Simple Gifts

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A few months ago I gave a piano performance of Faure’s La Bonne Chanson for BBC Radio 3 with a tenor and string quartet. We spent several days before the concert rehearsing this piece and it occurred to me that large portions of our rehearsal were being spent trying to execute the music with simplicity and without adding too many musical special effects. I found this amusing, since as a music student I spent much of my time starting off with quite a bland reading of a piece, taking it to my coaches who would stir it up into a musical frenzy with some rubato and eventually after much hard work and no small measure of cursing I’d have an interpretation. And after all that training we are now all sitting around trying not to do anything with the music.

Less is more...

This concept of not doing too much with the music is cropping up with increasing frequency at rehearsals. And the thing is - the results are better. For example, when you play something like a Chopin Nocturne, there will be certain chords or key changes that are unexpected and stand out. These can be emphasized by taking a little extra time over them, allowing the new harmony to register in the ears. The effect is a musical one and gives the performance more space. However, do this every single time there is an interesting chord and the result is a performance that is as lumpy and unpredictable as my mum’s first attempt at green pea soup.

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The celebrated collaborative pianist Malcolm Martineau once pointed out to me that a performance of a song is sometimes like a train journey; one in which you pass through various towns and their stations, but never actually stop at each one. I like this idea very much and it goes some way to explaining the phenomenon above. It is not necessary in a performance to point out every single interesting detail of the music to the audience like a mad professor with a laser pen, and bash them over the heads with a musical baseball bat. In fact, what often works well is picking one really special moment and doing something musically magical with it, leaving the rest as simple as possible. If some special effect happens in every second of the music, it all begins to sound the same. I love the story of pianist Shura Cherkassky who was rehearsing with an orchestra before a concerto performance and apparently played in the most wooden and inexpressive way. The conductor nervously shuffled over to the piano and asked him 'Shura, I'm a little concerned about this, can we not make it a little more expressive?' - to which Cherkassky replied 'Don't worry, I'll put the expression in later'.

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Trial and error

Some of the most musical performances we have ever heard will have gone through a painstaking process of interpretive trial and error, the performance becoming increasingly well-balanced as the artist becomes more familiar with the music. In fact, the great Polish-American pianist Arthur Rubinstein was said to have meticulously worked out multiple ways of playing the same passage in his practice sessions, so that in performance he could select whichever felt right in the moment. That is not to say that his performances were merely a set of disparate parts, shuffled around to make a satisfying whole; he was undoubtedly a genius of the first-rate, but it does give us some idea of the painstaking decisions and preparations one makes as musician before unleashing a piece in public.

Let the music play you

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In order to do nothing with the music and allow it to play through you, you have to have spent many years doing ‘something’ with it. Experimenting, exploring, trying different ways of approaching things, pushing ideas right to their limits and to the edge of tastefulness. Only when you’ve learned how far you can push an idea to an extreme, do you know how you can successfully reign it all in and incorporate it in to a performance. By suggesting to each other in our Faure rehearsal that we do nothing, we weren’t really suggesting that we play the music without any nuance and space. What we were trying to do is to allow the music to play us, rather than the other way around; so that the accumulation of all our learning subconsciously did the interpretation for us. I don’t think one should ever sit down with a score and think, “Right, I need to come up with an earth-shattering interpretation of this Beethoven Sonata”; with the right sort of experimentation, a unique version will naturally evolve. The minute a musician tries too hard is the minute it sounds contrived.

Taking time

This kind of musical progress - taking ideas from overcooked extremes to involving them successfully on a subliminal level in performances - actually mirrors the process of learning a new piece of music at whatever stage one is at in the development process. When you start learning a new piece your ideas can sound underdeveloped or overdone; as you spend more time with the music, both in the practice studio and on stage, a natural performance emerges - one that you can call your own, but one which you wouldn’t come close to reaching if you hadn’t tested the boundaries of your ideas. This is the reason most performers tour a recital extensively before committing it to a recording; for some reason the act of performing a piece in public speeds up this musical solidification process.

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Of course, this concept of simplifying a formerly more complex approach is not limited to the confines of classical music. Jazz musicians often develop an increasingly complex harmonic and rhythmic language, only to get to the point where they want to reduce the complexity of their music to the bare essentials. Listen to Keith Jarrett before he made his legendary solo album, The Melody at Night, With You. This album divided critics down the middle, some praising its intimacy and others criticizing its simplicity.

Bare essentials

Context also determines to what extent certain musical features are emphasised. In a recording, everything can be much more subtle than a live performance in a big hall, where everything needs to be larger than life. It’s similar to the difference of approach an actor might take in a performance on film and a performance in the theatre. I remember playing the piano in the film, The Duchess and I was surprised at how quietly but intensely the actors were able to deliver their lines, in contrast to the theatre where they would throw their lines to the back of the auditorium.

Like any great discipline, it's vital to learn step-by-step how to do it; just remember that when you hit 30, try to forget everything...

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