Challenging Performance: The Book. 23-3 Further transgressions

23.3 Further transgressive performances

This website has a growing collection of different kinds of non-standard performances, by artists who all have different reasons for rejecting norms and who all have individual ways of working. You can access them from the menu at the top by selecting ‘Interviews and Recordings’. So here I’ll simply summarise each and offer a direct link. You’ll get a vivid sense of what’s already possible. Here I’ll arrange them by common features.

Using historical recordings

Abigail Dolan (flute)

Abigail’s ten performances starting from the Debussy ‘Syrinx’ score mix historical and transgressive approaches. She gets her historical evidence from early recordings which document contrasting national schools of flute playing (German, Dutch, British, French, perhaps also American) all but one of which were lost when flautists gravitated to French style for their international norm during the first decades of the 20th century. There’s an introduction to Abigail’s practice here. But you can get much more detail on her own website.

Eszter Osztrosits (violin) and Imre Dani (piano)

Eszter and Imre, while studying in László Stachó’s doctoral class at the Liszt Academy in Budapest, developed their performance of Grieg’s Violin Sonata No. 3, Op. 45 through listening to Grieg’s own recordings and those of some of the great violinists of the early-recorded era. In their commentary they provide helpfully detailed discussion of particularly important moments, bringing insight into the kinds of options and choices that early recordings can inspire. It’s exciting to hear such good ‘Recordings Informed Performances’ emerging from conservatoires now, and ideally—rather than becoming a new niche—filtering through into the mainstream.

Anna Scott (piano)

Anna devoted years to studying the recordings left by the pupils of Clara Schumann, pianists who knew Brahms well in the 1880s and 90s, who played his scores to him and to whom he played. Their performance styles are very far indeed from (in some ways opposite to) what is now considered proper Brahms playing. Anna learned first to play like them, and then she extended their techniques to go even further from modern norms. Her page here has samples. For the full set ask me for a link to her PhD. It’s very important work and essential reading and listening if you want to learn from the past as it really was, rather than as gatekeepers would like it to have been.


David Dolan (piano)

David teaches a widely-admired course in classical improvisation at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama. You can hear an interview with him in the third Challenging Performance podcast. On the website here are varied examples of his own performances including Schumann, Mozart and (yes) Webern. Improvising was a historical practice, of course—common in performances of scores until about 100 years ago—but it has the potential to bring far more into performances in the future, both in itself and for the way it frees one up psychologically to play scores with more confidence so that even when one’s not improvising notes one can still improvise—not simply reproduce ready-prepared—interpretation.

Bobby Mitchell (piano)

Bobby also uses improvisation, also inspired by historical practices but not confined to them. And again it’s because it’s such a powerful way of freeing one’s mind of preconceptions about how a score ‘is supposed’ (how often do musicians say that?!) to go. Bobby has developed a suite of techniques for finding new readings of moments in a score, outlined in his page here with examples from the Liszt sonata, Chopin, Haydn and Brahms.

Playing with character

Mine Doğantan-Dack (piano)

Mine has been taking risks with scores for some years, now. She was the first to perform the allegro ‘Moonlight’ sonata and largo ‘Erlkönig’ which you can hear in later performances in Chapter 23.1. On her page here she offers a Rachmaninov prelude also at a very non-standard tempo. The result, of course, is a very different character emerging convincingly from the same notes. It’s easier, in fact, to start by choosing the character and then allowing all the musical parameters to do whatever they need in order to create that character in performance. It sounds like a rather traditional approach, often used in lessons and practice to approach the norm more persuasively. And so it is. But it can do a whole lot more, as Mine repeatedly shows!

Diana Gilchrist (soprano)

Under this heading, ‘playing with character’, we could also place Diana’s amazing set of ten Schubert ‘Ave Maria’ performances which you’ll find in Chapter 23.2. Again, each was created by sounding a state of mind, alongside (though this is optional) analytical thought about how that state was made into sound.

Experimental techniques

Shelley Katz (piano)

Shelley is exceptional, it seems to me, in his ability to escape conventional ways of making scores work in search of others that ought not to but somehow do. You can hear ten alternatives in an innocent little Bach prelude on his page here. And in due course there’ll be more to come! Listen, for example, to no. 8 reminiscent of Glenn Gould; to no. 3 which asks how hesitant a performance can be without falling apart (the answer is fascinating, because of the way the tempo keeps shifting in order not to fall over the constantly moving edge of what works in the changing harmonic and melodic situation); and to no. 1 which asks how dislocated the hands can be without the counterpoint failing. These are such good questions to test in one’s own playing.

Aisha Orazbayeva (violin)

Aisha draws on modernist experimental music to find extended techniques of violin playing that she can get to work with a score by Telemann. It shouldn’t; but it does! So much more is possible than we’ve ever imagined. It’s simply a matter of looking and listening and thinking and experimenting, without worrying about what’s proper, concerned only with what works.

Martin Lawrence (horn)

Martin has written a separate chapter—Chapter 23.4, immediately following this—illustrating his strikingly original work using performance anxiety as a stimulus for developing new approaches to playing, including examples of Mozart and Schubert.

Beyond the norm

More to come!
Continue to Chapter 23.4: ‘Using Anxiety Creatively’ (by Martin Lawrence)

Back to Chapter 23 list of contents

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