Alfred Brendel for Virtuoso & Belcanto 2020

Dear Colleagues,

I would like to talk to you about some dogmatic ideas and performance practises that have recently emerged and have been taken up by a number of younger players. I shall only mention a few: invariable diminuendo playing towards the end of phrases; staccato playing at the final note (clipping, tearing off the sound); the execution of two-note-groups with an accented first note and a short and soft second note; and senza vibrato playing in pianissimo.

I disagree with all of them as long as they are automatically applied, and cannot accept them as rules. There are phrases that lead to the last note as their goal, or into the next phrase. There are many end-notes that should be played tenuto or with after-vibrato (they should still belong to the sound quality of the phrase). There are energetic forte endings that must not be disfigured by a diminuendo. (Believe it or not, I have lately heard a performance of “The Death and the Maiden” quartet where the fierce last chords were played mezzoforte diminuendo!). There are plenty of two-note groups where the second note should not be weakened. And, to mention another fixed idea, there is also the mistaken belief that pianissimo senza vibrato expresses mystery and awe. To me, it takes the life out of the music and makes it sound not eerie but dead.

The leading string quartets active today hardly subscribe to such notions, and they make use of the whole gamut of colour. Leopold Mozart writes in his “Violin School” that singing should remain the model for the instrumentalist and that the bow should stay on the strings as long as there is not a true interruption. What happens at the moment is that, perversely, some singers imitate the string playing of historicizing performers, singing long notes in the way you squeeze out toothpaste – starting without vibrato and adding it towards the end. This, to me, sounds mannered and artificial, and so does the playing of long notes without vibrato altogether. Is it sensible to think of quartets by Haydn and Mozart as sounding radically different from those of Beethoven and Schubert? Is it really true that “authentic” performances (whatever their ideas may be) necessarily make the works sound more convincing? Are gut strings and 18th century bows of real advantage in our present-day halls and for our present-day ears? It has recently been fashionable to produce the phantom of authenticity with all the losses that it involves. 

Is musical performance a branch of the fashion industry? It may be fun for a young performer to do what musicians one or two generations older have not done. It may be imperative for a young composer to contribute something that has not been done before. But where does a performer start when he or she tries to do justice to a composition? With the brand of piano that a composer had in his drawing room? With the sometimes dubious and misleading metronome markings? No, hopefully with the musical score itself that suggests so many things: structure and character, nuance and cohesion, logic and whim. The musical necessities will tell you how much time to take, and which tempo gives sufficient room to all the components of the music. It will tell you where the music should sing and speak – but not how you are going to achieve this. The performer has to develop singing and speaking within himself. And let us be the composer’s “most ardent servant”, as Arnold Schoenberg said, in those areas where it really matters. 

To return to the beginning: the performance of music is not solved by applying a few recipes. In each single case, a musical idea, a turn of the phrase, the execution of an ornament, the articulation of each single note, the succession of harmonies should be considered on their own terms, and as a new experience. The richness of great music is inexhaustible, and the performer should try to react to each single case with a fresh and unbiased mind.