I’ve been listening to recordings of pieces I’m currently working on. One is a Moment Musical by Schubert, represented by many different performances, including a YouTube clip of Horowitz playing it in front of a rapt audience in, I think, Carnegie Hall.
Horowitz’s touch is wonderful, and he clearly had the audience in the palm of his hand, but I can’t help feeling puzzled by how free he felt to add and change things for greater effect. He plays staccato where Schubert marks legato, and more loudly where Schubert marks ‘quieter’. He adds tiny ornaments to the melodic line, introduces new notes into the middle of certain chords for a more ‘sentimental’ harmony, holds certain bass notes for longer than prescribed, and plays a few ‘passing note’ harmonies on the beat rather than off the beat, to make them more noticeable. All tiny changes, beautifully played, but not what Schubert wrote.
Does it matter? From the roar of approval which greets the final chord, I can only conclude that most people in the audience were thrilled. Yes, there were probably half a dozen pianists who frowned pedantically at Horowitz’s twinkly amendments, but their disapproval would easily have been drowned out by the shouts and cheers.
Times have changed, though, and partly because of the influence of the period instrument movement we have become more attentive to exactly what the composer asked – and a good thing too, in my view. For if we assume the freedom to add or take away whatever we like, how do we know where to stop? In we find that adding a little trill to a well-known melody makes people smile, why not try a schmaltzy little harmony? Might it not be more effective to change the printed dynamics? Why not slow down, if that would seem more touching?
One might argue that such interaction between composer and pianist is a good thing, expressive of relaxation and spontaneity. It might be described as the currently fashionable ‘ownership of the material’, or as updating old music for a modern audience. But I feel uncomfortable if I sense it’s done to draw attention to the performer, rather than to illuminate the music. Is an original text just to be treated as source material, to be varied as the mood takes us? Some might say yes: after all, music is a practical art. But the danger is that by making innovations, we may actually be obscuring the beauty of the music rather than enhancing it. We’re saying we know better than the composer did, and that seems to me a cheap kind of victory.