Freedom of interpretation or just plain wrong?

Pianist Stephen Hough recently asked in his blog whether Jacques Thibaud was the Florence Foster Jenkins of the violin, or one of its greatest players?

Hough writes:

“I listened to this clip with breathless wonder. I know that it is close to the edge of acceptability in places in terms of intonation, but I was utterly thrilled with the rhythmic panache, the way the playing is constantly reaching beyond itself, its utter commitment and concentration, its focus on all the things which really matter in music. It is someone stumbling up the highest mountain with grazed, bloodied knees, whereas so much contemporary playing seems more like someone riding up an escalator.”

Interestingly, many of the reader’s comments object to the very rhythmic freedoms and expressive intonation which Hough finds so thrilling. It’s an interesting question – what constitutes a legitimate, individual interpretation, and what constitutes a poor understanding of the music, or poor technique, or even controversy for it’s own sake? Of course in the example of Thibaud there are also issues of the performance practice and recording equipment of the time, and the performer’s age, to consider.

At the 2011 Musica Viva Festival in Sydney Pekka Kuusisto’s performance of Beethoven’s Spring Sonata divided the audience. For some it was a refreshing interpretation of a well known piece, and yet others questioned his intentions. Pekka is known for his spontaneous and innovative performance style; Musica Viva aims to deliver performances of quality, diversity, challenge and joy: a performance such as this is certainly full of challenge, and while opinions may vary as to the quality and joy, it can be the perfect opportunity to reevaluate, reflect on, and perhaps extend one’s own ideas.

So what do you think of these guys?

Products of Venezuela’s El Sistema program, their performances are striking, energetic and different. The environment in which they grew up and were trained has no doubt had an effect on their performance style. Some would see their lack of exposure to the Western Classical canon and performance practice in a negative light, others would argue the positives of being able to approach the music with fresh ears and develop individual ideas and interpretations.

In music there is rarely such a thing as right or wrong, black or white: there tend to be many possible answers, and various shades of grey. If it is worth considering Thibaud’s performance within its historical context, it is equally interesting to contemplate how people would react to the Simón Bolívar String Quartet in a blind audition.

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About Musica Viva Australia

Welcome to Musica Viva’s International Concert Season blog. Here you can follow and read more about our wonderful touring artists.

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