Pianist and researcher Anna Scott uses early recordings to inspire startlingly original interpretations of Brahms.
Anna Scott is a convert. She admits that:
Like most mainstream performers, and probably also historically informed ones too, I believed that what I was doing when I played Brahms was some combination of faithfulness – whether it was to Brahms, or his scores, or evidence about how he wanted his music played – and creativity.
Her outlook was transformed when, for a 2006 graduate class assignment, she found extant recordings of Brahms pieces performed by his contemporaries.
The performers on these recordings had all been former pupils of musician and composer Clara Schumann, and were close friends, colleagues, as well as informal pupils, of Johannes Brahms himself. What was surprising was that this group of performers around the living Brahms were playing in ways that contravene our own contemporary criteria for ‘good’ Brahms playing.
The early audio recordings of Brahms caused a two-fold shift in Anna’s perspective. At one level, the composer she thought she knew well had changed. She felt ‘shocked’ to hear familiar scores rendered in unfamiliar ways by people who actually knew Brahms personally. Her idea of what it meant to be a performer also changed. Anna had always thought she exercised ‘creative agency’; a ‘right to play in the ways that I like’, even if to some degree her choices reflected ‘agreed upon boundaries of taste and style and technique.’
These recordings were so unique, however, that the interpretations she would previously have counted as ‘creative’ appeared only to be a cautious sliver of the myriad ways that Brahms could sound. Their existence called into question our prevailing notions of older repertoire for which there are no extant recordings. The way Brahmsian performance was critiqued, conceptualised, listened to in the 21st century was ‘neither as creative nor as historical’ as most people assume.
It wasn’t immediately obvious what made these performances sound so different.
Recordings of Brahms’ work by Hungarian pianist Ilona Eibenschütz challenge the aesthetic criteria by which we evaluate Brahms performances today
You can incorporate some of these 19th-century techniques in your playing [..] rolling chords [..] right hand and left hand apart..[even] improvisation, without really disturbing the fundamental pillars of what Brahms’s pieces are meant to be like today.
Rather, their distinctive quality lay in features that subtly pervaded the pieces’ entire form.
I was much more interested in the really big, extreme ways that their performances differed from ours…really consciously working against structure as is notated…this very lopsided and hurried approach to time. When you combine all of these things together, then you start to make performances that sound like Brahms and his students.
The old recordings ignored major structural divisions in the pieces that her modern ears were used to hearing. Anna found that in order to copy exactly how Ilona Eibenschütz or Adelina de Lara played Brahms, she had to consciously force herself to break the habits thought to belong to a supreme Brahms interpreter of today.