In Search of the Ideal Interpretation: The Relationship Between the Artist and his Audience 

The question that should be posed at this time should be the following: does every artist have an audience? It is not so long since the era of totalitarian regimes, when many composers had almost no access or nearly no access to an audience. Even such important composers as Dmitri Shostakovich had to wait many years for the premiere of their works – as with Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony. Such cases do not always have to be the fault of the political system, however; it can rather be the impossibility for artists to make their voices heard during their own lifetimes. 

Ideally, every composition should have a chance to be presented to a wider public. At that moment, it is entirely dependent on the interpretation, which determines to what extent the audience will accept the unknown work. It must not thereby necessarily be a question of a contemporary work; it could be one that has fallen into obscurity, or, for whatever reason, never been played. In any case, the listener finds himself on entirely new paths and the task of the interpreter in this moment is to lead the listener through this unknown musical landscape and to convince her of the absolute necessity of the existence of this landscape. 

This occurs, however, only in the concert performance and demands from the interpreter an extremely high degree of preparation, and from the listener the requisite measure of tolerance and openness. The quality of the work can be seen only through a successful interpretation, and if it is not adequately prepared, it may happen, that the premiere will be a complete disaster, as happened with Rachmaninov’s First Symphony in 1897, when his older colleague, the composer Alexander Glazunov - who conducted the premiere - hardly rehearsed the symphony for the premiere in St. Petersburg. 

But how does a performing artist prepare the performance of a work although it is at first unknown to him? What should he pay attention to and what does the auditor expect from a new work, which is often hidden in among the older and easily accessible compositions, so that as many visitors will come to the concert as possible? The ideal of the consummate interpretation that a performer grows up with, and for which he constantly strives, may in this case be both helpful or a hindrance. This is because this ideal does not exist in a vacuum; it does not exist in a realm without the possibility of artistic comparison. For a new work, such comparisons are not yet available. In this situation, only the demand the artist places on herself serves as the incentive for an often drawn out process of intense work on interpretation. 

This claim in itself is determined by several factors, most notably through education. The endless years of study of a musician lead to her development of an extremely powerful “super-ego”, which is first identified with the teacher. After that, the “super-ego” detaches itself from a particular person and thereby becomes its own “supreme judge”. “You have him in you, you are yourself your highest judge,” wrote Alexander Pushkin (The Poet, 1830). 

The degree of strength, which this authority possesses, determines the level of self-expectation and of striving for perfection. If the “super-ego” is too omnipotent, absolute failure threatens in advance – even before the actual work begins on the composition. If the “higher authority”, however, has too weak a presence, defeat threatens later on the stage during the encounter with the audience, which adopts the role of the “super-ego” during the concert. For this reason, it is of the utmost importance to find again and again the subtle and fragile balance between the “I” and the “superego”. This usually happens during the working process. The better the interpreter is acquainted with the work, the more emotional balance he will achieve. This balance will never be permanent, for with each new work the artist will call himself into question anew. Nevertheless, wherever possible this should be a positive attitude of self-questioning that does not block, but promotes further development. Ideally, a composition should awaken the immediate enthusiasm of the artist, who sets to work right away to learn the piece, in order to be able to transmit his enthusiasm to his audience. Should he not be excited by and convinced of the work as a whole, however, and still want or have to play the work, a long period of study will be required, so that the artist may discover the place that kindles his enthusiasm. It may be a short musical phrase, a chord progression or even a single note. This place becomes the path of approaching the work and opens to the interpreter the door to the work and ultimately to himself. For the artist must find himself in every work, i.e. he has to internalize the music a stranger wrote, and thus become the perfect translator of the work to the audience. This translation, however, requires an absolute understanding of the work; in this point, the concept of perfection is indeed appropriate, namely, to the effect that even the smallest “corner” of the work is illuminated and understood. 

