Clive Brown, professor of musicology at the University of Leeds, wrote a provocative article about the lack of improvisation in modern performances of classical music:
“Classical performance has lost much of the improvisatory element that was an essential part of its original character. This has resulted in a stiffly formal distortion of what the greatest composers and performers of the past expected.
The old musicians understood that there were many aspects of an effective and engaging performance that could not be embodied in the score. Tempo was often expected to be more flexible.
Rhythms could be bent in a manner we still hear in jazz and other types of popular music. Notes weren’t always be taken cleanly, but often approached with various kinds of slides and tonal inflections. Vibrato was an ornamental effect rather than a continuous and regular oscillation of the sound. Parts that are notated vertically together in the score, were frequently expected not to be together in performance. In keyboard playing, chords that appear to be vertically together were mostly performed with various degrees of spreading.”
The article points what we can call an “excess of responsibility” felt by several performers, who don’t dare to take risks with a more individual interpretation, and tend to “respect the score”, by not adding nuances or freedom to the phrasing.
On the other side, a classical musician has to face the task to be faithful to the composer’s ideas, expressed through the score. But, of course, the music notation is just a hint of a much wider expression, which each good musicians should try to discover behind the score.