I’ll never forget the weirdness of that moment.
It happened in my first real job. A small SUNY college with a great many music majors (those were the days!) had hired me to teach music theory and conducting. Even though I had to move to an upstate village comprised mostly of bars and a tomato-processing plant, even though most of my monthly salary vanished instantly when I paid the rent, I was teaching: Molding Young Lives, passing on The Heritage of Great Music.
And then one morning in conducting class, a student making his way through some Brahms—and doing pretty well by it—began executing a ritardando and crescendo (slow down and get louder) as the music built toward a climax. The trouble was, Brahms hadn’t written the magic words ritardando and crescendo until two measures later. My student was jumping the gun, anticipating the composer’s directions.
In grad school I had learned this was a fairly common beginner’s blunder, so I was eager to correct it. I stopped the music and showed the young man his error. To my surprise, he expressed shock and dismay. “Why did you stop me over that?” he asked. “It’s just interpretation.”
If you’ve ever taken piano lessons from the lady next door, if you’ve ever been a proud member of your school band, if you’ve ever had to play a solo for the district music contest, you know the rules. First you learn all the notated pitches and rhythms (also the words, if you’re a singer). In the process, you polish the technical skills needed to deliver them reliably in performance. You also learn how to walk onstage, where to put your hands or plant your feet, when to bow. Finally, perhaps at your last or next-to-last lesson, your teacher may say, “Now let’s put in the expression.”
And then you will attempt to breathe something like emotion or “interpretation” into those notes. Better be careful, though. For one thing, you’ve barely acquired the skills to make it through the piece without screwing up the required (i.e., written) pitches and rhythms. Nevertheless you will have absorbed the message present in nearly all Western music of the last 200 years: play what’s written, and only that. Don’t get carried away. Don’t embellish or improvise. Don’t add your own touches. Respect the Composer. (Although usually that grand phrase doesn’t make its way into your brain until you’re a full-blown music nerd.)
Is it any wonder that most of us, including many trained musicians, barely understand how the vast area called interpretation actually functions? Even great artists seem to differ radically in how they shape their performances. And un-great performers (i.e., the rest of us) are often so cowed by the music’s technical demands, not to mention our teachers’ harping over The Need to Work Hard(er), that when “putting in the expression” we are more likely to take out our frustrations than to seek out Interpretive Truth. Hence all the bangity-bang I have heard for the last 40 years whenever a student steps up to deliver Rachmaninov or Beethoven at the piano. She’s not “putting in the expression,” she’s (metaphorically) murdering her teacher.
What is Interpretive Truth, anyway? What separates Martha Argerich or Alfred Brendel (two great pianists who would probably argue ferociously about it) from run-of-the-mill Juilliard students?
This month let’s explore a few tenets of interpretation. We can begin by viewing this short instructional video, a TED Talk from conductor Benjamin Zander:
In the first 3’30”, Zander demonstrates a basic interpretive strategy: impulse reduction. A mature musician will emphasize longer phrases, reaching toward holistic narrative while avoiding undue, atomistic emphasis on local events. Basically, one learns not to plod; Zander cutely calls it “one-buttock playing.” In another useful bit around 11’00”, Mr. Z explains how things like harmonic language shape the narrative: a deceptive cadence, for example, should be heard and felt as such, because it is a crucial but unexpected interruption. Bottom line: interpretation should bring out the existing structure and content of the music. The performer’s interpretation should carry you further into that structure and content. They bear the true message of the music. We should never trivialize this process as “putting in the expression.”
For the sake of clarity, we’ll concentrate on a handful of works, beginning with the first two movements of Brahms’ Sonata for Cello and Piano in F Major op. 99. I’ve chosen interpretations by four cellists: Mstislav Rostropovich, Yo-Yo Ma, Tanja Tetzlaff, and Anne Gastinel. (I could have chosen other, possibly more definitive performances, e.g., those by du Pré or Casals, but these four illustrate the range of respectable performances quite well.)
