Musicians: beware the temptation to imitate

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Today's young musicians are in the unique position of being able to learn from the more than 80 years of performance styles aurally documented. They can hear, as many times as they choose, how a generation of pianists taught by Liszt played his music. Conductors who knew Brahms, Verdi, Mahler, and seminal composers recorded their views of those composers' music in the early decades of the century. We can actually trace the violin lineage that produced Jascha Heifetz and then Itzhak Perlman. Young cellists can compare Pablo Casals to Mstislav Rostropovich and Janos Starker. Pianists can get an idea of just to what extent Arthur Schnabel and Edwi n Fischer have influenced Alfred Brendel. Aspiring maestros can hear Rachmaninoff, Strauss, Prokofiev, Ravel, Stravinsky, and other giants performing their own music.

While this continuous document may enable today's young musicians to play with a richer sense of the tradition of their instruments, there is also the possibility that it may encourage imitators. And in matters musical, imitation is stultifying and ultimately damaging to the progress of a young performer.

I was jolted into this realization when I heard a recital album by a young coloratura soprano, Lucia Aliberti, who has, in three years, become an important presence in Europe.

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Concerning the recital album (ORFEO -- digital, S 119 841 A), I had heard only that she sounded like the late Maria Callas. ``Sounded like'' is not accurate: In the middle range of the voice, it is a chillingly accurate imitation. Of the seven arias Miss Aliberti sings on this album, four are closely associated with Miss Callas, and in them the young singer is at her most imitative (at least in matters of timbre).

There is something profoundly disturbing about any young artist (Miss Aliberti is under 30) trying to absorb and re-create so entirely another person's timbre and individuality as the basis of artistic accomplishment, and even fulfillment. One can only regretfully observe that had Miss Aliberti put the hours of work into polishing her technique and mastering her ill-controlled voice, rather than cultivating the Callas timbre, she would be a more finished, individual -- and no doubt valuable -- sin ger.

Miss Aliberti is hardly the first to use recordings as the basis for role emulation: Daniel Barenboim strove for years to imitate the style of conductor Wilhelm Furtw"angler as heard on countless studio and private (or pirate) recordings. The pliancy of phrasing, the freedom with tempo markings (all in a generally slow framework), the almost rhapsodic nature of Furtw"angler's musicmaking, made for performances that remain legendary monuments of recorded history. Barenboim's imitations have invariably so unded mannered, fussy, arbitrary.

A great artist's performances are unique because of the way musicianship, training, tradition, and instinct have blended in an individual fashion to create something extraordinary. Someone can re-create the surface trappings of that performance, but not the underlying motivations, which remain intrinsic to the original performer.

Unfortunately, recordings offer a tempting shortcut for the young artist -- by definition an impressionable creature -- to find a way to project a piece to an audience without that process of distilling elements of various styles into his or her own insights.

Fortunately, many of today's performers do concentrate on imaginative musicmaking. Yo-Yo Ma certainly dares to be involved and passionate in his cello playing; pianist Ivo Pogorelich lets personality and eccentricity dominate his performance style, perhaps to the detriment of his musicianship; violinist Gidon Kremer's insights into music and love of musicmaking are as distinctive as his somewhat off-putting stage decorum; Neil Shicoff's tenor has a unique vibrancy and ring that is the hallmark of any gr eat instrument.

Listening to the giants of the past is instructive and vital for anyone desiring an insight into the changes in performance styles over nearly a century. But for young artists, assimilation must be the operative word, not imitation, if they are to fulfill their promise and flower into the kind of greatness that future generations can look to for instruction. Individuality in the best sense is the very heart of musicmaking; imitation is a dead-end street.

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