Byron Janis asks: How truthful to the score must one be?

Posted on: January 6, 2010

In Wednesday’s (1/6) Wall Street Journal, pianist Byron Janis writes, “In an interview last April, before his performance of Wagner’s ‘Lohengrin’ at London’s Covent Garden, the noted opera and orchestral conductor Semyon Bychkov stated: ‘You start trying to be faithful to a composer’s score but great masterpieces give you enormous possibilities for interpretation. You can serve the music without being subservient.’ … Unfortunately, he was expressing a minority view. … Arturo Toscanini once confided … that he preferred a faster tempo in a work of Beethoven than the composer’s metronome markings indicated. But after a long inner struggle, he decided he should stick with the score as written, saying, ‘I’d rather be wrong with Beethoven.’ … Do composers regard their work as sacrosanct as the demands for fidelity to the score would suggest? The answer might surprise you. In 1960, I opened the cultural exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and brought Aaron Copland’s Piano Sonata to play. Never having performed it before, I wanted to play it for the composer first. On arriving at his home, I found him tinkering with one of its passages and said, ‘Mr. Copland, I notice you are playing forte and you have marked it piano in the score.’ He turned to me grinning mischievously and said, ‘Ah, but that was 10 years ago!’ ”

Posted January 6, 2010