Listening to classical cover versions

I read with special interest an interview that Benjamin Grosvenor gave recently on playing the Liszt sonata.  Instead of analyzing the work itself or placing it in the history of classical music, the 28-year-old pianist compared his recent recording to others.  His principle was this: “I almost feel like you should know the notable recordings of a work like this. [] More than anything, it helps you understand what works and what doesn’t work.”  To him, what matters in interpretation is not what the work means but what works in performance.

This unusual approach made me think of a comparable one in popular music, the practice of the cover, which assumes a particular attitude to the original.  Professor Ian Balfour (English, York) writes often on cover versions of popular songs, tracing with tremendous erudition a particular piece through some of its incarnations.  Reading on Facebook his scintillating commentary, I often wonder why we use “interpretation” for classical and “cover” for popular music remakes.  What kind of listening attention to an original and its reworkings does each term indicate?  And what would happen if we reversed their use?  How would our listening change if Grosvenor talked about the covers of Liszt by Horowitz and Cherkassky while Balfour wrote about Nina Simone’s interpretations of popular classics?

The idea of the cover certainly allows for great performative flexibility.  Grosvenor’s examples of earlier recordings show that classical pianists too can be quite irreverent.  Having listened to several highly idiosyncratic recordings of the Liszt sonata (with their omissions, improvisations, mistakes, exaggerations), I suggest that by designating them as “covers” we can be more receptive to their performative liberties.  This would apply even more to works where there is no definitive original, such as Verdi’s Don Carlo or several Bruckner symphonies as well as to transcriptions and paraphrases, which by definition remake originals.  I would find it thrilling to attend a recital with a frame of mind attuned to renderings that work rather than interpretations that un-cover and reveal.  After all, certain pianists, like Horowitz, Lang Lang, and Yuja Wang, not to mention Valentina Lisitsa (and going back to Liszt himself!), can be easily treated as “cover acts.”

I have noticed how every time Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self,” plays a classical work just for the two of us, he improvises his own subtle changes out of sheer performative confidence, strength, and pleasure, in a way conversing with the composer rather than serving him.  Instead of restoring monumentality to canonical works, powerful musicians make them their own in much the way that powerful covers become new originals (such as The Animals’ “The House of the Rising Sun”).  In discussing the Liszt composition, Grosvenor foregrounded this performative dimension, reminding me why we talk about the Cherkassky Sonata, the Richter 960, the Kleiber 7, and the Lisbon Traviata.

What journalist David Allen in the Grosvenor interview called (quoting Charles Bernstein?) “close listening” is a skill of the modern self that can only be invigorated when applied to cover versions of all musical kinds.

10 February 2021

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