Bear in mind that with cellists of this caliber, we take certain things for granted. These musicians will use their expensive old instruments to produce beautiful sound. There will be few or no wrong notes, no botched rhythms, no major lapses in ensemble. They will not strive for mere accuracy or fidelity—that’s a given—but rather to express the specific, varied, layered emotions that the music calls forth. In short, listeners should find these sounds both meaningful and attractive.
And yet these four performances will differ significantly. One broad difference might be termed Big vs. Small, or How Grand Should You Get? Here, the standout example of Big would be Rostropovich and Rudolf Serkin, two celebrated elders of the art, who dive headfirst into the first movement, a heroic Allegro vivace:
With warm, throbbing tone that fills the room, Rostropovich epitomizes the Romantic soloist, exultant in the breadth and freedom of his gestures. That seems to be just what Brahms summons up, of course, with a bold ta-da motto and signature rhythmic displacements (off-beat emphases that shred the triple-meter time signature). Serkin follows suit, and why shouldn’t he? Brahms scores the piano part richly, spilling chords and octave figuration from one end of the keyboard to the other. Tempo-wise, this Allegro vivace is more on the stately side. You will find this tendency especially marked around 1’14” and following. In this “relief theme” area, the players also ignore a few of Brahms’ staccato markings in favor of more lyrical treatment. That’s the price you pay for Big.
On the other hand, check out Ma and Emanuel Ax, recorded just a couple of years after the Rostropovich-Serkin sessions but much earlier in their own careers:
Same notes, same rhythms. But we have entered a world of classic restraint, of delicate feelings hedged with equivocation. There’s more poetry here and also some veiled despair. It’s a picture of Brahms the Conservative, anxious heir to Haydn and Beethoven, wearing his laurel wreath with marked ambivalence. In strictly musical terms, the triple meter is now more palpable, even slightly dance-like (i.e., Haydnesque). And these two observe all the staccatos in the “relief theme” area, which arrives a bit sooner in their performance. Years ago when I first purchased it, I did not warm to this recording, but now I get it. Yo-Yo Ma does balanced, poetic yearning better than anyone; his approach—echoed by Ax—is well worth hearing as a counterweight to Rostropovich’s untroubled, id-based flow of energy.
Maybe it’s part of their nod to classicism, but Ma and Ax don’t really achieve an Allegro vivace either. The two remaining recordings get closer. Here are Tetzlaff and pianist Gunilla Süssman in the first movement:
And here are Gastinel and François-Frédéric Guy:
These two pairs of performers illustrate another basic interpretive polarity: Local vs. Global. (See Zander’s Law, above.) Should you keep your eyes fixed on the horizon, or note every hillock on the path? It’s too simple a question, really, because a good performance will aim for balance.
When I first heard Tetzlaff and Süssman, I was both thrilled and scandalized by their attention to local events. Nearly every note or pair of notes was emphasized by roiling “hairpins,” those ˂ ˃ signs that indicate a momentary dynamic swell. How could they give themselves over to such histrionics?
Because Brahms asked for it. He wrote every hairpin, every accent, every crescendo, essentially demanding a response. Nevertheless, no loitering! This should also be a true Allegro vivace. Tetzlaff and Süssmann plunge ever onward, enlivening the music with a wider range of dynamics and copious applications of rubato (subtle accelerating or slowing within a phrase)—the latter not marked by Brahms but second nature to his entire generation. Moments are honored, but within a context rendered much more kinetic and impulsive. They make this a thrilling and coherent first movement. It’s nearly a minute shorter than either Rostropovich-Serkin or Ma-Ax.
Likewise Gastinel-Guy. My initial impression of this duo was that they were the most evenly matched of the four teams. Is there something Gallic in their economy and elegance? Neither player seems to dominate. Such unanimity is sometimes purchased at the expense of detail: fewer hairpins = more momentum. On the other hand, you’ll know when they get to the climax, because everything leading up to it has been carefully pruned back. Zander would applaud their one-buttock strategy. I do too. It’s hardly less thrilling than Rostropovich or Tetzlaff, and it may wear better.
The second movement of this four-movement sonata offers similar contrasts. Below, I’m offering a bit of the written score, mostly so that you can see just how slow an Adagio affetuoso can get. (Clicking on the score image will enlarge it.)
