[Pt. II Proj.3] ~Research point 2.4: Performance practice in practice

Research point 2.4: Performance practice in practice

The use of rubato in Romantic music is a clear example of how notation is interpreted by performers to create stylistically appropriate performances. They do not play what is literally notated but adapt particular instructions on the score to fit with their understanding of how the music should sound. The degree of adaptation is generally very carefully considered by performers and is informed by a number of factors.

What are these factors? Your task here is to investigate this question by researching into performance practice and musical interpretation. These are both very involved fields, embracing not only musical questions but complex issues of cultural theory as well. You may go into these as deeply as you like but with the aim of writing around 500 words on performance practice and musical notation.

500 words on performance practice and musical notation:

There are a multitude of factors which influence how we interpret musical notation. Amongst them are our current contemporary perception of how the music of a specific era sounded. For instance, resent scientific evidence suggests the overuse of vibrato in both singing and violin playing in modern interpretations of Romantic music and that the practice at the time was far more conservative than we have previously imagined. Presumptions of what the intentions of composers from eras prior to recording technology are particularly open to question, like in the example of Chopin below. Is it sufficient to know that Chopin was a Romantic composer in order to interpret his performance directions correctly? There are marked differences between the intentions of different Romantic composers. Beethoven, for example, was known to be a stickler for his tempi being absolutely correct and comparing his metronome markings to the tempo description given it would seem that his tempi were often slightly faster than the norm. Wagner was also known to place great value on the correct tempo.

In Chopin’s case there is evidence to suggest that he expected his Rubato to be in the right hand only, whilst the left hand kept steady timing. Brahms on the other hand expected greater elasticity.  

‘In keeping time Chopin was inexorable, and some readers will be surprised to learn that the metronome never left his piano. Even in his much maligned tempo rubato, the hand responsible for the accompaniment would keep strict time, while the other hand, singing the melody, would free the essence of the musical thought from all rhythmic fetters, either by lingering hesitantly or by eagerly anticipating the movement with a certain impatient vehemence akin to passionate speech. Mikuli, p. 3 Eigeldinger, Jean-Jacques. Chopin: Pianist and Teacher (As Seen by His Pupils). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

Trying to understand the composer’s intention is essential. Chopin wanted his melodic lines to resemble singing with the phrasing conveying sentences and stopping where a singer would pause for breath and emphasising the right notes the way you emphasise the right word for a spoken sentence to make sense. Hence all his slurs and phrase markings should be understood in this way. Similarly, it would be prudent to interpret his dynamic markings conservatively to avoid a ‘jerky’.

‘Also, all his compositions must be played with that kind of speech-like, accented lilt, that softness [morbidezza], the secret of which it was difficult to grasp if one had not often heard him play in person. He seemed to wish to teach this style of playing to his numerous pupils, especially his compatriots to whom, more than to any others, he wanted to communicate the breath of his inspiration.’ 100 Liszt, pp. 115–16

Eigeldinger, Jean-Jacques. Chopin: Pianist and Teacher (As Seen by His Pupils). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

Other factors influencing performance choices are one’s own technical ability, the type of instruments used (modern or period) and the acoustic properties and size of the performance space. Ultimately, we are also heavily influenced by what is currently considered good technique. This is particularly true of competition performances and all too often leads to sanitised and uniform interpretations.

Once you have done this compare five recorded performances of Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9 No. 3 in B major to discover not only how different or similar, they are, but how far the performers go in taking liberties with the notation. You may choose to focus mainly on rubato for this task, but you could include other factors such as articulation or dynamics. The recordings may be by different performers or may include recordings made under different circumstances by the same artist, for example early and late career recordings, or live and studio recordings.

Remember to make a note of which recordings you are using and to follow the performances with a score. This will require an analytical way of listening. You will be closely comparing what you are hearing with what you are seeing on the score as well as evaluating potentially more subtle differences between the different interpretations. Write around 300 words on the comparisons as well as offering your opinion on which performance you think works best and why. In your listening log, write a short reflective entry on your experience of this analytical way of listening.

Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9 No. 3 in B major. Comparison between 5 different pianists and decades.

Arthur Rubenstein’s 1999 recording seems to stick very close to the score and student accounts of Chopin’s own playing style, with Rubato sparingly used and without losing steady time keeping in the left hand. Even the last two bars marked ‘senza tempo’ are controlled. His lightness of touch and delicate, yet very clear, distinction of notes and phrases made it the perfect baseline performance.

Anna Fedorova’s 2010 performance has a far more pronounced Rubato and her phrases are less playful, but more lyrical. Her ‘espressivo’ is more expressive, but the notes are much more blurred. Dynamically her ‘forte’ is also substantially louder whereas her piano is not as soft as Rubenstein’s.

Sviatoslav Richter’s 1976 performance has a much faster interpretation of the Allegretto tempo. Rushing the introduction to reach the slower dotted notes. The variations in tempo are far more extreme with a ‘stop/start’ feel. Overpowering crescendos and forte, but softer sections not nearly as sensitive. A very blustery and ‘macho’ performance.

Eliane Rodrigues’ performance is nimble, with clearly articulated note runs, but with more extreme use of the pedal letting the notes resonate and sustain longer. It’s overall a more fluid and melodic performance (could this be seen as a Latin sensibility?) but feels formulaic in places.

Vladimir Ashkenazy’s 1983 live recording opens with delicate wavelike phrases. The mood is melancholy – a departure from the score’s ‘playful’ marking. The pathos and tragic undertones of this performance makes it stand out. I’m not sure it is what Chopin intended, but it makes for a very intense, enjoyable listening experience.

(6.43 min. in)

I enjoyed Ashkenazy’s recording the most although I am not convinced of its authenticity. I liked and could relate to Fedorova’s choices, perhaps because we are of the same gender and era. I also admire the beauty of Rubenstein’s delicate performance.