Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing

Things heard on the way to listening to something else, and how do you play them?


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!

Hear Brigitte Engerer play Chopin

See Alfred Cortot play Chopin


3 thoughts on “Things heard on the way to listening to something else, and how do you play them?

  1. Sentiments. Ink, paper, fingers, instruments. Hardware, software, wetware. Repetition with variations. Is it the music or the composer or the player that we love? Reality trio.

    Douglas Hofstadter, I Am a Strange Loop (2007), Chapter 1, On Souls and Their Sizes

    One gloomy day in early 1991, a couple of months after my father died, I was standing in the kitchen of my parents’ house, and my mother, looking at a sweet and touching photograph of my father taken perhaps fifteen years earlier, said to me, with a note of despair, “What meaning does that photograph have? None at all. It’s just a flat piece of paper with dark spots on it here and there. It’s useless.” The bleakness of my mother’s grief-drenched remark set my head spinning because I knew instinctively that I disagreed with her, but I did not quite know how to express to her the way I felt the photograph should be considered.
    After a few minutes of emotional pondering — soul-searching, quite literally, — I hit upon an analogy that I felt could convey to my mother my point of view, and which I hoped might lend her at least a tiny degree of consolation. What I said to her was along the following lines.
    “In the living room we have a book of the Chopin etudes for piano. All of its pages are just pieces of paper with dark marks on them, just as two-dimensional and flat and foldable as the photograph of Dad — and yet, think of the powerful effect that they have had on people all over the word for 150 years now. Thanks to those black marks on those flat sheets of paper, untold thousands of people have collectively spent millions of hours moving their fingers over the keyboards of pianos in complicated patterns, producing sounds that give them indescribable pleasure and a sense of great meaning. Those pianists in turn have conveyed to many millions of listeners, including you and me, the profound emotions that churned in Frederic Chopin’s heart, thus affording all of us some partial access to Chopin’s interiority — to the experience of living in the head, or rather the soul, of Frederic Chopin. The marks on those sheets of paper are no less than soul-shards — scattered remnants of the shattered soul of Frederic Chopin. Each of those strange geometries of notes has a unique power to bring back to life, inside our brains, some tiny fragment of the internal passions and tensions — and we thereby know, at least in part, what it was to be like that human being, and many people feel intense love for him. In just as potent a fashion, looking at that photograph of Dad brings back, to us who knew him intimately, the clearest memory of his smile and his gentleness, activates inside our living brains some of the most central representations of him that survive in us, makes little fragments of his soul dance again, but in the medium of brains other than his own. Like the score to a Chopin etude, that photograph is a soul-shard of someone departed, and it is something we should cherish as long as we live.”


  2. I love listening to different pianists play the same piece — gives insight into the piece and the performers. Brigitte Engerer is new to me, and obviously a treasure. Thank you!


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