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To Me or not to Me...

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.

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Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No. 1 - Defying interpretations after 1950s


Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No. 1 - Defying interpretations after 1950s

No one has made such an impact on the cello and the world as Mstislav Rostropovich. His enormous personality and deeply emotional interpretations are carved with a knife into the stone of the history of music. We all marvel at the changes he brought with him to the way we understand, feel and play music. Until today his interpretations of certain pieces are unsurpassed. He looked at the music with devotion and came to wonderous conclusions, sometimes unthinkable before but with his conviction and heartfelt playing, he made them possible. His teaching was based on what is written in the score, and how to understand it. With his huge heart and imagination, he passed his discoveries to the lucky students and listeners all around the world. 

I believe this is where the main fault of our profession as pedagogues lies. To pass your own experiences to future generations. However, there isn't much more that we can offer, past our own view of the masterworks and a way of our own cello playing. Certainly, it would be very hard to teach something we don't do or believe in ourselves. 

But this way of teaching presumes one thing - that somehow I or anyone else has found "the answer" to music. The answer to play a certain phrase, movement, style, or technique in a certain way. We know that is an impossible task especially with the music of the dead. With a living composer, you have the ability to get a confirmation (mostly among the lines: "something like that"). But how to know for sure, how Beethoven or Saint-Saens liked their music to be performed? And even more challenging - would they be thrilled about a new way of understanding their compositions? All those questions are impossible to answer.

So how can we indeed "interpret" and teach? The closest answer I found to this particular question is to be absolutely genuine, vulnerable and honest. But genuine based on what? As Marcel Proust postulates - is an interpretation a separate work of art, comparable to the original composition? Or we are just the vessel through which music has to come through as it would from the composer himself?

 It the view of this questions, I can only give an answer that rings true to my own personality and allows me to feel genuine playing the Saint-Saens Cello Concerto this coming Friday. I believe our interpretation has to come from the same place as it did for Slava - from looking at the score and looking inside oneself. As much as I admire the cellist, I cannot say that he definitely was a greater musician than Saint-Saens himself. Slava came to marvelous conclusions by feeling the music and understanding it. But what happens when I "validate" his conclusions and do not question them at all? Certainly, they sound beautiful, don't they? Yes, but only when he plays them, apparently.

My fundamental belief in genuine playing becomes rotten, as soon as I take upon myself believing blindly in someelse’s discovery. We should all study and get to know those discoveries, but as long as we only repeat after them we will never enter the Nirvana of the interpretation. Rostropovich students understood that, so to avoid copying their magnificent teacher and to stand out on their own, they mended and changed... his interpretations to something new. Results are visible in such degenerated cases of musical interpretation as Misha Maisky, Gidon Kremer, or Gautier Capuçon (twice removed) and many others who look at the score carefully and see what their master teachers saw and nod approvingly. I love 20th-century interpretations, however not scholarly correct they were. I genuinely enjoy listening to them. However, I dislike almost all interpretations of old music by the students of these great performers (new music is fine as the teachers and students knew composers and worked with them directly). There is also a question of changing tastes in music which won’t be discussed here.

So what can we do today? There is so much information available now thanks to the endless scholarship of people like Bilson, Bylsma, Del Mar, Levin, and Isserlis among many more. Can we willingly ignore those findings? Because lastly, who should influence our interpretation the most - our teacher, favorite performer, or a composer and everything we know about him, his time and style of playing? I believe it is the composer, and therefore my Friday interpretation will be somewhat unusual to the ears of those who heard this concerto before. However, my task will be to prove that this music has as much passion, philosophy and emotion as others claim there to be. Playing historically informed doesn't mean we can't allow emotions to take over. On the contrary! Emotions are the fabric of this concerto, but emotions that would be closer to the personality of Mr. Saint-Saens rather than Mr. Rostropovich, or anyone else alive today. 

But how can I say that? I did not meet him. I never met anyone who knew him. My answer is that I did everything I could to get to know him, through things written about him, through his own words, through his biography and through all of his compositions. Even if I'm wrong and Camille is laughing at me, this is my genuine interpretation.

So what will be so different? Not much actually. The only big difference is the tempo of the third movement taken most of the time too slowly (in 4/4, rather than Un peu moins vite, in 2/2). This way the tempo of the 16ths notes stays exactly the same as the opening of the movement. Why play it without the sobbing quality of the slower tempo and constant vibrato? I feel the beautiful moments where hairpins are written are lost in the middle of oversentimental phrasing. In a more true tempo, I have a chance to deploy a bit of rubato in those moments and "steal the passions of the listeners" to use the words of CPE Bach. I do a bunch of other small details, but I invite you to come and find out for yourself!

Also, your comments are always welcome here.