Notes from a pianist: Using the score in performance

When I was training as a pianist at the Royal College of Music, it was unthinkable that a solo pianist would perform anything from the standard repertoire using the score in performance. Indeed, I think it was written into most rubrics in those days that memorization was compulsory, and when a postgraduate contemporary of mine played some Brahms from the score in an internal RCM concert it brought about reactions of strong disapproval bordering on anger in some.

It could validly be argued that in this practice the RCM was merely following the standard of the profession. Most if not all piano competitions require memorization. And while there is more flexibility at the highest levels of the music profession, there is still an assumption on the part of most concert venues and audiences in favour of memorization.

Throughout my student years, I performed from memory. I did so not because I believed in it as a beneficial practice, but because it was both an effective requirement and a professional standard. Fortunately, I have never had problems with my memory in a performance, although I have witnessed at close hand the crippling effect such problems can have on other performers. Nevertheless, since leaving the RCM, I have given the vast majority of my solo performances from the score, and from my thirties onwards have made this a firm point of principle.

The seeds of that principle were sown early. In March 1989, in what would be one of the most formative concert experiences of my life, I had the unique opportunity to see Sviatoslav Richter play two concerts at the Royal Festival Hall and the Barbican Centre. The first recital consisted  of Schubert’s Sonata in G major, D894 as well as Prokofiev’s Fourth Sonata, Bartok (the Burlesques) and Schumann (the Nachtstücke). The second consisted of Mozart sonatas and Chopin etudes. Richter played in a hall that was completely dark with the exception of the exit signs and a single spot lamp trained upon the score. He himself was barely visible and his page-turner even more so. The second recital was filmed and its first half can be seen below.

The effect of this experience on me was not merely that of having heard great music interpreted by a genius. It struck me that what Richter was doing was making several important points. The only thing that he wanted the audience to concentrate on was the music, the profound alchemy that he wrought in sound, rather than on the appearance of the performer. Richter, like several other great pianists of his generation, eschewed keyboard histrionics and was personally self-effacing. The second aspect was that Richter’s interpretations, particularly in Schubert and Mozart, created that most paradoxical quality in a packed concert-hall, intimacy. The music was the more moving because we as the audience were compelled to listen actively; sound had become the centre of our experience without any extraneous distractions.

Was Richter’s performance the more remarkable because it was undertaken from the score? I believe so. There are various stories about why Richter, in middle age, began using the score in performance rather than continuing to play from memory. For me, the most important reason was part of the overall aesthetic of performance that he developed in that era of his playing. It was in keeping with the desire to present the music to the audience in as direct, honest and emotionally truthful way possible, often in small venues and with a highly personal choice of repertoire. It was also – despite Richter’s titanic technique – a powerful statement against virtuosity. Even when playing music that is ostensibly about solving technical problems, such as the Chopin Etudes, Richter concentrated on each etude as a musical tone-picture and never as a vehicle for display. Even in his choice of instrument – a Yamaha rather than a Steinway – Richter was avoiding a piano that would impose extravagant tone-colour where he clearly did not want it, offering him something far more neutral as a starting-point.

Some pianists who use scores in performance actually rarely look at them while playing. A study of the film of Richter above will show that this was not his approach. He read the score while playing. However good one’s memory, the score is where our interpretation starts and ends. If we are of the school of interpretation where every decision is predestined before we walk on stage, the score has little to offer us but a crutch. If, alternatively, we are open to the insight of a moment, to the inspiration that can come upon us when amid the energy of an audience, to the capacity for fresh ideas and the ability to convey them, then the score becomes a springboard. We can read it in the same way as we would read a sacred text, and could even construe it as the composer’s physical presence among us, the counterpart to his spiritual presence in the world of sound as interpreted through the performer as his medium.

I do not say that performing from the score is right for every pianist. I could well imagine those whose repertoire features works of great Romantic extroversion regarding memorization as integral to their concept of interpretation and performance. I am also aware that others simply feel that they play better from memory; that perhaps it adds an element that for them is one of liberation. They may not, in fact, want to be tied too closely to the score at all, but to express ideas that go beyond and even contradict the printed note.

These are legitimate approaches, but they do not negate those who do not do likewise. At the back of my mind remains one of the significant changes that has affected music of all kinds in the last few decades; as music has become increasingly commodified, so its marketing has concentrated upon image at the expense of substance, because image is easier to sell. The prevailing image of the youthful, physically attractive piano virtuoso sells, whereas the older, more thoughtful, even spiritual pianist is less of a marketable proposition. Such concentration on image also further entrenches the stereotypes of the profession, producing pressure for pianists to look and sound a particular way in order to appeal to the audience. Against such a background, it takes a level of determination, indeed of integrity, to choose instead to plough one’s own furrow.

The topic of memorization also reminds me of the journey I have been on as a pianist and that continues today. As a young pianist, technique and virtuosity were matters of great interest to me, leading me to the study of countless etudes, transcriptions and concert showpieces. As I grew older, my initial interests in music of communicative substance reasserted themselves. I was less interested in display at the keyboard and more interested in the expression and reception of emotional truths. I looked for music that moved me, and that I believed that I could play in such a way that others would share what I felt. That journey would eventually take me to a concentration – by no means exclusively – on certain works, of which Artur Schnabel said, “I am attracted only to music which I consider to be better than it can be performed. Therefore I feel (rightly or wrongly) that unless a piece of music presents a problem to me, a never-ending problem, it doesn’t interest me too much.” This means the Viennese classics above all, and particularly Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, but it is not at all difficult to find later works of which the same can be said.

