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This topic encompases an enormous spectrum, of which I’ll attempt to scratch the surface.
In practicing the music of Bach, Messiaen, & Liszt today, all different styles, it came to mind that there are many ways to express the composer’s intentions. And that’s a wonderful thing ~ every interpretation & each performance is different.
Some aspects of expression to consider:
Can you hear the melody? Are there inner parts that are interesting/important? What about the bass line?
Are there dissonances that need to be brought out?
Is there a part added to the original theme after the first statement?
Various ways to emphasize something might include accents, a ritard, or delaying a note.
Are the markings in the score those of the composer? If not, are they stylistically valid? (If they aren’t, ignore them/buy a better edition!)
Are the markings in the spot where they belong, or should the cresc., rit., subito forte, etc. move forward or back?
Do your decisions about expression fit the composer’s style? (i.e., some composers are most often performed w/rubato, others are not; some would have more pedal than others; sfz means different things to Beethoven & Schumann, etc.)
How about the character depicted in the song, or the scene described? (In songs/instrumental pieces about water, what is the water doing? Lots of choices here. A flood is going to sound completely different from a rippling stream or a flowing fountain. And fountains can bubble, too. From time to time, you’ll encounter an icy landscape! A song describing a little flower isn’t going to be sung or played fortissimo. Your character could be wearing boots while dancing on cobblestones.)
To get to the story & make it come alive, of course, you’ll need to translate the text & all the written instructions.
Does the piece express a child’s wish, an adult’s remembrance of things past, or raw grief that’s happening right now? Each of these would require a different sound.
A few anecdotes might be appropriate: when I was a fellowship student @ Aspen, the Juilliard String Quartet was in residence, holding open rehearsals, coaching, & performing often. One rehearsal was of a Brahms quartet. Each player in one particular movement had something unique in their part, so a discussion about interpretation ensued. One player said he was emphasizing the long notes, another the off-beats, & the third the hemeola. The first violinist, who spoke last, said he just wanted to fit in w/everyone else. The other 3 responded immediately with, “No! You have to make a decision!” He did, & the performance was spectacular w/everyone earnestly doing something different.
Expression can be overdone, too, ending up w/everything sounding the same. Four yrs. after Aspen, I was a fellowship student @ Tanglewood. One concert was presented by a singer, all Brahms. The singer was being soooooooooo expressive that every syllable was special. That included the words “the” & “and.” The result of all this attention to everything was that every tempo was extremely slow, making the recital interminably long &, I’m afraid, boring. It is possible to lose track of the big picture, such as sentences & paragraphs.
Another possibility is to use no expression at all for a brief period. Once I was lucky enough to hear Janet Baker in recital @ Carnegie Hall. In one song, she sang with a sound that, to me, mimicked white noise. For that one measure, she sang in a way that no voice teacher I have ever met would recommend to a student. By being inexpressive, she was expressive! She also had 7 or 8 other tone colors in her voice. All that after having someone announce that she was sick & had cancelled the previous evening’s recital!
Being inexpressive is a great way to set up something extremely expressive, by way of contrast.
A word about notation of articulation marks: when you see an accent, staccato dot, or tenuto marking, what does it mean? Is every accent that looks the same, the same for every composer? (No!) In addition, when collaborating w/string players, I have found that identical markings in both our parts mean different things to each player. For example, bowing indications in string parts are something pianists don’t see in their music. But the parts have identical markings. So sometimes it’s necessary, and fun, to match the other player’s articulation (phrasing, lengths of notes, etc.)
Those small cresc.-dim. markings of Schumann’s on ONE note in piano music ~ something to think about, being that a literal interpretation would be impossible…. (Shaking your hands on the keyboard doesn’t count!)
One more thought ~ it’s a good idea to find the dynamic range of the piano you’ll be performing on before the concert, as well as its capabilities for articulation (staccato, repeated notes, how quickly the sound fades, etc.) & check the regulation of the pedals.
OK, those are my thoughts for now. Today I practiced 2 Bach preludes & fugues, 4 Messiaen preludes, & a Liszt waltz. Total time: 2 hrs.