Against Musical Fundamentalism

I distrust the popular idea of claiming to be true to the composer’s intentions. During a performance I recently heard of Beethoven’s Opus 59, No. 3 by the Dover Quartet, I observed that, following the current trend of following Beethoven’s metronome markings, they played the last movement faster than the speed of light. I first noticed this trend in the 1960s in a recording by the New Music Quartet, and by the time the Emerson Quartet made their recording it was as if the viola’s statement of the fugue subject in the last movement was a challenge to a race, with the intention of getting to the finish line as quickly as possible. To me it sounds like a lot of noise when the tempo is too fast to actually hear the interplay of voices. 

The great pianist Leonard Shure, an important disciple of Artur Schnabel, tried to indoctrinate me into blindly following the intentions of the composer. When I played the Schumann Concerto for him, Shure immediately pointed out an accent that I didn’t observe that he claimed changed the whole complexion of the exposition. He certainly could have talked more about my intonation, tone quality, and rhythmic impetus. I wish he had. That would have help me much more with what I would be doing for most of the rest of my life.

I have come to consider Leonard Shure’s proclaimed faithfulness to the intentions of the composer as a form of musical bullying. Who knows what the intentions of a composer who has been dead for a century or two were anyway? It think it is the music itself that usually suggests an interpretation and a tempo to anyone capable of playing it.

There are two particular pieces of Shostakovich where I violently disagree with his tempo indications, so I always chose to ignore them. In the slow movement of the cello sonata, for example, the tempo he indicates is slow to the point of death. There is an obvious reference to the opening of the Beethoven A Major Cello Sonata, and I think that if it sounds like the Beethoven A Major Cello Sonata it should be played at that tempo. 

I also disagree with his tempo marking for the Scherzo of the Trio No. 2. Shostakovich played it at that fast tempo with David Oistrakh (I have the recording), but it is important to remember that most violinists who play this piece are not Oistrakh, and at a somewhat slower tempo, an ensemble of living mortals can give a credible and understandable performance.

Many years ago, I was at dinner with an eminent violinist, who I will call “Mr. S”. He started pontificating with the greatest possible vehemence: how important it was to play everything that was there in the music. He continued by saying, “If you can’t do that, there’s a simple solution: just play another piece.” I told him, “Don’t ever come to any performance of mine, because you won’t like what you hear.” I should’ve asked him, “What happens if you can’t play everything in the other piece, and the piece after that? Will your repertoire be confined to Come to Jesus in whole notes with no dynamics?” 

A contrary point of view was expressed to me by a Cuban conga player named Ray Barretto, known as the “Godfather of Latin Jazz”, during a recording session. I saw a figure in front of me in four quarter time that was: 

♪♩ ♩ ♩♪|♪♩ ♩ ♩♪

as a repeating pattern. Naturally, I played exactly what I saw and Ray Barretto came over to me in a fury, brandishing what I hoped was not a knife. I pointed to the music and said, “That’s what it says!” Ray Barretto said, “That may be what it says, but it ain’t what it is.” What it was turned out to be a lovely, lilting Cuban melody that made absolute sense to anyone with a musical ear. In that one statement, Ray Barretto articulated something which I have always believed: that over anything else, the flow of the music with the sound that captures the ear and compelling phrasing is more important than all the pianos, fortes, accents, slurs, etc, that a musical fundamentalist can throw you.

Many years ago, I was playing St. Matthew’s Passion with the eminent Bach specialist, Helmuth Rilling. The concertmaster insisted on playing the gorgeous violin solo without vibrato or dynamics. I went up to him and asked him, “Why do you want to sound like a Suzuki student when you don’t have to?” He called over Rilling, who agreed with me, and then he played the solo magnificently for all to hear. Another similar incident happened when I was playing the Handel opera Alcina at the Lyric Opera with John Nelson conducting. He was very insistent that I play my two arias similarly with no vibrato or dynamics. These two arias were in counterpoint with two of the greatest sopranos of the 20th century: Renee Fleming and Natalie Dessay. I explained that if I had exactly the same material that was sung by these two icons of vocal art two bars later, why should I allow myself to be totally upstaged? If Renee Fleming vibrates, I also will vibrate on the same material and try to imitate her in every possible way. In the end, John Nelson agreed with me. But after the run, he told me: it would’ve sounded good his way also.

