28 March 2012

Karaoke or Chopin?

The choice was between an elderly Chinese lady who, on the strength of her weekly visits to the karaoke lounge, felt we shared a common interest in music, and a statuesque Polish lady who told me she was President of the Chopin Society Singapore.  I couldn't see the conversation with the former progressing much beyond a run-through of the lyrics of "My Way", while my well-known and oft-stated dislike of the music of Chopin would seem to present a pretty near insuperable obstacle in talking with the latter.  As it was the President of the Chopin Society Singapore, Ewa Okrucinska, turned out to be a fascinating companion as we sipped wine and munched the nibbles at some reception or other which had brought together an odd assortment of Singapore arts folk.

Biting the bullet straight away I explained to Ms Okrucinska that, while I did not particularly like the music of Chopin, what I objected to most of all was the way pianists – especially in Asia – play it.  I was met with animated and enthusiastic agreement.  "Yes! They play Chopin like Rachmaninov!", was her impassioned response, and we went on to find a lot of common ground in our dismay at the way in which technique and accuracy take the place of artistry and a deep understand of the musical message.

Every major composer has a unique sound, a unique style and a unique voice, and the appreciation of this is vital to the authoritative interpretation of their music.  I know exactly what Ms Okrucinska meant when she said that so many pianists see no difference between Chopin and Rachmaninov, for, if you only see them as exercises in virtuosity and display with a superficial veneer of emotion stuck on top, they are bound to sound the same.  If, however, you understand the political, social, spiritual and emotional story behind not only the two men, but the circumstances of their individual compositions, you will see them as inhabiting totally different worlds and the similarities between their music become so superficial as to be insignificant.  Chopin and Rachmaninov are as similar, if you like, as Idi Amin and Kofi Annan.

There is a real problem in instrumental teaching which, while not unique to Asia, tends to be more widespread here.  And that is an exclusive focus on playing notes, reading the score and following instructions.  In other walks of life this may be a vital skill, but in music it is not.  The great composers, those whose music has that indefinable quality of survivability, use the language of music to communicate thoughts, ideas and emotions.  The very nature of any written language, be it Mandarin, English or musical notation, prevents it from expressing every tiny nuance of inner thought, and that's where musical interpretation comes in.  To deliver convincingly what a composer wants to say one must not merely look at what's on paper; one must look behind it at the circumstances, background and intentions of the original composition.

Many who attended Viktoria Postnikova's stunning Brahms Second Piano Concerto in Singapore last weekend were in appalled by the inaccuracies.  Somebody told me it sounded like a bad student attempt.  That comment reflects on the superficiality of instrumental teaching in Asia, where cleanliness and accuracy become goals in themselves.  The great pianists of the past had no such obsession with accuracy, and I am just old enough to have heard some of them.  When people tell me how great some of these long-dead pianists were, I find myself wondering whether they would say that if they actually heard them.  Opinions are founded on the basis of extant recordings; and as we all know, even a "live" recording reflects in no way the truth of a live performance.  Rubinstein hammering down fistfuls of wrong notes in Rachmaninov 2 was par for the course – he was great because he saw beyond the notes and into the message itself. 

Chopin, as all contemporary reports tell us, was a pretty ropey pianist, but people adored his playing because of the message it brought across.  We only need ponder Schumann's comment that Chopin's music was "Guns in Roses" to realise that when, as so many performances today do, we hear only the roses (or, in the case of some young Chinese pianists, only the rapid repeat of artillery fire) something is seriously amiss.  I have been absolutely spellbound by some Chopin performances, but repelled by the vast majority of them, simply because the pianist has no idea what it was Chopin had to say, and was not even prepared to accept that he did have anything to say beyond what he wrote in the score.

