The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Should soloists perform using a score or not? Which is more liberating for the performer, for the audience and especially for the music?

January 6, 2013
10 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

As he often does, the New York Times’ senior music critic Anthony Tommasini recently raised an important question:

After 200 years or so, are we starting to see a trend developing whereby the stigma of performing solo music with a score is disappearing and the use of scores is increasing in legitimacy? Many conservatories or schools of music even require students to perform without a score for a degree recital. But that may be changing.

Tommasini’s column had the perfect headline: “Playing by heart – without or without the score.”

And Tommasini drew on three specific recent examples of pianists: Alexandre Tharaud, who played Scarlatti and Satie’s “Le Boeuf sur le Toit” at Le Poisson Rouge with a score; Andras Schiff, who played both books of J.S. Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” without a score; and Emanuel Ax, who used a score for solo Bach but did not use a score for solo Schoenberg. I have also seen Christopher O’Riley and others use scores on an iPad with a foot switch to turn pages. (All of Tommasini’s examples are seen below. First is Alexandre Tharaud, below, in a photo by Ruby Washington of The New York Times. Tharaud’s playing is also heard at the bottom.)

Alexandre Tharaud at Poisson Rouge with score Ruby Washington NY Times

Is this a healthy or unhealthy development? Well it seems to depend on the individual performer and certain kinds of music (generally you find Chopin played without a score, but Elliott Carter and other new music with a score.)

Here is a link to Tommasini’s think piece:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/01/arts/music/memorizations-loosening-hold-on-concert-tradition.html?ref=anthonytommasini&_r=0

The Ear is of two minds.

On the one, hand I remember reading pianist veteran Murray Perahia (below) saying that although he loved playing chamber music and did so with a score, he felt most on top of the music when he memorized it and played it without a score. And the concerts I have heard by him all suggest he is right.

I’ll also bet that Murray Perahia has excellent nerves for performing, and a relative lack of stage fright of the incapacitating kind. He has the right temperament.

murray perahia at piano

On the other hand, even a master like Sviatoslav Richter (below) spent his last years using a score – and many critics said with great results. Of course, he said he turned to the score because age brought a decline in his perfect pitch, which used to help guide him through scoreless performances without wrong notes. Plus, the ability to memorize deteriorates with age.

richterwithcross1

And I can’t deny it: There is something so basic, so elemental and essential, about seeing a musician sit down at a piano or a cello and or stand with a violin, and start making music without any music in front of him or her.

It just all comes from within. Yes it is showy and impressive, but it also inner and poetic. I feel like I am hearing more directly and personally from the performers and that the lack of a score allows for certain liberties of subjective interpretation. (Below is a photo by Ruby Washington of The New York Times of Andras Schiff recently playing J.S. Bach by memory at the 92nd Street Y.)

Andras Schiff playing Bach's WTC by menory at 92nd St Y Ruby Washington NY Times

What do you think about playing with a score?

Should solo pianists, singers, cellists, violinists and others now feel that using a score is just fine?

I’ll bet that many of them don’t t really use the score They have already have the music memorized and simply find the score reassuring, as a kind of insurance against memory lapses and the like. (Below is a photo by Hiroyuki Ito of  The New York Times of Emanuel Ax using a score to play some solo Bach before he played with an ensemble.)

Emanuel Ax using a score with NY Phil Hiroyuki Ito for NY Tmes

But what about opera singers using a score?

What do you think?

If you are a performer, The Ear especially wants to hear from you.

And if are an audience member, I also want to hear from you about what you think of heating a performer play scoreless or with a score.


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