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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

Musical Expression is More Important than Virtuosity…or is it?

- There is no right and wrong answer, it is a lot
more interesting than that -

When all is said and done, and when the last resonance of a virtuoso performance has ended, what lingers longest in my mind is the musical personality of the player. At least, that´s how I feel. I can still remember after many years truly great musical moments from Andrés Segovia, Julian Bream, John Williams and pianist Artur Rubinstein – their virtuosity buzzing away in the background while their musical personalities filled the foreground.

Segovia was broadcast live on BBC Radio playing Castelnuovo-Tedesco´s Guitar Concerto no. 1 with a London orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall during the early 1960´s – it was the sheer beauty of the sound, the unmistakable touch identifiable in seconds that I still remember. I was 12 years old.

Julian Bream played in the Fairfield Halls Croydon various times. I was there for several of the recitals between 1967 and 1972. On one occasion he played a Bach Fugue in A minor arranged from the violin. The counterpoint was amazing: he produced both normal and ponticello sounds at the same time with his fingers spread out to achieve the effect with breathtaking phrasing.

John Williams in his first outing with the music of Barrios at the Wigmore Hall in the early 1970’s played the Allegro from La Catedral with a rhythmic clarity and accentuation that illuminated the music.

I saw Artur Rubinstein play when he was in his late seventies. He produced notes as beautiful as a string of pearls and gave the impression that he was making it all up from one second to the next.

The reason why I mention these long past events is to illustrate my point: it is the musical personality that lives on in my memory. Virtuosity is breath-taking, exciting, and makes us sit on the edge of the chair. It leads us to jump up in exhilaration. But musical personality assumes virtuosity and includes it, whereas virtuosity itself can exist with little musical personality. That is why virtuosity alone quickly tires me as a listener and maybe you too.

It is not necessary to possess loads of technique to be expressive

Call me sentimental, but I am much more moved by a young child showing expressivity in a rudimentary but recognizable style, than by a whiz-kid who flashes emptily through the notes at the speed of lightning. Children can play with expression, understanding, colour, tone, timing, rubato, vibrato, meaning and all that goes into creating a moving musical experience. It is not necessary to possess loads of technique to be expressive.

There is a duality in our playing: on the one hand the importance of expression in all its different guises and on the other (or rather in the same hand!) the importance of impression. Both have a place in the scheme of things and every player consciously and unconsciously creates a balance between them, partly influenced by the playing styles prevalent at the time.

If technique is science and expression is art then I come down firmly on the side of the expressive art backed up by an invisible science. Others may love to see all the moving parts whizzing around in a mechanical and human tour-de-force, and may recall from performances of yesteryear the thrill of stunning virtuosity more than anything else.

Such is the variety of human reactions tempered by our personalities and by the age in which we happen to live. There is no right and wrong in this, it is lot more interesting than that. Ideas about interpretation and what constitutes an ideal performance are not fixed, they are slowly but surely in a constant state of development, just as we are too, as individuals and as a society.

25th May, 2013

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