Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1997.
Mary Jane Phillips, the first director of educational services for public television station WETA, Washington, D.C., died recently at 81. A quarter of a century ago - when this kind, hard-working, conscientious woman was just a bit older than I am now - we used to drive to work together every day. We would talk and listen to classical music on the radio, and the trip would pass quickly and enjoyably, despite the rush-hour traffic.
In the middle of our conversation one morning the radio station started to play the Barcarolle No. 1 by Gabriel Fauré. Since we were talking when the announcer introduced the short piano piece, I didn't catch who the performer was.
"Mary Jane," I said, interrupting her at the end of a sentence. "Listen to this piece. It is a beautiful little gem that almost no one knows. I happen to have a recording of it."
We listened and, to my surprise and disappointment, it was performed as if it were a Johann Strauss waltz.
"Oh, Mary Jane," I said over the music. "I'm sorry, but this pianist hasn't the foggiest notion of how this piece should be played!"
As soon as the words left my mouth I realized that I was certain to regret the comment. The pianist was sure to be Artur Rubinstein or Horowitz or someone like that. But I had no idea how embarrassing the remark would turn out to be, until the piece finished and the announcer came back on the air.
In tones which sounded more like those of a Russian Orthodox mortician in formal evening attire than a morning drive-time classical disc-jockey, he said: "You have just heard Gabriel Fauré's Barcarolle No. 1 in A Minor, Opus 26, as performed by the composer."
"Well, Mary Jane," I came back best I could, "it just goes to show you that the composer isn't necessarily the best interpreter of his own work!"
Mary Jane agreed. She was a such a sweet lady. I wish she could have lived in good health forever.
The recording I had of the Fauré Barcarolle No. 1 was by Evelyne Crochet. It was part of an LP set of two Vox boxes containing Fauré's complete piano pieces. I still remember how hard it was for me to learn to appreciate Fauré's other piano music. In the beginning it all seemed to flow continuously without getting anywhere, like much of the "New Age" piano music of today.
But, with repeated hearings, the pieces eventually started to make sense. Now I wonder why their melancholy melodies didn't make themselves apparent to me more quickly. I guess it's because Fauré's piano music has a subtle style all its own, and it just takes getting used to. I think it's worth the admitedly extra effort.
I have yet to replace all my Fauré LPs with compact discs. But I do have a CD of the 13 Barcarolles performed by Jean-Philippe Collard (EMI 1113282), and the No. 1 in A Minor remains my favorite. I think its haunting tune is worth the price of the CD, even if - as is highly unlikely - you never get to like anything else on the disc. Collard's interpretation is much closer to my taste than Fauré's, but not quite as good a match as my memory of Crochet's.
This makes me wonder: Does the first recording you own of a piece of music set the standard by which you judge all other interpretations of that work? Take timing, for example. It seems to me you get used to the speed at which the first performer or conductor plays a piece. You cannot help but compare future recordings and performances to the pace you are familiar with. Others, of course, are slower or faster or about the same. But how often will you prefer a timing which is different than what you - by habit - expect? Does this hold true, as well, for other elements of interpretation?
Yet there are certainly times when I find a new interpretation more vibrant and exciting than what I am used to. There are even cases of my discovering that I really like a work I rarely listened to before, when a new compact disc comes out with a highly different approach. Nevertheless, I can't help but think that the first recording you own, provided that it is a good one, has an undue influence on your concept of how a work should be performed. Or at least it does on me.
So, in retrospect, perhaps Fauré's performance of his own Barcarolle No. 1 wasn't as much of a fiasco as I thought it was, and Mary Jane Phillips was just being her usual, polite, agreeable self.
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