The Interpretation of Interpretation

The first wonderful sight-reading I experienced was Lucy Spitzer’s flawless playing of the Berg Sonata in my teacher’s studio when I was 15 or so. Before then I had no idea how good reading could be; or, we might say, what reading even was!

Since then, I’ve met other outstanding readers. In each, the skill of reading seemed to have acquired its own flavor from existing in a constellation of other skills. But while each musician was unique, one was “more unique”: Leonid Hambro read so well that, when he was fresh out of Juilliard, and auditioning for Joseph Szigeti, the great violinist insisted that he could not be reading, even as the examples on the music rack grew more and more difficult, and less and less familiar.

But perfection of the notes, though remarkable, was not the distinctive thing about Leonid’s reading. Rather, it was that he seemed to give a finished interpretation at sight. I’m thinking of an interpretation as a coherent meaning supported, justified and necessitated by the score, in which emotion communicates from performer to audience as intended by the composer. Working out an interpretation of a major work—one that lasts fifteen minutes or more—can take us months or years. Then we must ask ourselves, “Were Leonid’s interpretations-at-sight necessarily shallow? Are our interpretations fussy, affected and “over-deep”? Or was Leonid accomplishing something more remarkable than we realized?

Copyright © James Boyk 2013. All rights reserved.
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