Thus the interpreter becomes the translator of the work. In order to fulfil this task, he must not only transform the notes into tones, but also submerge himself deeply in the world of the composer, in his manner of thinking, and his intellectual character. The idea that the classical music concert should limit itself to repeatedly offering the same well-known works, such as Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, is actually quite rather recent. Only one hundred years ago, concerts consisted mainly of works by then contemporary composers for which there was no tradition of interpretation, not to mention reproducible recordings, which in current times are often used to “ease” the approach to a new work. The attempt to consider a recording of a work as “ideal” and unconditionally deserving of imitation is already doomed to failure, because a recording follows entirely different laws than a concert performance. The indignation of a member of the audience in the US, who demanded her money back, because her favourite work sounded completely different in a concert performance than on her well-known CD says it all. 

Each artist should find his own approach to a work, and in this respect, an interpretive template can likely prove to be an inhibition and becomes the performer’s greatest hindrance. It leads to a petrification of the interpretative development, at least for some years, since it merely strives to imitate an already existing ideal. Thereafter, the pendulum swings in the opposite direction and thus an equally ungrounded counter-tradition is called into existence. Traditions arise quickly, especially in times when room for artistic freedom is limited; so it was, for example, when beyond the Iron Curtain access to the newer repertoire was as good as non-existent. Therefore, it is of extraordinary importance for artists to liberate themselves from the Zeitgeist as far as possible, and to return to the musical text and start at the source. But how can this consummate interpretation be measured, if it cannot be based on a comparison? 

“The violin is no longer played, but torn apart, pounded black and blue... Friedrich Fischer... once said that there existed pictures one could see stink. Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto brings us face to face for the first time with the revolting thought: may there not also exist musical compositions that we can hear stink?” (Eduard Hanslik, Neue Freie Presse, Vienna, December 1881). 

Was the performance not particularly convincing, or was it for other reasons that the famous critic proclaimed such a damning verdict? His colleague Theodore Helm, who today is forgotten, similarly criticised the work in the newspaper Wiener Signale. We can safely assume that the language of the violin concerto was completely new for the Viennese critics – as well as for the general audience. But it would be very interesting to see to what extent the performer and the orchestra had familiarized themselves with this musical language. It is extremely important to make music that is yet unknown sound familiar. Such music must be totally and absolutely familiar to the performer himself, so that he feels he has reached the same mastery of the material that he has when playing well-known pieces. Did the interpreters not reach the degree of freedom in dealing with the material that would have been indispensable in order to convince the audience? We will never know, since there was no possibility of recording concerts at that time; whereby, a recording of the concert would probably not even convince modern audiences, because our listening habits have changed greatly since then. Also, the “tools” musicians use, i.e. the instruments, have changed dramatically. Metal instead gut strings on the stringed instruments, major changes in the winds, especially the horns, today makes the world-famous Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto an absolutely different acoustic experience! 

A different kind of record, however, brings the interpretive ideas from the past into the present day: the editions of the musical scores. Annotations, bow strokes and fingerings give us a faithful picture of interpretative guidelines from a certain time, such as Artur Schnabel’s edition of the Beethoven sonatas for piano, which, during the second half of the 20th Century, was regarded as an reputable and trustworthy reference. Although thoroughly well founded, it nevertheless reflects a very personal view of the works by the great pianist, one that should surely be studied, but which is not necessarily suitable as a basis for one’s own interpretation. An Urtext-edition of the sonatas would in this case be much more helpful, since it includes only the composer's Notes and is not influenced by the Zeitgeist of subsequent epochs. 

With all the striving for perfection – in whatever form – one must not lose sight of an important fact: a concert, just like a recording, is always “work in progress”. It is a snapshot of a moment in time. A work in progress contradicts the ideal of a consummate performance – it couldn’t ever be changed. Every ideal concert or recording would thus mean the end of artistic development. Fortunately, the interpreter’s encounter with a work in the framework of a concert leads to an even deeper understanding of the composition. In the concert, the performer’s concentration is different than in the practice room and the presence of the audience radiates a certain energy, which plays an important role. With what degree of concentration do those present listen to the performance? How many sounds from the concert hall can be heard on the stage? The performer does not need verbal comments in order to perceive and react to the audience’s response. Extremely intense listening leads to more intensity on stage, and vice versa; too much noise may signal that the public may be losing track of where the performance is going. Thus, the artist becomes acquainted with the work from a completely different perspective – that of the audience. Through the repeated interaction between interpreter and audience, the work comes alive and becomes part of the stage and the musical experience.

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