By Laurence Vittes | From the September-October 2021 issue of Strings magazine

In an interview at the beginning of this year, Barnabás Kelemen told me that his newly reconstituted Kelemen Quartet had started to rehearse in December from full scores using iPads. Their first project was to be a complete Bartókcycle with new members Jonian Ilias Kadesha and Vashti Hunter, who had introduced Kelemen and his wife, Katalin Kokas, to the new technology. After they prepared the cycle in less than five months and gave successful performances at the inaugural BartókSpring Festival in Budapest in May commemorating the composer’s 140th birthday, Kelemen said, “The new technology is here and we have to use it to our advantage, because it’s fantastic.”

The Borromeo Quartet, led by Nicholas Kitchen, has been using tablets to play not only from full scores but from copies of manuscript scores and parts. In conversations in June, first with Kelemen then Kitchen, both musicians agreed that computers open up a universe of opportunities for gaining deeper insight into the art and experience of making music. 

Strings: How did you make the decision to switch to full scores?

[BK] We started to play from iPads using forScore software because of Jonian and Vashti. It was so helpful to be able to see everybody’s voice at the same time—and to make those difficult page turns you find in Bartók. Since then, we’ve played Mendelssohn’s Octet and the Dvořák Quintet with the full score. 

What’s the difference between playing from your part and from the full score?

[BK] Imagine you’re playing a role in Romeo and Juliet and you’ve learned your part from the script—the full score with all the parts of the other actors—but you haven’t learned it by heart. Then, at the first rehearsal, instead of the script, you are handed a few pages with only your lines—just your part. That’s what it’s like when you play with pianists who can see all the parts and you can only see your own. It’s not fair.

How bad can it be?

[BK] Imagine that you engage a famous pianist to play the Brahms Piano Quintet and when he or she arrives you say, “Unfortunately we can’t provide you with a page turner, but we have prepared for you a special part so you won’t have to turn pages so often. Unfortunately, it only has the piano part.” Of course, nobody would agree to do this because pianists depend on seeing all the parts. 


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How transformative is playing from the full score?

[BK] What forScore does is incredible. In addition to metronome and pitch [functions]—and being able to mark your score or part with different colors and different shapes—it’s practical in other ways. I’ve had and loved my edition of the Bartók Piano Quintet for 15 years. But for a recent performance at an open-air concert, we decided that everybody would have to do the iPad thing because there was so much wind. It would have had to have been a really huge storm to have blown the iPads off the stands!

Is playing from the full score on a tablet always the better option?

[BK] I would never think that a digitalized edition is the only thing; it is a very helpful secondary thing. I really love to read and play from beautifully printed scores and parts from Bärenreiter, Henle, and Durand. 

Of course the idea of studying from the full score is not new.

[NK] When I studied with Szymon Goldberg during the 1980s, studying from the score was central to every piece that we worked on. Mr. Goldberg made it clear that it was in the details of how a composer constructed the full texture around each idea that the inner life of a particular phrase could be understood in the most vivid way. Of course, playing everything from a full score in the 1980s was not very convenient! It changed in 2007 when I saw Meng-Chieh Liu and Chris O’Riley using pedals to turn the pages of PDF files. For me that was the “aha” moment that this method would make rehearsing and performing anything from the full score entirely practical. I found foobar2000 [music software] and have never read from a part since. I even make my own page-turning pedals.

How transformative is playing from the full score?

[NK] The Borromeo Quartet began playing from the full score because it was clear that the quality of the exchange of ideas during rehearsal is profoundly changed. To say it is “improved” would not be correct—it is transformed to take place at an entirely higher level. When working on the interaction of a certain section, everyone is brainstorming with all the details of every part, and this creates a marvelous chemistry in rehearsing. I would even say it somewhat bypasses the arguments that string quartets can so often get into.

Reading from electronic music has made it possible to read from the manuscripts of composers’ full scores where they exist. What has that meant to you?

[NK] When we tried it for the first time, with Beethoven’s Op. 59, No. 3, the manuscript pages provided inspiration from the moment I looked at them. To see the sequence of ideas that Beethoven considered for a certain moment in the music was immediately stimulating. It was easy to see old ideas scraped or crossed out and easy to see new ideas put in their place. This alone would be of the greatest interest, but also many more details started to become visible after spending more time with the manuscripts. 

Starting with Haydn and reaching its most magnificent elaborateness in Beethoven, the use of varied staccati and more refined categories of dynamic indications—and more refined treatment of marks such as expressive swells—provides enormous insight into the manuscripts of Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Schumann, Debussy, Schoenberg, and Bartók. And with Beethoven, the level of detail visible in the manuscripts is overwhelming and deeply inspiring (though be aware that some changes were made after the manuscript stage).