The obvious question is, how do we know what the real message is if it is not to be found on the printed page?  The answer lies in a deep and extensive understanding of the history of the composer, of the society in which he lived and the circumstances under which he wrote the work.  It is in an attempt to convey that to an audience that programme notes are supplied in concerts (let's forget those ghastly fake "programme notes" which merely reinforce the analysis of the music which anybody can realise just by looking at the score), but who conveys that to the performer?  The very best performers – one thinks of Angela Hewitt and Stephen Hough – will write their own programme notes, full of rich and detailed research and well-founded (if sometimes contentious) opinions.  But few conservatories teach their students how to write proper programme notes, and while that skill is left to the professional musicologists, performers all too often live in ignorance of what it is they are playing.

It is pretty obvious that most music teaching in Asia covers only matters of technique and theory and even conservatory students arrive able to play notes and unable to make music.  When, in history lectures, they are taught some of the background, their response is invariably one of totally absorbed fascination.  Students who have given recitals often come to me afterwards to discuss their performance and I present them with the question; What do you think the composer is trying to say?  That usually elicits an awkward silence, for they feel that all the composer is trying to say is that D major first inversion moves to E flat root position, legato, pianissimo and dolce – which anyone knows anyway because that is what is written in the score.  When we discuss the politics, the social situation, the world events, the latest inventions, the news of the day and all manner of other things going on when the piece was written, the students begin to appreciate where their performance missed out. 

I recall a masterclass in which I was a student and had elected to play Hindemith's Second Organ Sonata.  Gillian Weir (the teacher) listened to it and, far from pointing out matters of technique, tempo, registration or a thousand of the matters I was expecting, asked me if I had ever seen a photograph of Hindemith?  I had.  There was one in the inside cover of my score.  She asked me to describe it.  "Bald man", was about all I could say.  She then turned to the picture and spent a good three minutes describing it, as if it was a major work of art to be analysed and contemplated at length.  "You will see that he is smiling with his eyes".  Yes, I saw that.  "There is not a photograph of Hindemith where he is not smiling".  (She is right, although sometimes his smile, like that of the Mona Lisa, is so enigmatic as to be barely discernible.) "Now", she went on, "Play that final Fugue again and remember the composer was smiling when he wrote it".  It sounds daft, but it completely revolutionised the music and I suddenly saw what it was all about.  From that day to this I have been a passionate fan of Hindemith, a composer who, up to that time, I had assumed dry and mechanical.  Knowing just that one thing about Hindemith brought me into his music in a way no extensive study of the score could ever have done.  (Thank you so much, Ms Weir!)

Not so many teachers take that approach in masterclasses, more's the pity.  I sat in on one for wind students recently.  A group of them played André Jolivet's Pastorales de Noël. They played the score very well indeed and showed remarkable technical skill both at the instruments and in ensemble playing.  The teacher giving the class, somewhat stumped for things to say, commented loosely on dynamics, on articulation and on starting and ending each movement.  Yet there was one glaring problem with the performance which he did not address and which, I strongly suspect, the students themselves were unaware.  The third movement is entitled "La Vierge et l'Enfant".  I was not convinced that these students realised that this was a lullaby for Mary and her new-born baby, oozing love, adoration, tranquillity and amazement, as reading the relevant passages from The Bible would have revealed.  On top of that, it was composed in 1943 when Jolivet's native Paris was being cruelly suppressed by the Nazis and he, himself, had virtually given up composition unable to work in the stifling political climate of the time.  Clearly his deep religious faith and his early training as an organist and church musician helped him through, and in this movement one detects rather more than a simple lullaby – there is hope and aspiration from the depths of despair all wrapped up in it too.  Did any of this come across?  Not a bit – yet the notes were all right and the detail in the score neatly executed.

Some of the most interesting conversations I have ever had about music have been with major conductors who have really looked into and understood the music they perform.  Conductors seem to be taught to understand that the music they perform is far more than pages in a printed score, yet it seems that this is not something which instrumental teachers feel necessary, especially in Asia.  But it is fundamental to any half-decent interpretation of a musical work.  I know a lot about the background which drove Chopin to compose the music he did; it is a shame that those who perform it do not seem to possess that knowledge.   Perhaps, when all was said and done, the karaoke lady had more in common with those who perform music in this region than the Polish lady with a passion for Chopin.

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