Sigurd Slåttebrekk – a personal view

My first encounter with Grieg as a performer was in my early twenties. Someone had just made me aware of the actual existence of these recordings, and I was tremendously excited by the thought of hearing Grieg himself perform. My expectations were sky high and great was my confusion when I put on his famous lyrical piece Butterfly. I simply didn’t get it! I did not understand what was going on. Where was the safe and recognisable symmetry of the score, even considering the rhapsodic character of the piece? Where was the rhythmic steadiness I had always associated with Grieg? Certainly not in Butterfly. And the strange and unintelligible transitions… Nothing seemed to be in place. It seemed weirdly interesting, but at the same time archaic and clearly not a way in which one would perform his music in the late 20th century.

My level of interest dropped – as a student I had other concerns, and I didn’t really bother listening again to Grieg’s recordings for years. Unfortunately, I think this presumptuous reaction of mine was not at all unlike the reaction of many others. Certainly, many musicians know of these recordings, but unquestionably and perhaps quite understandably, many listeners also feel alienated by the performance style. Appreciating the qualities of a performance without at least recognising the fundamentals of the style can be difficult.

I met these recordings several years later with greater openness and curiosity. I had matured, and developed a general interest in performances from the first decades of recording history, and greatly admired performers like Cortot, Moiseiwitsch, Rachmaninoff and many others. From this redirection, I had also recognised that development isn’t necessarily synonymous with progress. I certainly had experienced the same great romantic sweep, swing and thrilling complexity listening to Martha Argerich, but there seemed to be such an abundance of performers from this early period with these artistic attributes. Although being highly individual performers, so many of them had the same kind of strong coherence in their performance, a tremendous consistency and immediacy – the evidence of an unbroken and living tradition.

My good friend, great inspirer and musical soul mate Tony Harrison came up with the idea of recreating some historic performances and to try to understand what was really going on. In principle, this is certainly not a revolutionary idea, but Tony was talking about recreating a performance as truthfully and as humanly possible in order to understand the performance, and about trying to develop the recording process into an analytical tool. Our intention was to use these insights in performance.

As a pedagogic principle imitation is indeed neither new nor unproblematic. In his comprehensive book on Tempo Rubato, ‘Stolen Time’, Richard Hudson puts his finger right on the spot when discussing the passing on of the unique and highly sophisticated kinds of Rubato that Chopin possessed, and which he taught his students mainly by means of imitation: “There is a danger, however, in this method of teaching, for some students are very clever at learning, like a parrot, all the nuances appropriate to a particular piece, but, when faced with a new composition, cannot themselves comprehend the musical sense which determines all the details of execution. When one imitates, one reproduces only the exterior results of musical thought.”

This illustrates precisely the major challenge in our project. We wanted not only to replicate or imitate – the most essential part of the project has been trying to understand the performance or performance strategies at a root level and to assimilate these strategies into the performance of other repertoire. Assimilation, in the scientific meaning of the word, is nature’s process of making non-organic substance into an organic substance. This assimilation, the transformation of ‘non-organic’ imitation into musical ‘organic matter’, is in fact the very litmus test of our project. Without the convincing assimilation of our newly acquired knowledge, we are only dealing with dead knowledge.

APPROACHING GRIEG’S PERFORMANCE

When trying to recreate a performance style from the past, there is a very significant and constant danger that this process of assimilation – the integration of the many rediscovered details – will at the same time contribute to the delineation of the overall structure. There is a risk that the zooming in on the details of articulation and musical eloquence, however important it may be, hinders the development of sophisticated, overall formal musical relationships – a musical entity. Needless to say, the lifting of one’s eyes from the local view to the large-scale shapes of the landscape is of the greatest importance.
This may seem an obvious point to make but in my view it is still an imminent danger in a traditional ‘authentic’ approach, where the lack of audible sources is the elephant in the room that nobody seems to mention. This crucial assimilation of the various single elements of a performance into a convincing whole is where the written sources come to an end! In a highly perceptive review of the Grieg recordings included here, Will Crutchfield says:

These are dashing, spirit filled, tremendously rhythmic performances[...]. The tempos tell us a lot, and what he does within them tells even more. The hesitations and rushings are High Romantic pianism at its most confident and appealing… if the records had not survived (and they barely did!), our understanding of how music sounded in the 19th century would be significantly diminished.
[New York Times January 31st 1993]

A performance style is of course very much an amalgamation of tradition and individuality – of milieu and genetics – and distinguishing the two is often impossible. Imitation at the level we were aiming at would in any case presuppose a total and almost masochistic submission to another mind, temperament, technique and performance style – indeed a highly personal experience. Grieg’s particular characteristics, his extreme sensitivity of touch, the lovely and unexplainable shadings, the rushing and lingering, the ever present swing, the unexpected and yet so convincing timing in the transitions, the contour of the phrasing – together they all constitute musical gestures which have an almost physical content, closely related to human gestures. My attempts to realise this felt more and more like a kind of musical psycho analysis, and the reproducing of such an intimate and personal testimony more than a century later was at times a rather touching experience to me. Yet, his emotions are never on display, and his noble sensitivity bears witness of a lifetime performing and refining many of these pieces.

In retrospect, I certainly find myself somewhat surprised by the way my own performance has become so fundamentally affected by this work. Not to say that the influence from Grieg came as a surprise to me, being the sole purpose of this project. I did however expect it to be more of a purely intellectual journey into the style of these historic performances, taking on various strategies and principles, still retaining a certain distance, allowing myself to move convincingly between styles for demonstration and lecture purposes. The reality, however, is that the painstaking work on these recreations has affected my musical instinct, and rewinding now seems very difficult.