First-Impression Syndrome

November 8, 2008

First-Impression Syndrome (FIS) is the tendency for some people to favour the first interpretation of a piece of music that they hear over any subsequent ones.*

Now, of course, if the first rendition heard was really subpar (for example, overhearing me hack through Beethoven’s “Pathetique”), then yes, other versions will sound much better. But assuming that this is not the case, and one is listening to a legitimate recording performed by professional musicians, the situation, I think, becomes much different. More often than not, the first recordings I listen to remain superior in my preference, even though I really do try to appreciate other interpretations.

Two possible explanations for this phenomenon:

1. If one becomes familiar with a piece by initially listening to only one rendition, he/she becomes accustomed to that particular version. The listener subconsciously learns to associate the version with “the norm”, the “correct” way that the piece should be played. I propose that this is not dissimilar to the way in which traditions and customs are ingrained: a fondness for familiarity, a sort of reverence for the tried and trusted.

2. Something akin to divine guidance leads me to unknowingly pick out the best recordings right off the bat, and thus, all other recordings are literally just worse.

Of course, this does not happen 100% of the time, and there have been cases where I do have epiphanies with different versions, but the relatively low number of occurrences with which this occurs just strikes me as a little weird. Thoughts?

*FIS is by no means a legislative trend, nor does it have any scientific backing (or perhaps it does, but I haven’t bothered to look). It is purely a thought I had while sitting around trying to fill up some time.

Not too long ago, I listened to Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto for the first time. What a magnificent piece. The piano, with its swirling virtuosic displays, never loses its emotional intimacy. Here, I’d like to write my thoughts about the work. I realize reading music reviews without listening to the music is somewhat pointless, so I’ve uploaded the movements to help make it less dry. The CD set I used can be purchased here at a very reasonable price for anyone who’s interested.

Now, without further ado,

Piano Concerto No. 2, op. 16 – Sergei Prokofiev (performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy and the London Symphony Orchestra under Andre Previn)

First Movement – Andantino

The first movement is wrought with pleading anguish. It begins quietly with the piano, singing a haunting motif against pensive arpeggiations in the left hand. The orchestra plays largely a supportive role, adding colour and augmenting the dynamics of the piano. The climax of the movement is brilliantly composed. The piano solo which leads up to it begins with the return of the motive, enrapturing the audience with its melancholy wistfulness. Then, we listen as the piece slowly descend into feelings of despair and anger; the lone piano seems to be mirroring the struggles and battles of a conflicted mind and soul, with such full and rich harmonics that it makes the orchestra seem unnecessary. Finally, after the piano’s defiant proclamation, the melody crescendos, and the orchestra slowly melds in with it, producing a spine-tingling zenith. The movement ends with the motive again, slowly fading into nothingness.

Second Movement – Scherzo (Vivo)

The second movement takes off with a sprint. Here, we hear Prokofiev’s signature wit, as the piano seems to run along, as through with fire at its metaphoric heels. It lasts only about three minutes compared to the twelve-minute first movement.

Third Movement – Intermezzo (Allegro Moderato)

The third movement opens with rich, deep, bellows; rumbling from the depths. The piano comes in, and we hear it partaking in this solemn march. Its own light-footed steps contrast with the fat sound of the orchestra. However, as the movement progresses, the piano gains more confidence, or is perhaps seduced by the overwhelming power of the orchestra, and slowly loses its contemplative nature. The movement ends with the piano marching along just as robustly as the orchestra, which seems to rejoice manically at its success in winning over the piano. The last few cadential notes are quiet, but resolute, as though the piano is declaring that it is finished fighting.

Fourth Movement – Finale (Allegro Tempestoso)

But that is not the end. The fourth movement takes us by surprise. The sudden descending strings and piano bring to mind an image of one who is thrust into a dream of falling, straight down, bewildered, in an ambiguous sky. The audience, unsure where this is all heading, wonders if the rest of the movement will be a chaotic fiasco, but just then, the piano’s melancholy soul, which rang out so beautifully in the first movement, returns with a new motif, but which is no less moving. It sounds more jaded and tired at first, but helped along by the orchestra, it makes a few heroic steps forward. By mid-movement, however, the piano’s resolve seems to wavers. It flounders alone for a while. We hear the motif reoccur from different parts of the orchestra, as though they are fragments of the piano’s memory. The piano, in response, gives a slow recitation of the motif, as though slowly coming out of its stupor. However, it is too late, and with a fantastic race at the end, the piano’s journey culminates into a fury, before dropping off to a convention V-I cadence.

A technically sound ending, but the “story” remains open ended. This, however, adds to the concerto’s intrigue. As these are simply my own thoughts on the work, it is quite possible that they converge very little with the composer’s own views. However, I think that that is one of the features that makes music so intimate and personal. Interpretations of the same music can vary remarkably. It’s an interesting topic – musical tastes among different people and cultures. In fact, I was going to dedicate this post to a longer discussion about that: talking about how the audience of Prokofiev’s time detested the concerto, but I wound up writing a full review of it instead! Anyway, perhaps in a later post.


Prokofiev, Sergei. Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, op. 16, Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano), London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andre Previn, 1975, Decca 473 259-2 DTR 3. Compact disc.

I feel like writing something sentimental. Some type of corny romantic fiction, perhaps… But never mind. This spontaneous urge will eventually pass.

There’s apparently a novel writing marathon this November. I could never accomplish such a feat (my literary constipation, you see). The furthest I’ve ever gotten in a fiction is about 4000 words, over something like four months. And they’re asking for 50 000, in one month!? Impossible.

But that’s alright. I’m content to plug away at my own pace (that is to say: don’t hold your breath!)

The Beginning

October 26, 2008

A friend of mine shared with me her secret of how she become proficient in writing. She claims it was because her father forced her to write: anything, everything, all the time, no matter how mundane and pointless it was. She’s also an aspiring music historian/musicologist, like me. Pursuing a career in the Humanities is a precarious decision, and more often than once I’ve questioned my sanity over it. Nonetheless, my youthful optimism continues to blind reason and commonsense, for surely, passion and preserverance can overcome mountains… right?

Never mind. Let’s not dwell on uncertain futures. Anyway, back to the point of this blog. I am currently on the underhand in that I do not know how to communicate effectively, a trait absolutely essential for success in this field. I am naturally quiet, and am horrible at impromptu conversations: I can handle straightforward dialogue, but ask me to partake in thoughtful, engaging conversations, and I usually end up bumbling incoherently; I am better at writing, but I take too painstakingly long at it. However, I think that, as with most things, communicating is an acquired skill – it takes practice, as my friend can attest to, and what better place to practice than on an anonymous blog?

So there we have it. I don’t know how long this experiment will last (considering my fondness for abandoning blogs), but we can only know once we get past the beginning.