The two giants who did most to standardize memorization in the nineteenth-century – Liszt and Clara Schumann – have a certain amount in common, in that for them (and in respect of Clara Schumann, I am thinking of her husband’s music here) the score was merely a starting-point. If one were to play many piano works of Robert Schumann only adhering to the markings in the score, the result would be dull. Schumann’s many repeats are invitations to the performer to introduce variety, to change tone-colour, to use rubato to expressive effect. These inspirations of the moment could hardly be tied down without becoming unduly prescriptive. Liszt, meanwhile, would re-compose certain passages for greater effect or pianistic ease while performing. His performing editions of Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasy and Sonata D894 are illustrative of these practices. Nevertheless, Liszt reserved a far greater respect for the integrity of Beethoven’s scores, as shown both by his edition of Beethoven’s piano sonatas and of course by the piano transcriptions of the symphonies.

The practice of memorization in performing Beethoven is inauthentic. Beethoven himself disapproved of it, believing that the performer could not then address himself to the many expressive markings in the score. Beethoven’s scores are full of detail, and it is surprising how much of that detail does not always come across in performance (the precisely-notated but often ignored accents in Variation IV of the last movement of the Sonata op. 109 are a case in point). Similarly, it is not an authentic practice in Chopin or Mendelssohn.

In an interview, Richter was once asked why he used scores in performance, and answered “out of respect for the composer”. Nor was Richter the only pianist to have come to this conclusion. Myra Hess, Raoul Pugno, Bela Bartok, Clifford Curzon and John McCabe among others have similarly regarded memorisation as a barrier between the composer and the interpreter. The views of the cellist Janos Starker, as told to Janos Gereben are instructive;

“Contrary to the mores of concert life today, I use music to play Bach. It’s not because I don’t know the notes or I am worried about a memory lapse. I will never forget what Fritz Reiner told me when I was first cellist of the Chicago Symphony, and he was conducting the “Eroica.” He had a phenomenal memory, conducted rehearsals of just about everything from his head, but came the evening, and the performance, he put the score up and he was turning pages. It didn’t make sense to me at the time, in the era when the memory wizards came around, careers being made from conducting the “Rite of Spring” from memory – and I asked Reiner why he is using the score. He said: “When I look at the music, it gives me new ideas.” This is precisely what I am doing today. When I look at the music, I keep changing the performance. Instead of making an echo-effect in one bar, I play it in two bars. I differentiate when I repeat something from the second time. Let’s now do the more Germanesque version of the Gigue instead of the light one like at the beginning of the suite. This depends on acoustics, for example, if there is a reverberation in the hall – it’s the split personality of the performer: one who says what to do and the other who listens. One reason I am against playing without music in a group [switching from the topic of the Bach suite] is that sometimes you begin to play in a linear fashion [Starker might have meant “mechanically”], your part, not the totality of the work. My attitude has always been that I am one member of the community, I am the protagonist when I am playing a concerto, but I have only one part of the whole. Composers seldom write for the cello – they write a concerto (unless it’s Boccherini who was a cellist), they hear either vocal sounds or [generic] instrumental sounds. Now, as to the Gigue last night, I sometimes joke about the last movement getting faster because you’re hoping to get to the Scotch bottle. You say it sounded more “free” than the rest, and that’s where the music [the score] helps in that you can “improvise” more, you can take greater chances, you have greater freedom of varying your performance. You’re right, it was totally different from any of my recordings… and that’s what one hopes, that after playing it hundreds and hundreds of times, you can still find new ideas – that’s why Bach is a treasure hunt in a whole lifetime. You look for hidden treasures, and sometimes in the middle of the concert, you say: “How come I never thought of that?!” Mind you: you have to reach a certain age, a certain experience, a stage that you can afford the luxury of looking for new things. But then that’s what keeps one alive musically, artistically.”

Consider also the late John McCabe’s comments in his interview with Christopher Morley:

“JM… in the arts – it’s not only in music, it’s in the arts generally, I think that people are very suspicious of all-rounders. They think that if you play the piano you can’t possibly be a full-time composer, and if you’re a full-time composer, you can’t possibly be a proper pianist. Now one thing I do which people seem to think proves that is that I play from the music, always, never play from memory, but I do that because a) I couldn’t carry the repertoire that I do, which is vast, and b) I know that I’ve got a very quick, superficial memory which I do not trust, and really, if I’m going to play something from memory and forget, I’m not playing the music – I’m playing something else – not playing what the composer wrote. I’ve suffered from this myself as a composer, and I know that if somebody leaves out half a piece, which happened with one of mine, the audience is not actually going to hear what I wrote, and I don’t think it’s fair, and since I’m liable to do that if I play from memory, then that’s why I play from music – it’s not laziness, it’s …

CM: Like Richter, your hero.

JM: Well Richter, Clifford Curzon, Myra Hess … Klemperer actually admired Myra Hess for playing the Beethoven Fourth Concerto from the music – he said so.”

So for these musicians and others, the use of the score was a liberating process that contributed to a greater spontaneity and inspiration in performance, and a means by which a greater repertoire could be maintained. Since these are matters of cardinal importance for me as well, I began to use scores in performance to the point where I, too, experienced an artistic rebirth. I believe that the composer and the audience are certainly the beneficiaries.