Is it fair to criticise a soloist for using sheet music in performance? Steven Osborne says No
I ran across British pianist Steven Osbourne's blog yesterday which, like the Dear Diary entries of many busy people, is sporadic. But his last entry, from Oct. 3, deals with something that strikes consternation or terror in many people: Whether to use sheet music in performance or play from memory.
It's an issue only soloists have to face. The expectation since the late-19th century has been that the soloist memorise their part in order to better focus on freedom of expression (the interpretive kind; not the human rights kind).
I know, from painful experience, that the expectations are especially strict when it comes to solo piano. It was only because he was an icon that, in his later years, Sviatoslav Richter was able to play in public with the score in front of him (and a page-turner seated discreetly beside). Among other prominent pianists, France's Alexandre Tharaud (who returns on Feb. 22 for a Scarlatti & Schubert recital for Music Toronto) performs with a score.
But, even so, many people look askance at this, as if anyone who can't memorize the music is an inferior artist.
I'll let Osborne continue the argument here:
Certainly the trickiest part of the summer came at the end, playing Rachmaninov 1st piano concerto at the Proms soon followed by 3 days recording Ravel. The prom was more stressful than usual because I had played the piece a few days previously in Belfast and had a couple of memory lapses which quite badly affected my confidence. After some thought, I decided to use the music in London. In classical music circles, there is a slight disapproval of performers, particularly pianists, using the music (I've heard that some British music colleges stipulate that solo piano exams be played from memory, for example, probably as a reaction to the stigma). Memory is a strange business - when you are relaxed everything flows easily but once you start to doubt it it can feel like turning off a tap (witness the people on TV game shows who say it's so much easier to answer the questions at home). I think there's just no point in adding needless anxiety to a performance, so I have little hesitation in using the music when I feel I need it (normally modern music), but then I'm lucky to already have an established career. How much harder for someone starting out, who maybe struggles with memory, feeling they need to try to 'make a good impression' by playing without music. It's quite cruel when you think about it, particularly when it's over something so irrelevant. Sviatoslav Richter played for years before his death only with the music. I can't think of any good reason for forcing people to play from memory that outweighs the stress it causes. In a state of anxiety one cannot properly access the rest of one's emotions; that in turn inhibits one's ability to communicate through the music.
In short, if you're in a state of terror, playing from memory achieves the opposite of what it is supposed to.
So, should we abandon the stricture that all music be memorized? Or should those soloists who can't hack it think of choosing another career path?
Here is a recent clip of Tharaud, from a show called The Music Box (hosted by the fascinating Jean-François Zygel, who gives well-loved recital-lectures on classical music). After the chat -- which includes Tharaud explaining how François Couperin's Tic-Toc Choc is meant to be played on a two-manual harpsichord, hence creating a major technical challenge for the modern pianist -- Tharaud plays. Even the fast-moving camera lens can't hide the fact that the pianist is reading a score, for a piece that has been a steady and popular part of his repertoire for nearly two decades.