423 • Quo Vadis?

While we – contemporary pianists – believe to be wildly innovative and imaginative, we seem to be destined to imitate and recombine pre-existing interpretation traditions. Searching for new expressions in an interpretation of historical piano music (older than 90 years) by referencing contemporary culture doesn’t enrich any longer. And it seems that we permit CD recording quality, institutional competition parameters, and the emerging showmanship and branding of the second half of the 20th century as main examples to imitate in the 21st. And yet – no new paradigm setting or changing pianistic idea was contributed in the past 50 years. We are cloning from a small genetic pool. We are playing from a card deck that has no faces any longer. Why not at least make our selection for imitation more inclusive, add a few trump cards to the deck?

There is an established but compromised academic interpretation tradition today: we play Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and many others in a quasi-romantic late 20th century tradition while trying to follow note and symbol Urtext editions. Why? We are in a castle with many ghosts and few spirits. If we are shackled in front of a cave wall, why not add a few of the old shadow-casters to behold? Short of trailblazing innovative and parameter setting interpretation approaches in the way of Gould, it should be, and actually is, our choice to interpret baroque, classical, and romantic music by imitating a multitude of traditions.

Why not interpret Schubert in the way of Liszt or Bach in the way of Busoni; or - for that matter - Liszt in the way of Busoni? How do we know their ways? We know their editions and commentary. Are they Urtext? No. Should we use Urtext? Yes. But why not - instead of to just blindly trying to obey scores - heed the insight and input of the great masters from the past and extrapolate their interpretation principles?

Why not sometimes permit change of texture, timbre, register, and voicing; sometimes double an octave, arpeggiate a chord, add or take out an ornament, and take out or add a note; improvise a cadence, sometimes use the pedal, change the tempo, or take extra time to smell the flowers ... while preserving overall melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and structural integrity? Why not make our interpretation principles - not more arbitrary but - more inclusive of different traditions based on aristocratic taste and competent mastery from the more distant past? Why only follow, with all due respect, Arrau, Brendel, and Pollini and not also Cortot, Busoni and Liszt? Pianists marvel over Horowitz, but to actually play like him would disqualify one for audition or competition today – isn’t that a reason for concern?.

If we are all far removed from a living tradition in the 21st century and condemned to imitate a few existing interpretation examples from the second half of the 20th I suggest to compliment our spectrum of examples, seek inspiration from different and older traditions instead of only "searching for new expressions".

"A craving for novelty in everything and a fondness for eccentric opinions are the marks of people of superficial knowledge."
Yoshida Kenkō, (ca. 1283-1350)

Furthermore: The search for new expressions in classical music seems to lead less to a continuation of interpretation traditions and more to acrobatic crossover, bend-over, hair do-over, and might eventually lead to just plain over. There might be a different, less fragile and more inclusive path.

Listen to Rachmaninoff playing Beethoven or Horowitz playing Scarlatti - is there anything better or more appropriate? Not to mention more beautiful or inspiring? Would not a vastly enriched interpretation tradition gene pool spawn a few unforeseen, precious, and meaningful creations?


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