One of the very advanced pianists at DePauw is fulfilling her chamber music requirement this semester by playing sonatas with me. She is such a wonderul pianist, and so musical and intelligent, that it is always one of the highlights of my week. (And, in general, I think it is a great way to learn and teach to have younger, less-experienced musicians rehearse and perform with older, more experienced players–it’s what they do at Marlboro.)
I’ve always held the Grieg A minor sonata in rather low regard. No one would argue it is his strongest piece, and many of the themes have long struck me as just, well, unimaginative. But my young colleague had heard the piece on the radio, and was quite taken with it (much to my surprise). She asked if we could read it, and of course I agreed. Not only because she wanted to do it, but also because I’ve never played it, and it is a part of the cello repertoire.
We read through it this afternoon, and she said, “Well, I don’t know why I liked it so much when I heard it on the radio. It seems dumb now.”
Maybe it was how well they played it, I said. I told her a story one of my teachers, Denis Brott, used to tell me. His teacher, Gregor Piatigorsky, used to say that the an artist’s job was to live up to the greatness of a great piece, and with a less-than-great piece, to play the music so well that it would seem great.
We played the first movement again, with all the imagnation, musicality, and sincerity of intention we were capable of. And what do you know? It was like a completely different piece. We liked it.
I realized I had never heard the Grieg played well. Some pieces can be played even poorly and they still are obviously great music. Just about any piece of Bach, for example. Other works have to be played with imagination and commitment to come alive.
There’s a life lesson in here somewhere, too.