The Composer and the Performer

Sergei Rachmaninoff is widely recognized as one of the finest of all pianists, with technical and interpretative powers of the highest order.  Yet he considered the young Vladimir Horowitz to be the foremost performer of his famed Concerto No. 3.  The two first met on January 8, 1928, and they played through the work together, with the composer realizing the orchestral part on a second piano.  Rachmaninoff said little at the time, confining himself to a few suggestions.  But he reported later that Horowitz had “swallowed it whole…he had the courage, the intensity, the daring.”  Over the following decades, the success of Horowitz’s performances of the concerto surpassed Rachmaninoff’s own.  After hearing Horowitz play the work in 1942, the composer declared: “This is the way I always dreamed my concerto should be played, but I never expected to hear it that way on Earth.”

In principle there is no reason why a composer should be the best interpreter of his own work, and that must surely be true a fortiori in instances where the composer is not in the highest rank of performers.  In Romantic music in particular, the success of a work is enhanced by the fertile combination of the creative personalities of the composer and the performer (or multiple performers, for non-solo works).  There is of course a school of thought, which was more prevalent in the twentieth century, that the performer’s task is merely to present the music as the composer intended it, relegating his or her own personality to the background.  But the interpretative power of a good performer can add another dimension to a Romantic work, bringing it to life in a way that a sterile “authentic” transcription of the score could not.

My own piano works are certainly not intended solely for my own performances, and I generally encourage other pianists to play and perform them.  It is true that I have generally tried to compose within the limits of my own modest technical powers, which is why my music is less technically demanding than many a work of Rachmaninoff, Liszt, or Chopin.  But there has never been any doubt in my own mind that others could potentially render these compositions more successfully than I, and my recorded performances should not be regarded as the sole valid interpretations of this music.  Since my intention has been to compose for other performers and not just myself, I have taken considerable pains to produce clean, easily comprehensible scores.  At the same time, I avoid becoming overly specific on matters such as pedaling or rubato, preferring to allow latitude for interpretation according to the performer’s own taste, the piano being played, and the environment.

This very fine performance of my Prelude No. 6 comes to us from the highly gifted pianist, William Moody.  It varies in some ways from my own recorded performance and even from the literal score, but that is to be expected when a fine artist interprets Romantic repertoire.  Where my rendition of the prelude concludes dramatically and perhaps overly ponderously, Moody’s concludes with an enthusiastic burst of energy.  What makes this recording even more remarkable is that he uploaded it to YouTube only about 24 hours after receiving the score!

Performances like the one above reinforce my longstanding conviction that there are many pianists out there who have the technical and expressive capability of rendering my piano works more effectively than I.

Most of the scores for the works I have recorded can be found at the link below (on AJ Long’s website), and over time more will be added there.  The score videos on my YouTube channel can also guide performers in selecting scores appropriate for their own abilities and inclinations.

YouTube channel: RobertCunninghamsMusic

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