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Classical Music 101: To realise or to interpret?

By John Terauds on September 22, 2013

(Royston Robertson cartoon.)
(Royston Robertson cartoon.)

We know it, but we’re not necessarily conscious of the fact that classical music often has more in common with theatre than with other forms of music. That’s because a text is being brought to life, rather than the performance being self-creating.

Classical musicians are taught that, with any piece not attached to a living composer, there is a performance tradition to follow in each act of interpretation. Each composer, style and period imposes certain parameters of  convention and taste — even in instances where all we have are diary entries and broad sketches to provide clues about the practices of yore.

These acts of interpretation, built on the diligence and authority of great practitioners (the “master” from any and every world music tradition) and scholars.

The result is going to be, by definition, conservative.

But conservative doesn’t always galvanize an audience. And, at a time when so many people worry about keeping Western classical music visible and audible, an individual flourish is not out of place, I think.

I found the most succinct description of what I mean in a recent lecture by American conductor Gunther Schuller, who will hopefully turn 88 in a couple of months: “I love the word realize. I hate the word interpretation.”

I have lined up five examples of interpretation and realisation from the composer who has been confounding my own sense of interpretation, understanding and listening for my whole life. Here are different views of French Suite No. 5, BWV 816, by J.S. Bach, all played on the modern piano for the sake of consistency:

Walter Gieseking, 1950:

Vancouverite Svetlana Ponomareva, 2008:

Rudolf Serkin, 1950 (live performance):

Evgeny Koroliov, 2007:

Glenn Gould, early 1970s:

Alexandre Moutouzkine, 2011 (live performance):

Each is an interpretation. Some are realisations. So, how do we distinguish between the two?

Well, there’s the eternal rub. The realisation is the one that speaks to you the strongest, and therein lie all the debates and the teeming diversity of the classical music world.

John Terauds

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