Peter Carter on why practice and Urtexts are over-rated
Peter Carter was leader of the Allegri Quartet from 1976 to 2005. He recently read our interview with the late Peter Cropper, in which the Lindsays’ first violinist ran through his A–Z of chamber music. Carter has some important points to add to the list, including some controversial views on whether chamber musicians should practise individually, and which editions they should use
I was always less uptight playing the Grosse Fugue than the alternative last movement. I felt that it was so ‘mad’ that one could almost play anything, and as a result one wasn’t worried and ended up playing mostly the right notes. In the alternative movement it matters desperately that everything is near-perfect and I found that I was much more nervous for the whole quartet, knowing that at the end of a long hard slog the most difficult, delicate playing was required.
I’m a great believer in the choreographing of a performance, particularly in the bowing of certain passages. A whole lot of down bows on main beats seems to add to the feeling of bar and half-bar accents. Somehow the continuity of a down bow followed by an up bow visually gives the impression of a continuing phrase.
When I joined the Allegri Quartet the players had a modus vivendi of keeping the mornings free for individual practice (known as ‘individ’), and rehearsing in the afternoons until someone had to go home, usually around 9pm.
I didn’t like this plan. First and foremost, I wanted to be home for supper to see my young son before bedtime. Secondly, I was not sure that morning individ was a good thing. I developed a theory that individ could in fact be harmful and a waste of rehearsal time. I felt that on many levels that practising by oneself could ingrain bad habits. One trained one’s fingers to go to the wrong spots on the violin, viola or cello, because quartet intonation is very different from solo intonation; or to play at a different speed from what might ultimately be needed; or one formed ideas about how the music should go that might not fit in with how the piece eventually developed.
If one member had spent the whole morning working at something that in the afternoon they were told didn’t work, it involved a lot of discussion and argument. If they had trained their fingers to play in a certain way it took much longer to convince them it was wrong than if they just found out at rehearsal where or how fast their fingers should go. If all four players had come to the problems together – whether tempo, dynamics or character – time would not be spent unlearning all the morning’s hard work. It got to the point that I forbade anyone to practise.
I have no doubt that an enormous amount of time is wasted by well-meaning quartet players practising in ways that don’t help the final product
Obviously there are passages that do need looking at by oneself but I have no doubt that an enormous amount of time is wasted by well-meaning quartet players practising in ways that don’t help the final product. After all, when a pianist approaches a work, there is only one brain guiding the decisions. If all four members approach the work from the same viewpoint the chances are that a collective interpretation will evolve more easily than by argument.
Of course this is very idealistic and the chances are that in any group someone will have played the piece before and have strong views on interpretation, but if all four first play any given work for the first time together it is much easier for a collective interpretation to evolve.
Good as it is to have the original scores easily available so that we can see what Haydn actually wrote, it is fairly obvious that he expected his musicians to know the current style and conventions and so did not put in many dynamics and articulations. As time went on various editors made their own editions according to the playing practices of the time and one presumes these were better playing practices if they were chosen for publication.
I am the lucky owner of a very early 1819 edition which I have always believed must have closely reflected the playing practice of Haydn’s time (he had only been dead about ten years), but I find it hard to be too critical of later versions that have given so much pleasure to so many over so many years.
How often does one see a Shakespeare play exactly as he wrote it? Nobody seems to mind. Why is there such a holier-than-thou attitude in the music world?
One of my very early memories is of hearing the Amadeus Quartet playing Haydn, long before the new Urtext editions came out. I often think it was that concert that inspired me to a lifetime in quartets. It was wonderful music making. Does it matter that it was not an authentic performance, that the dynamics, articulations and even some of the notes were not as Haydn prescribed them?
Is this not what interpretation is about – the gradual development of an understanding of what the composer was trying to convey? Yes, one should know what they actually wrote, but should one not also learn from what countless other musicians have thought about it? How often does one see a Shakespeare play exactly as he wrote it? Nobody seems to mind. Why is there such a holier-than-thou attitude in the music world?
I am constantly confused by recent modes of performing music of the Classical period. Huge amounts of research has been undertaken to find out all about the conventions of the period in question yet I find it very difficult to accept some performances which seem to me to deny all the rules that I have tried so hard to follow all my life: acents on every bar or even half bar, swelling in the middle of notes and phrases cut up into fragments so that there is no overall line or continuity of thought. Hans Keller would turn in his grave.
Can these practices really be valid? I recognise that research has offered the performing world great improvements in many spheres: balance, articulation, speed, tempos, and many other aspects, but I find it very difficult to accept that the organic, natural laws of music making can have been so different in the late-18th and early-19th centuries.