Thursday, January 7, 2010

Interpretation vs. dictation

Veteran pianist Byron Janis rejects the still-prevailing view that musicians should adhere strictly to the written score. "The score is really a blueprint for our creative talents and, consequently, our interpretive options abound," Janis writes in The Wall Street Journal:

The "fidelity" issue is one of the biggest cans of worms in classical music. In the romantic era of the 19th and early 20th centuries, musicians read composers' scores as blueprints, or even as suggestions. Performers felt free to alter the designs and reject the suggestions. Mahler, for example, reorchestrated the symphonies of Beethoven and Schumann. Other interpreters made cuts to tighten up scores. Tempos, dynamics and phrasing were altered freely, not to say promiscuously.

Composers of the romantic era seemed to invite interpretive intervention. In the 16 movements of the four Brahms symphonies, only two are simply marked "andante" and "allegro" (both in the Third Symphony). In all 29 movements of Tchaikovsky's seven symphonies (the six numbered ones and "Manfred"), modifiers, qualifiers and characterizations are attached to tempo markings.

The advent of sound recording, enabling composers to document performances of their scores, did not eliminate interpretive wiggle room, because, as Janis observes in his essay, composers themselves are wigglers.

Stravinsky, who famously disdained "interpretation" of his scores, conducted a number of recordings of "The Rite of Spring." Of the four I've heard, each differs noticeably from the others. A Swedish Radio Symphony performance from 1961 is so measured in tempos and "romantic" in phrasing and expression that it sounds like Stravinsky channeled through Rachmaninoff. Rehearsal of that performance was recorded, too, and the composer got what he asked for. So which "Rite" is right? The score or this one of several composer-led recordings?

You can hear deviations from the printed score in recordings by other composers. Some, like Elgar, took plentiful interpretive liberties with their scores; any conductor today who performed the "Enigma Variations" as the composer recorded the work would be savaged by colleagues and critics. Other composers, like Hindemith and Richard Strauss, were more scrupulous in following their own instructions.

Janis' revisitation of the issue of interpretation is timely. Musical birthdays being marked this year include the 200th of Chopin and Schumann, the 150th of Mahler and the 100th of Barber – all composers whose music invites active collaboration by living interpreters. Chopin and Schumann all but demand it; Mahler, who presumed to rewrite Beethoven, deserves it.