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The reason why performance is given in full of what are, admittedly, shorter works than plays and operas — symphonies, concertos, sonatas, quartets — is one of aesthetic principle: serious musicians revere the composer’s creation, and it follows that they seek a performance that as nearly as possible realises his intention. This desire manifests itself (also in teaching and among informed critics) by a quasi-religious loyalty to the score — to the notes which the composer actually wrote. Hence the concept of the Urtext, which reflects the desire among music publishers, where controversy exists, to establish as nearly as possible the true conception of the composer. Of course Shakespeare scholars are no less anxious, in case of doubt, to identify the most accurate possible version of the text; this is exemplified by the controversy over whether Othello’s final speech refers to the “base Indian” or the “base Judean”, who “threw a pearl away richer than all his tribe”. The difference is that performers of the music perform in the respectful spirit that nothing can be better than executing the composer’s original intentions, if one can discern them, whereas the same (self-evidently) cannot be said of today’s theatre. It is tempting if facetious to offer up a song of thanksgiving to the Deity that there are no directors to interpose themselves between the notes on the page and the actual performance of a Beethoven string quartet.

This brings us back to our point of departure: concert artists are like translators; to many listeners, the notes in the written score are as inaccessible as is the original of Woyzeck to a non-German-speaking audience. In each case, we have to trust in the good faith of the intermediary. Just as a jarring anachronism in translation is an obvious affront to the playwright’s intentions, so too is a performance style which is foreign to the composer’s idiom. Points of apparent detail matter: they make up the whole. So there is for good musicians no sense of pedantry in paying attention to the closest features of notation — not just tempo and dynamics, but phrasing, slurring and ornamentation. Although the whole question of what constitutes authenticity of performance is itself a matter of vigorous debate, knowingly to impose an inauthentic performance style on a Mozart violin sonata is a sin against the Holy Ghost. To choose to play a wrong note is unthinkable. András Schiff was heard in a master class to reprove a far less serious aberrance by a student, with the crushing but necessary rebuke: “Bloody hell, why don’t you play what Beethoven wrote? It’s his music, not yours.” Of course, the musician must have an imaginative approach to the notation on the page, which can only be an approximation. The soul of the work ultimately lies beyond the printed score. Nonetheless, it is that notation which has to be interpreted, that spirit which must be released — not some vainglorious “new version”.

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