Monday, May 12, 2014

Depends on who's telling the story

If you've ever been to a piano competition you might have noticed that if thirty pianists are required to play the same piece of music, they will often play that piece very differently. How does that happen? In this article I'm going to talk a bit about interpretation.

A couple of weeks ago I made a recording of a Scarlatti sonata--hurriedly, as usual, but except for the distractingly out of tune octave Gs in the treble of the piano, the result wasn't too bad, and I posted it last week on this blog. As I was preparing to post the recording I wanted to check to make sure I got the catalog number right so I checked with The Google and stumbled across a Youtube recording of a pianist named Nikolai Demidenko.

Mr. Demidenko apparently knows how to play the piano, having won some major competitions and toured the world, etc. although to be honest I hadn't heard of him. But it's a big world and I don't pay as much attention to the world of piano superstars as you might think.

What was interesting about listening to his interpretation is that it was quite a bit different than mine. I had made the recording before I listened to anybody else play the piece, so it was enlightening. Mr. Demidenko's approach was largely more graceful and smoother than mine. I remember thinking that I might have captured some Spanish passion with the rendition, although Scarlatti was actually Italian. John Kirkpatrick, whose book on Scarlatti I read years ago, thought that Scarlatti may have been somewhat bold and reckless; there were rumors that he had a gambling problem, that he was a risk taker, and adventurer--all these things might have contributed to the music as I played it. Except for one problem: I'm not so sure that we are so sure that we really know that much about Scarlatti's personality. And although Kirkpatrick believes that Scarlatti's music is somewhat biographical, which is a nice thought, it's hard to know just how far one can safely take something like that. And anyhow, when it comes to storytelling, what you hear, and how you hear it, depends greatly on who is doing the storytelling.

For example, there is a place about 32 seconds into my rendition (or :26 into Demidenko's) where, after a short pause, the second portion of the piece begins. For me, it is loud and boisterous. For Demidenko, it is soft and elegant. Who's right?

If you happen to follow along with the musical score which accompanies the Youtube video it appears that he is. That score is full of dynamics and articulation marks that largely agree with the pianist of the video. The trouble there is that Scarlatti didn't actually write those marks; this score has been heavily edited by someone who is giving us one way to interpret the music based, as far as I can tell, on nothing more than his or her own imagination. Which means that there are really three persons in this drama--myself, Mr. Demidenko, and whoever edited the music that appears with the video (by the way, my edition, edited by Kirkpatrick, has none of those marks in it).

There are times, however, when what Mr. Demidenko is playing is the opposite of what the music on the video shows, which either means that he wasn't using that edition (a third party, I presume, put the video together) or he didn't always agree with it.

At the end of the first section, for instance, both of us--Demidenko and myself--get gradually softer and end piano. The accompanying musical score prescribes a loud ending.

Perhaps the most interesting think about the Russian pianist's rendering is the pacing. In the second section of the piece (by the way, he doesn't take the repeats so he plays both halves of the piece only once) he slows down greatly (1:29-1:56), making the unusual harmonies introspective and brooding. For me, those crunches were exciting, and a chance to build the momentum until the final outburst of joy in F major. Now the score itself says nothing whatsoever about slowing down there. It isn't impossible that Scarlatti himself might have done something like that; partly because composers didn't write in tempo changes very often in the middle of pieces in those days, and partly because, given Scarlatti's mercurial personality (if that is true) he may have relished such a sudden shock to the system. Or not. There is no way to know.

At any rate, Mr. Demedenko does it well. And his storytelling is sure. I went on his website, and of course it is full of publicity blurbs from critics about how well he plays. There was one that said that he had "revealed the astonishing fecundity of Beethoven's imagination." Of course, it is possible that Beethoven (or Scarlatti) might never have imagined some of the things he says they did in his playing--that his interpretive imagination is making things up, in other words. But at least it is convincing. Would the composers appreciate that? Who knows? I'll err on the side of imagining that they would. Perhaps Scarlatti would not be displeased with my version either. Maybe on different days and in different moods he would have inclined to one or the other. I recently explained to a student how composers who lived recently enough to have made recordings of their own works sometimes confound our attempts to be true to their own written instructions by ignoring them themselves! Then there are others who insist on consistent fidelity to the marks on the score. What was Scarlatti like? He only wrote down the notes, and he had one catch-all sign for every ornament. Was he free in his performances?

There is, finally, an element of interpretation owed to the sonata being played on a modern piano. Mr. Demidenko's rendering tends toward beauty of sound and a very legato touch--something that would have been unacheivable on a harpsichord, at least to the extent that the notes melt together. My version, particularly in the second section, is more rustic and vivacious, and louder. However, if you attacked the opening chords of this section on a harpsichord the way I did on a piano, you would break strings. Perhaps Mr. Demidenko's way is better historically? On the other hand, the sound of the harpsichord is hardly smooth and beautiful like that of a modern Steinway. Lovely in its own way, or course, but not so that the tones blend together.

There is room in this world for more than one interpretation. Arthur Schnabel said that great music is music that is better than it can ever possibly be played; one cannot exhaust its possibilities in any single playing. Some years ago I started to catalog the pieces I recorded for pianonoise--hence the number that comes at the end of the file name. I did this so that I could record the same piece again and be able to tell them apart (the higher the number, the more recent is the recording). I haven't gotten around to that much yet, but the internet has evolved to the point that you can hear the various approaches from different personalities with the click of a few buttons. People fight over these details, and it isn't that those things aren't worth fighting over (politely). But it is the differences that teach us something, that make us think, that remove us from our own little philosophical spot on the planet. So here are both of our (or rather, all three of our) efforts. Enjoy!

Scarlatti: Sonata in F, k. 518    as played by Michael Hammer

Scarlatti: Sonata in F, k, 518   link to Youtube video as played by Nikolai Demidenko

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