On Tuesday 3rd July, on behalf of ClassikON, I attended the launch of Dr Neal Peres da Costa’s new book at the Conservatorium of Music Sydney.
Neal Peres da Costa is an accomplished man: he is a great performer, a passionate teacher and finally a researcher, doing ‘detective work’ as he puts it. Senior Lecturer and Chair of Early Music at the Conservatorium, Neal specialises in performance on historical keyboard instruments of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, for which he has gained international renown. He is now part on the Australian-based ensemble Ironwood, dedicated to exploring the sound of chamber music on period instruments.
As I arrived in the hall, I saw that his family, friends and colleagues were there to support him in this final step as a researcher: creating a book from his PhD dissertation. It took him ten years and this was a huge accomplishment for him. His interactive presentation (lots of examples of sound and video extracts) demonstrated a brilliant mind.
He has extensively researched early sound recordings which capture a generation of highly-esteemed pianists and Romantic age masters, examples of these works are available on a companion web site (password available in the book). In these records, he discovered an expressive style of playing at odds with the more “precise” and “clean” style to which modern audiences are accustomed.
In short, he observed a big difference between what is written on the score and what is played at that time. The performers of the 19th century added their personal interpretation to the final score. As he puts it, “they read between the lines”.
I realised there is a significant gulf between how we play classical and romantic music now and how it was played back then,”he muses in his book.
After theory, practice! At the end of the presentation, we were treated to a short performance by Neal and Ironwood. They performed Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor to show us how a HIP (historically informed performance) can sound using the techniques he had outlined. It was very exciting to hear this new (or old) way to perform.
I found the whole idea extremely interesting and it really made me think. Without recordings, we cannot know how composers would have liked their music to be played. We thought that we found the best possible solution by respecting the notation down to the last crotchet rest. But when you listen to the first recordings ever made, you discover a totally different way of performing. It is quite disturbing!
Neal really hopes that Off the Record will change the way pianists perform music by late-romantic composers (and even earlier composers as he asserted) and that these new techniques “will start to infiltrate performance”. His next project is to record some music applying all these techniques; I am looking forward to it!
Off the Record is an indispensable resource for scholarly research, performance inspiration, and listening enjoyment. I recommend this book to any music lover, it is worth every penny!
This kind of event is just great. You can discover a new book, learn about interesting musical techniques, hear a great performance as if you were sitting in a 19th century audience, meet the author, have a drink and nibbles…all that for free!
Off the Record: Performing Practices in Romantic Piano Playing
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