Period performance practice is now all around us in Baroque music, but what about the performance styles of more recent times? Pianist Stephen Hough intends to present Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in Birmingham as it might have been heard in the Twenties: indeed, he's shown how already, on his new Hyperion disc. The performance language of that time is, says Hough, "a great thing waiting to be rediscovered".
"We have more information about that period than we do about the Baroque or the Classical," he says. He blames the post-Second World War distaste for Victorianism for this musical amnesia. "We weren't interested in any of it - we pulled down the buildings, and threw out the furnishings. And what you hear in Rachmaninov's own playing is an openness to sentimentality in the best sense, which we find a bit embarrassing. We're touched by his playing, but we also have a cynical smile as we listen, as though it was all right back then, but doesn't fit now. What I'm asking is - do we not need to wipe that off our faces? If we feel this is worth playing, then it's worth playing in a style as close to the original as possible."
So what does this mean? "Heart-on-sleeve portamento slides on the strings - less clean, from note to note, than it is today. And flexible tempos pushing forward with ardour. You hear exactly that with Kreisler, who recorded with Rachmaninov. Pianism's equivalent to this is the agogic accent, where you invert the direction the phrase is going in."
The difference between Rachmaninov's playing and that of, say, Vladimir Ashkenazy is dramatic, he says. Russian pianists played this music very differently from 1948 onwards. Hough's own CD represents the first recorded live cycle of Rachmaninov's works, "but they're thrilling to play in concert". As Birmingham audiences will hear.
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