It's not simple practice but the depth of research and overall preparation that makes perfect
Last fall, the legendary Alfred Brendel, just shy of his 80th birthday, gave a memorable performance in Koerner Hall. He has officially retired from concert life, but continues to make public appearances as a music lecturer who happens to have 10 miraculous fingers available for instant illustration.
His engrossing Koerner Hall lecture was "Does Music Have to be Entirely Serious?" He illustrated the creative use of humour principally with music from the Baroque and Classical eras. (He also took time to explain how and why humour was shown the door by the Romantics.)
There are two other of these lectures in his public portfolio: "Musical Characters," which looks at how a composer establishes mood in a piece of music (focusing on Beethoven's sonatas); and "Light and Shade of Interpretation," which is a clever double-entendre on the art and craft of creating a musical performance (also heavily based on late-18th and early-19th Austro-German composers).
All three -- presented at the Schüttkasten in Salzburg, Austria over three days last September -- are collected in a new, 3-DVD set just issued by Unitel Classica.
These are 225 must-view minutes for any serious music lover. Yes, there's only a piano in the room, but what Brendel says applies to any instrument, and even voice.
I was enjoying my first Thursday night off in months, so decided to do a Brendel marathon, for inspiration and challenge, and, to see how the old master could help me in his interpretation lecture with the question I posed here yesterday morning.
Just before making dinner, I sat down with Book I of Bach's Well Tempered Clavier. My childhood edition, from Peters, does not contain any musical instructions or footnotes; it merely lays out a pile of notes, leaving the interpreter to figure out tempo, ornamentation, phrasing and dynamics.
The possibilities are endless, and it took me less than an hour to feel completely overwhelmed as I considered the alternatives as I skipped and stumbled through the music. There are no easy formulas here.
Even with the help of more scholarly editions, it takes years to work out how to turn these piles of notes into a musical narrative worth sharing with more than the stuffed bear and sleeping dog in the corner.
After dinner, Brendel gave me a 75-minute summary of that years-long process of shaping any interpretation, further humbling me and my facile pronouncements on other people's blood, sweat and tears.
And there was the key to the whole thing: If a performer has taken the time and agony and effort to research, digest and sculpt, he or she will have created something worth hearing, something with an inner logic and an outer compulsion. That is what makes a fine recording or fine live performance, not whether or not their interpretation follows a specific set of rules or prescriptions of "this is the way it must be done."
A poker-faced pianist-teacher friend describes this, tersely, as "preparation." Oh, how simple that makes it all sound.
I think back on the concerts and operas I've reviewed over the past 10 years. I hope that giving appreciation of preparation has been the basis from which I have arrived at my commentaries. If not, I have deserved every angry email from readers.
Two other pianists, both at the start of great careers, are behind today's musings: New York City-based Italian Alessio Bax and Russian Vassily Primakov, who have just released overlapping albums of solo-piano music by Rachmaninov.
Both are compelling pianists offering richly layered interpretations. And they are completely different from each other. After multiple listens, I can't decide which one I like more -- prompting even more thought about what makes for compelling listening.
I'll let you know when I figure the two Rachmaninov discs out.
Here is a pirate video segment of Brendel's "Waldstein Sonata" from the "Musical Characters" lecture, from Oct., 2009.
I've followed this with of Ferrucio Busoni's transcription of Bach's "Nun komm der Heiden Heiland." The first is Brendel in a 1995 recital performance (in Tokyo's Suntory Hall), the second of Vladimir Horowitz in his living room, 10 years earlier: