Notebook

My attitude towards performing with other musicians

As far back as I can remember, chamber music has always been my strongest and the most immense passion amongst all my musical activities. The idea of creating a collective vision, cooperating with other people and sharing experiences with them is what I value very highly. Being a part of something greater than just an individual act is what makes chamber music extremely exciting for me.

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I am thoroughly aware of the significant role of a  pianist in the complex process of creating a collaborative artistic vision, while partaking in a musical partnership. This requires a mixture of high-level pianistic and musical skills, as well as a certain amount of  devotion to the art of  accompanying. As Irwin Gage said: “There are many accompanists who are very good pianists, but there not many pianists who are good accompanists.”

Other features that a good collaborative pianist has is an ability to embrace being able to learn new repertoires very quickly, and also not being afraid of challenges. The experience I have gained while studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London (including, to name but a few, accompanying on the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, or winning a three-round duo competition after having prepared 80 minutes of music in only two and a half weeks), has strengthened my beliefs that I have those features, and has also convinced me that:

one’s abilities are always,
with a little bit of effort and determination,
expandable and improvable.

Interpretation in music

After two lectures with Kenneth Hamilton at the Royal Academy of Music and reading an article “Beyond the Interpretation of Music” by Laurence Dreyfus, I have started to ask myself some questions concerning the notion of interpretation.

In Johann Sebastian Bach’s times, the score was meant to be only a version of music, just one of possibilities. Not so much later, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart suggested that a performer should play “all the notes exactly as they are written and with the appropriate expression and taste, so that you might suppose the executor composed it himself.” But what is “appropriate expression” and “taste”? Where can we find the rules for a good and appropriate interpretation? Does something like “the appropriate interpretation” even exist? In addition, it would be interesting to quote here Pablo Casals’ words: “There are so many excellent instrumentalists who are completely obsessed by the printed note, whereas it has a very limited power to express what the music actually means. (...) yes, it is through these notes that we must reconstruct all the author’s states of mind! Are there any set of rules for this re-creating process? I cannot think of any.”

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Discussions about interpretation often appeal to some kind of authority. For authority one can find the composer’s writings, a teacher’s words, a prominent musician’s playing, the traditions, the musicological rectitude, the taste, the common sense, etc. However, we should be really careful with believing that a piece of music should be played in only one, particular way, only because it was executed in that way 200 or 300 years ago, or because someone said that.

Kenneth Hamilton raised a subject that a score is a translation (or interpretation) of what is in a composer’s mind, and a performance is a further translation (or interpretation) of the score. Should we then play “what the composer wrote” or “what the composer wanted”? Should we understand the word “interpretation” as presenting our own point of view or as presenting what the composer wanted to say? If one opts for the latter, is it possible to gain the certainty that we know exactly what the composer really wanted to convey?

For some musicians, the idea of interpretation is not about presenting the performer’s personality and individuality, but about presenting an interpreted piece in an individual way. It is a subtle difference in meaning, but it is a crucial difference in the execution of music, because it puts the composer’s wishes above the performer’s. It is worth citing what Johannes Brahms said once: “When I play something by Beethoven, I feel scarcely any of my individuality; instead, I have enough to do trying to render as well as I can what Beethoven has prescribed in the piece”. So, Brahms definitely wanted to ignore his own individuality in playing pieces written by other composers (or maybe just by Beethoven).

According to Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, “a piece of music contains true content and associated feelings. Its creator or author experienced specific passions in fashioning it, and like a human being, the piece expresses jolly as well as violent emotions. To aspire to a good delivery, the musician or player must first be moved by the piece so as to move listeners, whom he helps to understand his intentions to the extent of reasonably communicating, with his face and body, the gestures of the piece.” One of the questions that comes to my mind when I read the above statement is: should we make every effort to seek and capture the emotions that the composer could have experienced during writing a particular piece, or should we be led by our own reactions to the music and our own emotions that appear during listening or playing? The conductor Owain Arwel Hughes claimed that “to make music is to interpret and follow the wishes of the composer, which are paramount. It’s a joy to get as near as possible to the composer’s intentions and communicate them to an audience.” But even if we try to find and reconstruct all the composer’s emotions hidden in the score, they are always perceived by us through our own sensitivity and personality. From my point of view, there is every time a process of translation from the composer’s musical language to our own musical language. Despite the assumption that everyone in the world is able to share and experience similar emotions, I think that everyone has unique ability of emotional perception, which is, somehow or other, limited. This is why one particular piece of music can be comprehended and interpreted so variously by different people.

I think that it is extremely important for every musician to gain wide musical knowledge, but I also think that at some point it is not bad to stop asking questions like “How should I interpret this music?”, “Should I do it this way or that?” and replace them by “How do I want to interpret this music?”, “Do I want to do it this way or that?”. I believe that everyone should eventually become his or her own authority (without claiming that one has acquired “the only truth”) and luxuriate in the fact that the score is only an imperfect notation of musical ideas, so it is open and full of possibilities for a performer. Finally, we should not forget that our main task, as performers, is to profoundly move people in the audience, and it is simply not possible if we utterly follow someone else’s rules.