Pianist Byron Janis gives expert interpretation of what interpretation means

The one issue that interests me more than any other in classical music (all music, really) is interpretation, what the performer does with the notes provided. Not how they play or sing those notes -- the accuracy and virtuosity side of things -- but how they make truly individual musical statements, how they reveal their own interpretive ideas (or lack of same).

I'm always intrigued by the reviews of some of my colleagues who get considerably bothered when a musician strays from the printed boundaries -- going slower or faster than the tempo marking in the score, increasing or decreasing the volume in violation of what is written, etc. -- as if the object of performing is to present fundamentally the same thing, over and over, remaining totally respectful and subservient to the composer.

Yeah, I can understand that thinking, and I can almost buy it, until

I hear an artist go wonderfully "astray" and create an indelible experience.

So I was delighted to find an article by the excellent pianist Byron Janis in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal on this topic of interpretive freedom. I couldn't agree more. Here are some excerpts:

The score is really a blueprint for our creative talents and, consequently, our interpretive options abound ... No score will tell you how to play allegro (quickly)—there are a lot of different "quicklies" to go around. No score will give you the coordinates for playing rubato (freely), agitato (agitated) or semplice (simply) ... 

"As far as my experience goes," Brahms wrote, "every composer who has given metronome marks has sooner or later withdrawn them" ...

(Janis describes a recital where Chopin repeated one of his Mazurkas, playing it the second time) with such a radically different interpretation—tempos, colors and phrasing had all been changed—that it sounded like an entirely different piece. The audience was amazed when it finally realized he was playing the very same mazurka ... He would often say, "I never play the same way twice."


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