The international cellist (l. in picture), a neighbour of ours, wonders why he keeps putting in the hard hours.
A question that my girlfriend Joanna asked me the other day got me thinking. I was preparing the cycle of Beethoven’s sonatas and variations for piano and cello, which I was playing for perhaps the tenth time with Robert Levin on fortepiano; and Joanna wondered what it was that I was focussing on when practising works I know so well. It’s true that I could sit down, not having played any Beethoven for six months, and play any of the pieces almost as accurately as I do in concerts – anyone could, having played them so often.
But that isn’t the point. I do spend a lot of time focussing on intonation, as well as bow articulation – it’s essential, in order to reach a level at which one isn’t distracted by technical problems during performance. Even more vital, though, is to remind oneself of the exact position of every note in the work as a whole. One can read a novel many times, and know the plot pretty well; but will one remember every word? Unless one has a photographic memory, I think that the answer will be no. (And even if one has such a memory, will one remember the true meaning of the sentences?)
As an interpreter, one has to know, as it were, every word of the story – not just who are the main characters (or in musical terms, themes), but also the contrasts and similarities between them, how they develop and inter-react, and what journeys they experience. Reminding oneself of all this, and listening to the new messages that great music will send us each time one comes back to it, takes time. It’s not enough just to understand the basic structure (although that is of course essential; if you hear a performance that seems to go on forever, it is generally because the interpreters have no idea of the overall shape of the music, and are groping their way through the poor piece – it happens too often, unfortunately).
I find that the music of Bach, Beethoven and other works of true complexity (as well as, usually – and paradoxically – true simplicity) take far longer to reintroduce to my fingers and mind than, say, Shostakovich’s first concerto, which I was also playing on this same trip. I would certainly not call the latter superficial in any way – it’s a masterpiece! It is certainly not lacking in complexity, either. It is wonderfully cinematic and comparatively clear-cut, though, each note representing something pretty definite; returning to it is like a reunion with an old, very familiar friend. I have always to re-examine the score, of course – there are still surprises in store, details I have missed.
But I don’t think that my view of the essential nature of the concerto is likely to change radically. The last Beethoven sonatas, on the other hand, demand constant basic searching and revision, an open mind about the profound secrets concealed beneath the surface; there is more information per note, in fact, than in the Shostakovich. That is why I, in common with every other musician, have to keep practising the Beethoven sonatas so hard every time – both at my own instrument and away from it. And if I were to tell myself that by all those hours of work I have fully probed the depths of the music – I would be deluding myself!
(c) Steven Isserlis/Slipped Disc