I was debating whether to buy a recording of pianist Alfred Cortot playing Chopin, or another collection of his recordings, when I came upon pianist Brigitte Engerer by accident. I started listening to her recording of the Chopin Nocturnes.
I can’t quite put my finger on why they sounded so good to me. The only way I can think to describe it is, she made it sound effortless. There was a lightness in her playing that was just different somehow.
It was quite a wonderful time. Now I want to listen to some of the other great pianists playing the same thing to hear how they play those same notes, and yet sound different (and figure out how to describe these differences). This is why I have several recordings of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and Winterreise.
Each musician, while staying true to the score, brings something of themselves to the performance. Each must determine from the instructions indicated by the composer how the piece “should” be played. But the notations leave room for interpretation.
As a former literature major, this is not unknown territory. Why did Robert Frost repeat the line “And miles to go before I sleep”? Let’s not go there just now.
So you try to get out of the way of Bach or Schubert or Beethoven, and let the music speak. Again, not unfamiliar territory. I am a translator, and the ideal (my ideal anyway) is to be invisible. The work should sound natural in the target language, as if it were written in that language in the first place, with all the author’s original nuances and color.
But my word choices, no differently than a particular musician’s turn of phrase, are unique to me, and perhaps, if one observes closely enough, or in enough volume, I may be identifiable. Can’t help it, it’s just the way I think. It’s the way everyone thinks.
What I’m trying to say is, as self-effacing as a musician (or translator) tries to be, some of their personality, or style, is going to leak through. That’s why you can know it’s Glenn Gould, or Barenboim, or Stokowski (or, for that matter, AC/DC) from a few measures sometimes.
Is that good? I suppose, as long as it’s not all about Musician X at the expense of Composer Y. It’s certainly human. That’s why MIDI renditions of scores created by computers sound a little bland. They are exact, but…somehow expressionless. Even though Cortot was not without his mistakes, he is lauded for his interpretations. There isn’t just Chopin, and can never be, now that he is gone. And he almost certainly played a given piece differently depending on mood and other factors. Now, there is Chopin+Performer. As humans, we want to hear what the performer brings to the piece.
Engerer+Chopin sounds different than Cortot+Chopin, just as (Pears+Britten)Schubert sounds different than (Padmore+Lewis)Schubert. And each is beautiful in its own way.
Vive la différence!