Although the music’s notated in 2/4 meter, implying two beats (impulses) per measure, what you’ll hear performed is more like four beats per bar. Rostropovich’s tempo is so deliberate that—especially at the beginning—you could be forgiven for hearing eight beats in each measure, one for each pizzicato pluck from the cellist:
And look at the dynamics! The piano, forte, and attendant hairpins ask the players to go from soft to loud and back again within the space of two measures, i.e., four beats of 2/4. No wonder that Tetzlaff and Süssmann seem to overdo those opening bars:
They’re just Respecting the Composer. The lesson we might take away from this, however, is that everything’s relative. In a generally quiet movement, you limit the dynamic spectrum regardless of the markings. Ma and Ax lean toward the piano end of the range:
whereas Gastinel and Guy begin with, and maintain, a more robust notion of piano:
Notice that both teams may manage the two-against-three microrhythms that follow with slightly more grace than Tetzlaff-Süssmann (too strict?) or Rostropovich-Serkin (too loose?). But this is arguable, offering further evidence that—as Johann Joachim Quantz opined way back in 1752—an Adagio can be a much harder nut to crack for both performer and listener.
The Adagio ordinarily affords persons who are simple amateurs of music the least pleasure. There are even some professional musicians who, lacking the necessary feeling and insight, are gratified to see the end of the Adagio arrive. Yet a true musician may distinguish himself by the manner in which he plays the Adagio, may greatly please true connoisseurs and sensitive and feeling amateurs, and may demonstrate his skill to those who know composition. (Translation by Edward R. Reilly, 1966)
This month I have at hand several recordings of Tout un monde lointain, a masterful cello concerto by French composer Henri Dutilleux (1916–2013). They illustrate some of the complexities of “interpretation” by large ensembles, especially in modern music.
Largeness aside, the matter is further complicated by two historical realities: (1) throughout the 19th century and for most of the 20th, composers became increasingly specific about precisely how their works should be performed. The interpretive wiggle room you could find in Beethoven or Brahms doesn’t exist in Schoenberg or even Copland. (2) The more specific and demanding the score, the more obscure its expressive intent may seem. Modern composers apparently delight in emotional ambiguity and paradox.
An extreme example of tendency (1) would be Steve Reich’s Minimalist landmark Music for 18 Musicians. I’m fond of a new recording by Brad Lubman and Ensemble Signal (Harmonia Mundi, 2015). Here’s an excerpt:
Exciting, no? Good to play while driving on urban freeways, or otherwise navigating 21st-century life. Here’s the rub: Lubman’s performance sounds a lot like a half-dozen or so other recordings of the work, including two from Reich himself. And why wouldn’t it? The music is written so that if you execute the given notes and rhythms at the indicated tempo and dynamic, that’s it. You’ve performed Music for 18 Musicians. No interpretation necessary, or desired.
With other modern music, the performer does get more opportunity for expression, except when tendency (2) kicks in. Which brings us back to Dutilleux: Eight years younger than Messiaen and only nine years older than Boulez, he nonetheless took his formative cues from Debussy, Ravel, and Roussel. That may explain why he only came to wider attention (and then slowly) after World War II. Indeed, Dutilleux eventually suppressed many of his earlier compositions because he recognized their derivative character. Like Berlioz and Debussy, Messiaen and Boulez, he came to see that the road to distinction as a French creative musician lay in cultivating an unprecedented style, one with no real antecedents and no successors. Here’s how Francis Bayer, his New Grove biographer, summed him up:
Dutilleux is above all an isolated and independent composer, keeping his distance from any aesthetic school. . . . His musical ideas are never presented at a single stroke; they impose themselves only gradually by a sort of continuous thematic growth, constantly undergoing infinitesimal modifications which foreshadow an idea yet to come or partially refer back to those already heard. Thus the thematic material is continually renewed. . . .
Dutilleux was not given to exotica à la Messiaen; he was never a provocateur like Boulez. He worked slowly, creating enormously subtle music that demands careful treatment in performance. His reputation rests on fewer than a dozen pieces, but in spite of that it continues to grow. (I heard Renée Fleming call his name on national television a month ago, so he does seem, finally, to have “arrived.”)
