Daniel Barolsky presents performance as analysis

Paul Karner

Going from theory class to the practice room has always seemed a little disjointed to the average Connie; somehow the endless analysis of harmony and form never seems to help with the practical issues of performance a musician would ordinarily face. Lawrence fellow Daniel Barolsky addressed exactly that concern Monday night in his lecture entitled “Chopin’s Chromatic Shadings: Performance as Analysis.”
Barolsky’s interest in music theory rests in its relation to performance. In his lecture, which was from a paper he will soon present to the Society for Music Theory, he explained that traditionally, theory becomes disjointed from performance. As Barolsky noted, “While performers think in terms of sound, scholars describe music in prose.” Usually, theorists concoct an analysis and the performers supposedly base their performance on an analysis that they like. Having listened to some 90 different recordings of the “Presto” from Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 Op. 35 in B flat minor, however, Barolsky has concluded that performers create their own analyses of a piece that often contradict conventional, theoretical interpretations.
Most significant performance-based analysis concerns material not explicitly described in the score, thereby running the risk of being ignored by a conventional analysis. For example, in Wilhelm Kempff’s recording of the Chopin, he creates “shapes not suggested by the score.” Where a typical analysis of the score would dwell on the harmonic ambiguities of the first four measures, Kempff’s study reveals the importance of shaping through subtle dynamic changes. This interpretation underlines, according to Barolsky, the importance of “understanding the form as a whole, rather than quibbling over particular harmonies.”
Particularly in studying the works of Chopin, a late romantic composer, Barolsky was interested to hear performances that looked ahead to the impressionists to come rather than back to previously established norms of the classical and romantic periods. Pianist Mikhail Pletnev, for example, emphasized certain notes that were somewhat of harmonic misfits. Usually theorists want to “emphasize the predictable” in music, in this case treating such notes as coloration. Pletnev’s performance, however, suggests a “prophetic quality” to Chopin’s music; in generations soon to follow, those non-harmonic tones would be of critical interest.
Barolsky’s lecture concluded with an injunction to musicians and scholars to free themselves of “preexisting conventions” in analysis and to give audience to the interpretations a performer might have to offer – and who could be better equipped to “challenge conventions” than performers themselves?