Gramophone guest blog

How to make the old warhorses sound brand new

Alessio BaxFri 28th August 2015

'A great classical work will reveal itself in different ways every time we approach it'

It is always exciting to discover new music, explore the uncharted territories of newly written works, or perhaps play pieces written a long time ago, but new to us. However, the bulk of our repertoire is made up of works that are very familiar, works that we have grown up listening to, studying, and performing for most of our lives. A good number of these works are true warhorses, filled with melodies that even people who don’t normally listen to classical music can recognize. Keeping old music, and especially well known music, fresh is perhaps one of the greater challenges that classical musicians face today. 

As a pianist, I regularly play very familiar staples of the repertoire, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky concertos, for example, and I recently recorded the Moonlight Sonata for a Beethoven album and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition for a Russian one. There are melodies in these pieces that are heard in pop songs and elevators, and even used as ring tones. How are we supposed to make them sound new and fresh if they are so ubiquitous? The individuality of the performer can take over and transform old music, at times in very compelling ways. Often, however, this is not a particularly successful endeavour as great music ends up being used to showcase the performer’s personality, and not the other way around. I believe the music should always come first. We all have distinct personalities, and deep down we all sound the way we really are, so our voice will always come through.

Then there is the question of tradition. While traditions are indeed invaluable and give great insight into the music we play, we study and critically analyze them. In most cases we don’t know how a certain performing tradition started, or why. To play a work we have known for many years in a way that is just based on other musician’s recordings, or on what’s ‘in our ear’ is truly not an exciting proposition and definitely not a fresh and new one.

So what are we left to do? 

I like to attempt to rid myself of any preconceived notions based on what I grew up listening to and approach a well-known score as if it were a brand new one. Then I try to incorporate all the instrumental, historical, and stylistic knowledge I might have acquired up to that point. I am not suggesting a drastic approach. One often goes back to some of the same original ideas but coming from this reconstruction process, they will now sound more logical, fresh, and more credible. Most of the new ideas will turn out to be incredibly simple, inevitable even. They will derive from the music itself or often from hidden clues that the composer left in the score but which were ignored or distorted by various traditions, or even simply by bad habits. It was a lot of fun for example revisiting the Moonlight Sonata after not having played it since I was nine years old. I thought I knew how it went but I realize now that this was only based on my instincts. By reconstructing the Moonlight nearly from scratch, it revealed itself in new and unexpected ways. It turned out to be a magical piece, as stunningly powerful as it is simple. I now finally understood why it had been universally loved since it was written!

For Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, I wanted to dissociate myself from the amazing orchestration by Ravel, which is pure genius, but in a typically Ravellian idiom, and reconstructed the work based on what is in the original piano score, rethinking its colours in a more typically Russian way. Mussorgsky didn’t write much for the piano, so I thought about other great Russian composers and their traditions as well as Mussorgsky’s own operatic world.  

An interesting aspect of this process is that I will probably change my mind the next time I revisit these works. A great classical work will reveal itself in different ways every time we approach it, according to what we know, and how our knowledge of music and, more broadly, of life, has changed. It is the characteristic of timeless art: to be always greater than the individual and to inspire us to work towards an ultimately unachievable goal.

Alessio Bax's new recording of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and Scriabin's Piano Sonata No 3 for Signum Classics is available digitally from today (August 28), and will be released on CD on September 11.

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