Can we interpret Dutilleux? Yes, we can. And we must, because that “continuous thematic growth,” those “infinitesimal modifications” need performances that underline their presence. A good Dutilleux performance—like well-done Brahms, Berlioz, or Boulez—should be beautiful and coherent and exciting (partly because it’s beautiful and coherent).
With Tout un monde lointain, we’re dealing with a work first performed in 1970 by Mstislav Rostropovich. Although many cellists have tackled it since, that’s still not much time in which to evolve a performance tradition. And, although Dutilleux’s music—especially that for soloists—embraces a mercurial, quasi-improvisatory aesthetic quite absent from Steve Reich’s, there are not an infinite number of paths to a great performance. The music is simply too complex yet specific for that.
I’ve chosen moments from four good recordings for comparison. Here’s the opening movement, “Enigma,” as performed by Rostropovich, with Serge Baudo and the Orchestre de Paris (Warner/EMI, orig. 1974):
And here’s a portion of that same opening from Emmanuelle Bertrand, with James Gaffigan leading the Luzerner Sinfonieorchester (Harmonia Mundi, 2015):
Now for the other two recordings. The third movement is subtitled “Houles” (“Sea-Swells”) and is characterized, like the other four movements, by an epigraph from Baudelaire:
You contain, ebony sea, a dazzling dream
Of sails, of towers, of pennants and masts . . .
In the middle of this we encounter a vivid episode that evokes warning bells and birdcalls. It comes a little over a minute into each clip.
Our first “Houles” clip featured cellist Anssi Karttunen and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen (DG, 2013). The second featured cellist Xavier Phillips with Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony (Seattle Symphony Media, 2014).
Of these four recordings, which seems to be the best interpretation?
All of them have recommendable features; none was a travesty of the composer’s wishes or a waste of studio time. All had the benefit of personal contact with Dutilleux. Rostropovich worked closely with him, as had Phillips and Morlot. He blessed Phillips’ interpretation and offered high praise of Bertrand as well (she has known him since 1999). Dutilleux was present at the DG recording sessions; Salonen posed proudly with him in a photo for the program booklet.
So how can we judge?
The question leads right back to Ben Zander and his one-buttock strategy. The most successful performance of Tout un monde lointain is the one that best connects each event in each movement, while illuminating musical relationships between movements. Once events connect, a fascinating further benefit occurs: boundaries clarify. Newly smoothed and lengthened phrases beget newly obvious interruptions, left turns, and full stops. This is not Cage. We are not presented with a series of essentially unrelated phenomena meant to vex our over-tidy Western thought processes. The more we hear Dutilleux, the more we will understand and enjoy these sounds—related, contextual, expressive.
I’ll cut to the chase: get the two wonderful performances by Phillips and Bertrand. For one thing, they are recorded better—the sound is more “present,” spacious, and vibrant, with superior detail—and they are available in 24/96 downloads as well as RBCD. (Salonen is let down by murky mid-bass and distant orchestral sound.) For another, they have benefitted not only from knowing Dutilleux and his music but also from studying the efforts of earlier interpreters, including Rostropovich. Finally, the orchestral accompaniments from both the Luzerner Sinfonieorchester and the Seattle Symphony are truly exceptional. I expected no less from Gaffigan and Lucerne, because their earlier Dvořák Sixth for HM was so gratifying. But to hear an American orchestra—in Seattle, at that—playing this music with such confidence and fire? Wow.
Bertrand’s album is filled out with a stunning little Dutilleux work for solo cello, Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher, and with Debussy’s Sonate pour violoncelle et piano (1915). Phillips, Morlot, and the Seattle Symphony launched their Complete Dutilleux Edition in 2014 with the album that features Tout un monde lointain; it also contains the Symphony No. 1 (1950) and The Shadows of Time (1997), for orchestra and children’s voices. Which is also on the Salonen-Hannigan-Karttunen album. (Like I said, fewer than a dozen works . . .) You’ll enjoy the challenge of unpacking this genius composer’s language.
Happy New Year, folks. See you in February!
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