Objectivity versus subjectivity

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

I cannot plead complete ignorance of what will appear in ‘another place' in this issue 7, so I may be permitted to refer to the article written by the late August Stradal on ‘Liszt's Piano Playing’. I was struck by his comparison of the attitude and approach of Franz Liszt and Anton Rubinstein to famous works, and to his insistence that Liszt's attitude and performance were always objective: there was indeed a complete passing of his own personality into that of the composer. Rubinstein, on the other hand, was a case of Anton first and the rest nowhere.

The importance of this subject varies with the eminence of the performers. Paderewski, at the moment, is the only great personality among pianists who can be classed with the giants Liszt and Rubinstein, men equally famous as virtuosos and composers. Now, nobody can hear Paderewski play without being convinced of his objectivity, and that his chief interests are truth and justice for the composer. Stradal mentions certain features of Liszt's playing which are also peculiar to Paderewski, — for instance, his cantabile. He, like Liszt, sings his melodies! Those who have heard Paderewski play the Rondo of the Waldstein Sonata must have felt its enchantment, the lovely melody playing pianissimo in octaves, with the delicate tracery of the underlying passage work, quiet, yet clear enough for the melody to stand above it, as should the melody of a lovely song. This is the real Beethoven, or, as Wagner so acutely puts it, producing with Beethoven.

How few performers and conductors are capable of producing with the composer! I have heard that Waldstein Sonata played by pianists of great reputation; but, beginning the Rondo, they have unconsciously murdered the melody, a fault due to lack of appreciation for melody or to artistic insensibility. In such cases production with a composer is impossible. The canon for the true and ideal artist is possession of that rare skill and imaginative insight which enables a performer or conductor to present the work of a composer in its true perspective.

A performance of one work is not really sufficient to establish the lack or possession of this rare gift. For instance, had the reputation of Richter rested on his interpretations of certain French and Russian works, it would have been insignificant; but actually in all music of first importance by Bach, Beethoven, Liszt, Brahms and Wagner—he was majestic, unapproachable. His insight into the composer's mind was neither a close-up nor a distant focus: but whatever it was, it resulted in a real-life presentation which left nothing to the imagination. Nikisch, more impulsive and impassioned, could create greater tension and raise fiercer storms than Richter in Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony; indeed, Richter’s version by comparison was no version at all.

Yet it was only in this one work, with his inflammatory interpretation, that I preferred Nikisch, and that because his version seemed natural to the music. Of course, it is rare for any conductor or performer to give us all that we imagine can be in the music, but when we think to find such a one, we may be excused our acclamations. By their fruits shall ye know them: hence the conductor or performer who can give perfect presentations of great masterpieces only comes to us at intervals. We can recall the names of few artists of this exceptional quality during the past century, which after all saw the birth of the artist-interpreter.

  1. ie, a book review (unsigned, but very probably by HB himself) of Stradal's recently-published life of Liszt. ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, June 1935, p. 755