My personal philosophy is and has always been, “Sound as good as you can any way you can; and if you can’t sound good, don’t sound bad”. I give two examples from the highest level to the lowest that illustrates the efficacy of my philosophy. In 1971, I did a concert on Brahms chamber music in Carnegie Hall. One of the pieces was the Brahms Clarinet Trio, which I had to learn in a very short amount of time. In the second movement of this piece, there is a wild leap to a high F# that I could not make reliably. Even when I did make it, it didn’t sound all that good anyway. SO… I decided to play it an octave lower. If Brahms would have turned over in his grave for this offense against his score, I still would have said he could use the exercise. Long and short of it was, I was dubbed a “First-Rate Cellist” by the nastiest and most feared critic from the New York Times, Donal Henahan. How would I have been better off if I did the right thing and missed a shift, or sounded like shit trying to get it?

The second example involves a young man who couldn’t play the viola to save his life, but nevertheless, was in a quartet that I was coaching, playing the Schubert A Minor Quartet. In order to play all the notes, he had to play in second position, which was quite beyond him. If he played one note an octave higher in first position, he could do the phrase reasonably well. By doing this, he was able to pass muster in the concert, whereas otherwise, I would not have had a quartet. 

One danger of trying to be right rather than sounding good is that even a very, very great artist can reduce the power of his performance. I witnessed this as a young man. One of my idols, who I will not name, was the most compelling pianist I ever heard at home. When he got on the stage, he became didactic, cutting off the life force of his inspiration in the service of playing everything exactly right.

These were the lessons that I learned over time. Sometimes, you can either be right or sound good. Your decision will always be respected. I make no apologies for any affronts I’ve inflicted on the musical scores in front of me during my long career. I’ve always played what I believed was in the best interest of the vision that I had of the piece that was in front of me given the demands of the music and my ability to meet those demands.

In response to the article, Robert Gardner says:

You raise an important issue that has been much debated: the “composer’s intentions”. First of all, how do we know the composer’s intentions? But even if we do is it really the “best” version? When it comes to tempo, can we assume that the composer’s markings were based on accurate metronome readings, or on accurate metronomes, especially those constructed long ago?  Here’s an interesting article on that subject:

Also, from a study published by the National Library of Medicine: “…Our results show that conductor tempo choices reveal a systematic deviation from Beethoven’s marks, which highlights the salience of “correct tempo” as a perceptive phenomenon shaped by cultural context. The hasty nature of these marks could be explained by the metronome’s ambiguous scale reading point, which Beethoven probably misinterpreted.”

That there is such a thing as “too fast”, even by the standards of the most velocity-minded young musicians can be easily demonstrated by playing back for the Dover Quartet members their own recording of the Op 59 #3 Allegro, digitally accelerating it to 25% higher speed without raising pitch, and asking them their opinion of the tempo. I leave their response to your imagination!

Even when the composer’s tempo and all other markings are fine, and the composer himself is happily enjoying an interpretation, surprising things can happen. In Aspen years ago I was the cellist in a trio performing  Copland’s “Vitebsk”. In our previous rehearsals, we had all agreed that a certain dynamic marking didn’t seem to allow the full emotion of a passage to be expressed, so we changed it. The edition had been approved or edited by Copland himself. We knew Copland would be present at our last rehearsal and we decided to “dare” play our slightly altered version for him. The result (paraphrased as best as I can remember)  “Well…interesting…that’s quite different… I hadn’t conceived it that way…it is different…but I think it works..yes I like it! Keep it!” And we did!

Danny, you and I have similar musical values along with finely honed survival instincts! We will find the best way to make something sound really good, and screw most other considerations, though our excellence and inherent musicality will almost automatically insure a superior result. I’m still impressed by how you altered the “P” dynamic in Tosca to make that passage sound better and more musically “right”. I suppose if that passage were sung instead of played by cellos, a great singer  could make it work by huskily and intimately lingering on that “P”, then resuming with power. But as written it just doesn’t make much sense within the context of a cello quartet.

Although “That may be what it says, but it ain’t what it is”  may not always be applicable to every piece of music, it is still one of the best things I ever heard!

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