Daniel Leech-Wilkinson

Why aren’t performances much more varied?

Dan’s interest in developing new approaches to performing and thinking about classical scores grew out of his research in early recordings. ‘I was intrigued by early recorded singers when I was still a child. One of my aunts had been friends with the widow of baritone Harry Plunket Greene, and she had some test pressings of his recordings. I was fascinated by his ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ (Schubert’s ‘Der Leiermann’, the last song of Winterreise): how could it be so unlike the score and yet so much more moving than any other recording?’ Research for a Cambridge lecture in 1983 led to an article on the implications of early recordings for the ‘authenticity’ argument; but it was only in the early 00s that he was able to focus on the subject full-time. A five-year project on expressivity in Schubert song recordings, and a series of publications on performance style and how it changes, led him step by step to the belief that there must be yet more—perhaps far more—ways of performing scores persuasively than have been explored to date.

But in that case, he asked, why are performers trained to sing and play scores with such a narrow range of interpretative freedom? Why aren’t performances much more varied? Why are critics so set against performances that differ from the norm? Why is the basic assumption that prevails in popular music and jazz—that when you play someone else’s song you play it quite differently—absent, outlawed even, in classical music? Why is faithfulness to the composer valued so much more highly in classical music than in classical theatre? Do we know what were the intentions of a composer who died long before recordings began? Given that performance style changes all the time, as Dan’s research tried to explain, what makes us think we are even being faithful any more? Might performers and audiences be glad to play and hear favourite scores played quite differently? How might scores make new kinds of musical sense? What kinds of experiments would be needed if we wanted to find out what was possible? Would performers be keen to find out?

Early experiments in which Dan was involved are mentioned in other interviews on this site, and these have increasingly led in new, unforeseen but fascinating directions. His own work with performers has focused most recently on opera, where the problem of musical inhibition is most obvious. On stage in a modern opera production we often see highly imaginative production, bringing new meaning to the opera’s text; yet in the orchestra pit the musical interpretation remains almost entirely unchanged from one production to the next. While for the stage director, the question is always, ‘what can this text tell us about our situation today?’, for the musical director it’s always, ‘how did the composer intend me to perform this score?’ Stage directors always get the critics’ blame when the two don’t match, but suppose the musicians’ inflexibility and refusal to engage creatively were equally problematic? With more goodwill and creative licence, could the two find a mutually acceptable narrative that the musical performance could be flexible enough to support?

To test for possible answers, Dan worked with Helios Collective in 2015-16 on a reinterpretation of Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas score. He is testing possible explanations in the online book, Challenging Classical Performance, that’s being posted in draft here hoping for feedback and suggestions.

Purcell/Leo Geyer: Dido's 'lament' from 'Dido & Belinda'

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