Expanding our ideas of what is possible: learning from recordings

Guest post by Clare Hammond

The best recordings expand our ideas of what is possible, on every level, and introduce a sense of camaraderie and kinship with performers and composers that spans generations.

One of the strangest and most unexpected aspects of the lockdown for me has been discovering how fundamentally different playing the piano is when you cannot perform to an audience. For the past twenty years, almost every hour I have spent at the keyboard has been either to prepare for or to give a performance. I know that a piece ‘in practice’ is not remotely the same creature as one in concert, and have experienced the incredible transformation that takes place in an interpretation after the first performance. Yet I have never been in a situation, even when on maternity leave, where I am practising without a performance in mind.

Public concerts will be among the last events to be reinstated when we emerge from this epidemic and we have no idea when that will be. With two small children at home, my practice time is also severely curtailed. Do I use the limited time I have to prepare the new commissions for August? What about the concerto I am scheduled to perform in October? Would I be better learning repertoire for a recording that may never take place? Do I even enjoy playing ‘just for fun’? So far, the most promising avenue for me has been to focus on how, rather than what, I play. I find myself gravitating towards recordings, listening to the same passage repeatedly, and analysing exactly what my idols are doing in an attempt first to mimic, and then to recast in my own style.

In one sense, this is just an extension of an ongoing process. As a teenager, I was very careful never to listen to recordings of repertoire I was learning for fear of copying them. Not only was this fear misplaced, but it also created significant problems for me further down the line. I did not go to a specialist music school or a Saturday school at a conservatoire, so only heard other people play when I attended piano recitals. I was conscientious and my playing was, on the whole, faithful to what the composer had written, but I had no concept of the vast landscapes that lie beyond the score. Without hearing others play the pieces I was working on, I lacked context.

At university, we studied the notion of ‘authenticity’ in performance, and fidelity to the score was a large part of that. We barely mentioned, however, the idea that the score might be insufficient and that there was an expansive arena of expression that could never be notated. I was unaware that a crescendo might have completely different expressive significance in Schumann to Mendelssohn, that the degree of legato a slur implied might affect the emotional narrative, or that I could use my own life experience in truly inhabiting the psychology of this music. For me at that time, the score was merely to be deciphered, memorised and regurgitated. I understood that a performer should ‘express themselves’ but had no idea how you might do this beyond self-indulgently injecting some illicit rubato. I still believed that it was possible to play in a vacuum, while being completely unaware of my predicament.

Fast forward a couple of years, and I went to study privately with Ronan O’Hora, Head of Keyboard at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. In our second session, he explained that while my playing was (mostly) accurate and technically sound, it “didn’t mean anything”. It took me a long time to fully understand this and for months I felt as though I had lost my bearings. When I came to the GSMD as a Master’s student, I was surrounded for the first time by a significant number of aspiring pianists and heard others perform several times a week. I began to understand what it was to truly communicate through music.

This was now my environment and provided the backdrop to the most intense part of my studies, working with recordings. In one lesson, Ronan and I experimented with a passage of the Barber Sonata Op. 26, a work that I played well and for which I had a natural affinity. We discussed various shortcomings in my performance, and then listened to an excerpt from Horowitz’s recording. Without further discussion, Ronan asked me to play the same passage again and something fundamental happened that was to change my attitude to recordings forever. I caught the spirit of the piece, found colours at the instrument that I had never encountered before, and accessed a freedom that brought the music to life without disregarding the score. The best recordings expand our ideas of what is possible, on every level, and introduce a sense of camaraderie and kinship with performers and composers that spans generations.

I now have no scruples about working with recordings. After all, even if I set out to mimic another’s performance exactly, it would be impossible. When learning Schumann’s Humoreske, I heard Radu Lupu create a pearl-like colour at the keyboard that I would not have thought possible. I spent three hours

listening to the first few seconds on loop in an attempt to capture the astonishing tenderness he creates. Liszt’s Vallée d’Obermann is not a piece that comes naturally to me. It has an unselfconsciousness and almost naive bravado that is alien to my character, yet Volodos’ recording showed me how to look beyond that and find its heart. Many months on, I play these pieces in my own way and my interpretations are all the richer for the different influences I can bring to bear.

It is vital to take the score seriously and to be as faithful to it as possible. Yet the text is just a starting point, the skeleton of a finished interpretation. We need to take all of life’s experiences, all the music we have heard and the wisdom of other performers, in order to truly inhabit a work’s emotional and psychological narrative. Without this, we cannot be faithful to the composer’s intentions because we can neither engage with nor communicate their message. The reason I, and no doubt many other musicians, feel so disorientated at the moment is because playing without communicating is such a bizarre and potentially meaningless act. In isolation, recordings are a way of connecting, across space and time, to feel the true fellowship that music can provide.

wsmucdoo_400x400Acclaimed as a pianist of “amazing power and panache” (The Telegraph), Clare Hammond is recognised for the virtuosity and authority of her performances and has developed a “reputation for brilliantly imaginative concert programmes” (BBC Music Magazine).

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1 Comment

  1. Very insightful article, thank you Clare. I return often to Rubinstein for instance or Dinu Lipatti for insight into specific works and passages, more so during this time. Also, composing. A pleasure to listen and well as to read you! Stay safe.

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