Alban's Blog

Reviews and the right way of music making

I like reviews, like the concept of some anonymous writer being able to say whatever pleases him about what we just did. Normally people and musician friends who show up after concerts won’t say the truth (well, there is no truth to start with) – whatever is being said is highly subjective. But in general musicians never really say what they think to other musicians after their performance, which is also due to the fact that we don’t even want to hear any criticism right after a performance.

But as musicians are very hard to please, so are reviewers, as we all know – and more than musicians, they often have some very strong (almost preconceived) ideas how certain pieces should be played. If the musical ideas have their origin in them studying the score, I am happy. The problem is when critics get their musical knowledge and references from recordings. In recordings everything sounds so much more present and direct (and more perfect…) that they are a hard act to follow. Besides that – why should we want to play and interpret the pieces like they have been interpreted in the past 50 years?

Shouldn’t every performance be unique? “You can’t play it like this” – just because XY who is the reference recording played it slower or faster? More or less rubato? The critics should much rather criticise us when we don’t come up with own ideas. Well, they do, or in my case, they just did after my concerts in Berlin – one smart reviewer denied me (and all other “young” musicians, that means everybody under 40 years) my own musical identity – so whatever I do, there is nothing original anyway, since I don’t have an identity to start with.

The same guy complained the lack of engagement and personal risk, but he heard some intonation problems due to nerves. Mh, I could have replied, that the few missed notes came from taking actually an immense risk, and that at the end this kind of reviews which dare to mention that we missed in a live performance four notes, force many of us to play it safe, to play as perfect as our discs. Once we start trying to do that we become so incredibly boring that we might as well just stop performing altogether.

Was I nervous for playing with Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Christian Thielemann? Well, yes, who wouldn’t? At the same time, I must be a complete idiot, but I have hardly ever played the Schumann Concerto more perfect than during these three concerts (pure luck! :))  The interesting and for me troubling news was, that I thought (as you can read in the earlier blog entry) that I took almost too much freedom for this concerto – I want the pulse to be very much “Sturm und Drang”, don’t want too much stop-and-go, but since Maestro wanted it a bit more restful I went in his direction, enjoyed it at the end immensely, but had a much more free performance than I ever dreamed of. Still there was the complaint of being too straight.

I went to my LP collection and listened to some of the old cellists: Cassado, Casals and somebody else (forgot…) – oh, gorgeous playing, but so much more straightforward than me, almost metronomically exact, that I had to start wondering what is going on with music perception of today? Do we have to get more and more obvious to make things clear? To show the “architecture” of a piece do we have to slow down and make full stops at every little cadence, section or modulation? Isn’t that almost boring? Isn’t it more interesting (and for us more challenging) to express changes in mood through colours, different bow speed, different vibrato, different expression rather than slowing down (at places where the composer has not indicated anything). And I am not talking natural rubatos – no, huge ritardandos and “full-stops”.

Well, that’s another subject, but I find it highly interesting to discuss what good “music-making” is. If we put today’s standards, Toscanini was the worst musician of all times, he hardly changes the speed at all, even his Verdi is extremely straight-forward (which I like, can’t stand the self-indulgence of some interpretations). And nowadays I hear some young pianists talk about playing slow in order to be more expressive. Slow is deep? Poor music….


  • Bob

    Didn’t see the reviews, but I share your indignation. I just read a short story from “The World of Music According to Starker” in which he tells of a German electrical engineer in Colorado who gave up a career as a concert pianist because he couldn’t abide the ignorant judgements of critics. Consequently he set out to scientifically measure the subjective qualities of music. In this context, Starker explains the distinction between rubato (liberties within the phrase) and agogic (liberties within the measure). Who knew that Starker wrote fiction in his spare time? It reminds me of Berlioz”s Nights with the Opera.

    It sounds to me like your critic wanted to hear the kind of mannered rubato that has become traditional in the performance of Chopin. We get such ignorant reviews routinely in Washington, but I would have expected better in Berlin. Ignore them.

  • Alban

    Thanks Bob, yes, I ignored them, but it felt strange since I need to take any kind of criticism serious in order to see if I can learn from it or not. In this case, it just showed me that critics are not really open to “new” ideas (wasn’t new at all, was just a tiny bit closer to the text than some other performances…). Yes, mannered rubato, that’s what it is, very annoying, because it destroys the pieces, I am afraid. That’s why some people believe the Schumann Concerto isn’t a great piece.

  • Opera Clare

    I am from London but was lucky enough to catch this Schumann concert in Berlin and was knocked out by your performance so I share your frustration at the critics. It was a “free” performance – exciting and spontaneous – and I love it when I hear something new in a piece that recordings haven’t given me. I am also a Thielemann fan for the same reason – sometimes his interpretations work – some not – but I always find the musical journey gripping. How do you negotiate the tricky subject of “your” versus “the conductors” interpretation of a piece? Do you find you “give in” to some views and then wished you hadn’t!

  • Alban

    Dear Clare,

    thanks for your very nice words – glad you felt the freedom I felt 🙂
    It is not so much about negotiating but compromising. And like every good compromise one has to be convinced at the end. And since I know that there are many ways which lead to Rome (that’s a German saying; many interpretations possible) I am open to suggestions of conductors. Often conductors agree to what I am trying to do, but then have a hard time to get the orchestra convinced as well – often they don’t have the strenght/stamina/rehearsal time to make certain ideas work, and it is my responsability to give in, since otherwise it would be a disaster…. No, I never regret a performance – I don’t like every single one, but no remorse, because I am always giving it all and trying my best (which sometimes just ain’t enough…)


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