Revisiting pieces we have studied in the past

The subject of reviewing pieces from a pianist’s repertoire with the intent of considering new interpretations, whether subtle, or with bold strokes of tempo revision, mood, dynamics, etc. is part of a dynamic creative process. And with this particular focus on musical development and changes in perception, I probed Seymour Bernstein about his side-by-side you tube postings of a Brahms Intermezzo that dated to 2011, and 2019, respectively.

SK: Can you briefly share how you approached the Brahms Intermezzo Op. 117, No. 2 in your most recent performance—whether your decisions about tempo had significant variance from your prior reading; whether inner voices gained more importance by comparison, and if you always preferred to make your newest interpretation the one that best reflected your feelings about the work.

(Music as an art in time plays out in LIVE performance with a “here and now” framing, enjoying an interpretive freedom that the moment endows. To the contrary, a “compressed” upload to you tube, becomes fixed in space with a set memory of events in phrasing and tempo.)

In this regard, do you delete recordings that are not in harmony with your newest epiphanies?

Seymour Bernstein: “So, Shirley, from what you have expressed, you too have rethought older works. This is a sign of progress, I believe. Evidently Chopin never played his works the same way. Nor did Brahms. We assume that all the great ones were always in flux. So this is healthy.

“In my case, when my tuner did an extra superb job on my piano with action adjustments, hammer voicing, and tuning, everything sounded and felt different and therefore beckoned me to new comprehensions. At other times, I might be reexamining a piece for another pupil and surpass my former comprehension. I then feel compelled to re-record.

“In response to your query, I always delete my former recording on YouTube. But in the case of the Brahms Intermezzo in B-flat minor, Op. 117 No.2, I listened to my former recording and felt that it had merit. So I left it on YouTube.”

Here are Bernstein’s side-by-side recordings of the Brahms Intermezzo.

Published on Mar 8, 2011


Published on Mar 28, 2019


Like Seymour, I usually delete what does not seem to be my “voice” in the present, though I have sometimes been surprised by phrasing, nuance and tempo, that embodied a more reflective prior performance.

To this effect, Seymour’s first Brahms recording has its own fulfilling phrasing as does the second. Where the most recent recording has better audio fidelity, the treatment of inner voices in the 2011 version, by comparison, is more subdued, but with a blend of color that is very pleasing. In the 2019 reading, Bernstein seems intent on discovering and fleshing out voices that many pianists too often hide. To his credit, Seymour’s understanding of a structural and musical intertwining affords a deeply immersive musical experience.

Overall, I treasure both performances of the Intermezzo for their mood-sustaining, contemplative beauty and tasteful rubato. Nonetheless, there may be still another gratifying re-do on the horizon that offers new awakenings by the pianist.

Within the corridors of teaching, we should embrace a philosophy that encourages change and growth, drawing a parallel to life itself which is in eternal flux.

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