Music scholar finds sound basis to revolutionise performance

2 July 2012

Dr Neal Peres Da Costa: "I realised there is a significant gulf between how we play classical and romantic music now and how it was played back then."
Dr Neal Peres Da Costa: "I realised there is a significant gulf between how we play classical and romantic music now and how it was played back then."

A University of Sydney scholar has conducted groundbreaking research that could change the way pianists perform music by late-romantic composers such as Brahms, Chopin and Saint-Säens.

In a world first study, Dr Neal Peres Da Costa from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music has extensively researched early sound recordings of late-romantic piano playing, discovering an expressive style of playing at odds with the more "precise" and "clean" style to which modern audiences are accustomed.

The practices Peres Da Costa has uncovered in early acoustic and electrical recordings, as well as reproducing piano rolls, "demonstrates a freedom and expressivity that the majority of today's musicians would consider peculiar or disturbingly eccentric", he says.

"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 Off the Record, his first monograph published by Oxford University Press, to be launched this Tuesday 3 July.

His research focussed on recordings of works by composer/performers Johannes Brahms, Camille Saint-Säens, Carl Reinecke, Theodor Leschetitzky and other virtuosi pianists of this musically dynamic era.

"Either these supposed virtuosi of the period were disrespectful charlatans or there were many things missing in the musical notation. Like most, I had been willing to accept that earlier composers, even Bach and Mozart, may not always have notated what they expected. But with romantic composers, it was a given that everything they wanted was on the page. The score was the final word. What I had taken for granted was about to be turned on its head."

Peres Da Costa, who recently presented his some of his findings at the International Brahms Conference in the United States, said the way the music was played in past eras is "confronting to the modern aesthetic, which is all about precision and accuracy and being clean and tidy."

Peres Da Costa and his colleague at the Conservatorium,Robin Wilson, are members of an ensemble Ironwood which recently performed Brahms' music in what they understand as an historically-appropriate manner at the Eastman School of Music in New York. Wilson says: "The recording era has caused musicians and audiences to become preoccupied with perfection and synchronicity. It has evened out much playing that used to be more flexible, more spontaneous."

"The use of expressive devices today is also very different. For example, on the violin we are taught to shift lightly and inaudibly and use portamento - audible sliding - very discreetly. Continuous use of vibrato is also standard. Back then it was the opposite - they used portamento very prominently and vibrated very discreetly."

Peres Da Costa notes: "When you hear these recordings for the first time, you think these musicians couldn't play properly, and that they didn't have any 'taste', yet that is imposing our modern aesthetic judgement. Today's top piano players might consider this type of performance as amateurish: it is not neat and tidy, it is not exactly as written on the score."

In Off the Record Peres Da Costa makes a passionate case for reintroducing the nearly extinct practices that infused these old performances with character and individuality: dislocation of melodies and accompaniments, arpeggiation of chords, rhythmic alteration and flexibility of tempo.

These new findings "will start to infiltrate performance", he says.

Professor Colin Lawson, Director, Royal College of Music, London, has said of Peres Da Costa's work: "No ambitious performer today can afford to ignore his passionate and convincing arguments."

Dr Karl Kramer, Dean of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, will speak at the book's launch. "The outstanding research undertaken by Dr Peres Da Costa is a significant milestone for Sydney Conservatorium, placing it with Stanford University and the University of Leeds at the forefront in reappraising the performing practises of the old masters," he says.

About Neal Peres Da Costa

Dr Neal Peres Da Costa specialises in performance on historical keyboard instruments of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. He is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Early Music Unit at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

Peres Da Costa was co-founder of Florilegium, an internationally renowned period instrument ensemble. He has also performed with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Sinfonia Australis, Orchestra of the Antipodes, Pinchgut Opera, and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.

He has had a long and successful chamber music career with his partner, cellist Daniel Yeadon, winning an Aria Award for Best Classical recording of Bach Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord with Richard Tognetti.

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