roller-coaster trip up when playing Shostakovich or Rachmaninoff, back to feeling musically well.
I couldn't continue this road. I have listened to Maisky, Yo-Yo Ma, Rostropovich, Casals, Queyrras, Wispelway, [insert a name] playing Bach and as much as I could enjoy (some) of these performances I could not replicate their results. It was as I would force what "sounds good" in one composer onto any other one. Many do it today, playing Shostakovich without enough roughness (American orchestras) or quite rough the music of Beethoven (Russian orchestras). From living cellists, (and I do not want to say it negatively, only as an objective example) Amit Peled displays this kind of musicianship that puts "good sound" in front of the meaning of the music. Every time I hear him play I cannot understand a "word" of it. It reminds me someone who would mumble incoherently but with a sweet voice though.
After all the struggles with the mainstream approaches, I decided to take on the impossible task and dedicate the rest of my life to understand what (not only) Baroque music is. I started to study and play Bach's Violin and Piano works, read as much as I could get my hands on. After Bach came Brahms and Schumann, then came Beethoven and finally, I slowly started to feel that all my life I was longing for the exact understanding of the music, and just cello playing was always leaving me bored. I do not have to mention that I hope I will at least scratch the surface before my time will be up.
I found out what historical performance has to offer and it just resonated with me. Resonated with reason. I believe that my inner musicianship was just fighting me every time I would play Beethoven with the same expressive devices as I would "Brahms" and Brahms as I would "Shostakovich" and Shostakovich with the utmost "fire and ice" I could possibly extract from myself. Playing historical instruments at the Frederick Piano Collection in Ashburnham opened my ears to more subtle ways of expression. I enjoy playing Beethoven much more nowadays because I feel and hear the sound that he had in mind and it is so much more natural for me to express myself exactly as the music demands it, instead of forcing myself onto it without consent that no one can get anymore today. At the same time, I am in awe listening to the "giants" of the past, truly enjoying their individualized interpretations. I love Piatigorsky's renditions, Horowitz's style, and Karajan's precision. But that's it for me. I feel completely dishonest following what Piatigorsky or Rostropovich or Casals has taught us without being critical. They have their wonderful renditions of things they were close to, but most of the "old" music is just not speaking to me. The only way I feel honest in my playing is when I follow the composer and the musicology that allows me to understand the composer better (whether it is a treatise by Bach or an interview with Pärt or a letter by Mozart).
I guess, what am I saying is simply, that I am slowly finding my own voice. So why to write about it? For vanity and to spite others? Not at all.
It is because of the state of music today and my bet on its future. I am putting all my eggs in one basket - and it is the HIP basket. I have never been so moved by the performances of the Mozart requiem as it was in the case of the Acadia Players, an early instruments group, and no other orchestra unfulfilled my expectations more as the Boston Symphony. The state of music making we are in at the moment, in my opinion, is declining due to us, performers. The way Perahia or Ma are playing is slowly dying. Anyone who follows this suit has much dimmer careers and definitely teaching at US conservatories is outdated and perpetuates the same kind of musicianship that belongs to Perlman and alike. What Itzak is doing is beautiful, but anyone sounding anything similar to him has never won any of my genuine attention, although they win. plenty of competitions where judges of course value playing most similar to their own. However, their careers are nothing like the "originals" anymore.
What won my heart are performances by Cortot, Savall, Bylsma, Bilson, and dozens of unknown performers on youtube who try to bring the music the way it was once conceived without putting themselves too much into the equation. I am confident that this is the future of music making and that one day, these performers will be called the mainstream and there will be another shift in tastes and once again, deeply individualized performances will become popular again. I do not think I will live to see it though. For now, I enjoy playing Beethoven with the loudest ff barely making it to modern mf due to the Walter piano being the way it is, and Shostakovich with the same fire and ice as I feel is needed in this music.
Thank you for reading.
P. S. Any criticism to the playing of the people mentioned in this blog entry comes from an objective evaluation and not from personal feelings. I appreciate the technical level of these performers and their genuine passions for the music we all love. I do admit that these musicians bring a lot of joy to many readers and larger audiences. I hope any comments I will receive for this blog will be only on the topic discussed. Thank you.