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All of this leads to what may be yet more important still -- the question of whether there has ever been -- or even could be -- any single inalienably 'authentic' way in which to perform these works. Gordon's reference to Chopin's Op 10 No 5 brings to mind two successive performances of it which Ronald Stevenson gave to me more than twenty years ago; the first was quite close to the conventional approach, full of scintillating brilliance and bravura -- the second, somewhat slower though not remotely pedestrian, redolent of gossamer textures and airy, zephyr-like leggerezza. It would have been impossible to cite either one as being the more appropriate, so powerfully persuasive were they both; whether that would have remained the case in lesser hands than Stevenson's (and there are many thousands of such lesser hands!) may be quite another matter. Whatever anyone's view on this may be, it is also important to remember that even a casual glance at the manuscripts reveals, among many other things, that the composer's obsessive fastidiousness ensured that the creative path to his final versions was by no means an easy one and that the cost of their eventual apparent 'spontaneity' was far from small; the original tempo marking of Op 10 No 3, for example, even when tempered by the composer as later it was, is a far cry from the languorous interpretation we expect to hear today and which presumably had established itself even as long ago as Godowsky's delicious left-hand version of it!

Gordon implies that we should approach these works as something other than 'gigantic tournaments of pianistic virtuosity'; in the same sentence, he urges against 'fantastic vehemence' and finally would have us turn away from 'absolute clarity of the notes' as an essential prerequisite for satisfying performances. In the first, he is surely only half right, for these pianistic monuments are indeed such tournaments, yet at the same time the very 'lyricism, heroism, fancy and delight in splendid quantity' with which he credits Ms Lear are all on an equal footing with that transcendency of virtuosity in these pieces; therein lies one part of their inherent greatness that we all accept. In the second, he is much closer to reality, for such 'vehemence' is appropriate only when the music demands or suggests it, which it often does not. In the last, however, he is surely misled, if for no better reason than that a notable hallmark of Chopin's approach to composition was a fanatical devotion to absolute precision of expression, without the vital pursuit of which Chopin would have been a lesser and, no doubt, more prolific, composer.

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Copyright © 9 March 2004 Alistair Hinton, UK


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