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Interpreting Chopin on piano

One of the fascinating things about being a musician is that I can perform the same Chopin piece that has been played by thousands of pianists for almost two centuries and breathe life into it in a way that no one has ever done before. Tomorrow, I will play the same piece and know it will be different again. What allows such individuality is interpretation: an alchemist’s mixture of historically accurate performance practice, the artist’s personality, convictions, and good guesses.

The score — the source for classical music — is always a puzzle because it is simply not possible for composers to faithfully transcribe every aspect of the music from their imaginations into notes, boxes, and beams. The resulting black and white pages can only hint at the original magic behind them, leaving musicians to interpret the meaning of the myriad symbols they find. Add to this the ever-changing parameters of acceptable practices that hover around composers and eras and one begins to see the complexity of interpreting even the simplest piece. Performers must know how to negotiate these rubrics while crafting performances that uniquely reflect their personalities.

When I look at a score, it separates into countless parts. I will see the melody, connect it with its bass-note counterweights, and quickly identify “throw-away notes” — the tier that ought to recede into the textural background. Because of my formal training as a pianist, I will understand the boundaries of volume (dynamics), rhythmic wiggle room (rubato), and pedaling surrounding a given piece, and I will dance flirtatiously towards and away and around these invisible lines.

Steinway & Sons concert grand piano. Photo: © Copyright Steinway & Sons. Creative Commons License.

Each element of interpretation lies on a sliding scale. This note or that one could be just a fraction of a decibel louder than the other. Rhythm could be strict — or messy to a startling degree — and still fall within the range of acceptability to the listener’s ear. This melody or that one could be brought forward. Harmonies lean in, clash, and resolve. In the interpretation of classical music, pushes and pulls are expected within the margins of “good taste” and great artists know how to tastefully manipulate any note at any moment. They have developed a vast store of ideas that can be grabbed from the shelf and applied at an instant during performance.

Works by Chopin permit freedoms that stretch rhythm to the edges of total collapse. Melodies are dramatic and gorgeous, imitating the human voice, while wide ranges and giant leaps make them impossible for any singer to perform. The interpretive licenses a pianist is allowed to take makes these some of the most intensely personal pieces a pianist can play.

In my performance of this nocturne, listen for the range of dynamics, the way I highlight surprises in the harmonies, and to the rubbery stretches in the rhythm. Although I make interpretive decisions based on both scholarship and gut feeling, it is my ultimate objective to force you to the edge of your seat, to breathe with me at the end of every phrase, and invite you to an intimately personal experience. Let me know how I did.

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