Music Writer Tully Potter on the Importance of Historical Knowledge in Music Performance

Tully Porter takes his role as a music critic seriously; it is a profession that requires deep knowledge of music and its history, he says.

By Laurence Vittes | From the November-December 2022 issue of Strings magazine

Tully Potter was born in Edinburgh in 1942 and grew up in South Africa before returning to the UK, where he became one of the country’s, and eventually the world’s, most influential record critics and historians. He edited Classic Record Collector for 11 years and is currently opera critic for The Daily Mail. His magnum opus, a two-volume biography of the German violinist and composer Adolf Busch, published in 2010, is set for rerelease this fall. I have known him for 50 years, so everything I say is totally biased.

Potter is working on two widely anticipated histories, one on great quartets and one on great Czech quartets. However, he claims to be “vastly more proud” of the two books of poetry he had written in his 70s for his grandchildren—“late presents,” he calls them. In fact, before he would talk about being a Shavian observer of the classical-music scene, he insists on reciting two of the poems—all the way through. “My dog’s a Highland Scottie / And I call her Trotty Lotty” particularly stands out.

Potter taught himself everything. “I had piano lessons, no clarinet lessons. I don’t play a stringed instrument. My musical education was completely messed up. I’m almost dyslexic when it comes to looking at music. I really have to concentrate on it. I know my way around a score, but I’m not one of these people who can pick up a score and know what it sounds like.” He relishes informing me of Sibelius’ claim that Thomas Beecham “was obviously always conducting from the flute part.”


He takes his role as a critic seriously; it is a profession that requires deep knowledge of music and its history, and he complains about what he calls the “sheer ignorance” of those that pass judgement without seeking out this knowledge. For example, he says, “When critics or judges complain that someone plays the last movement of the Brahms Violin Concerto too fast, they’re quite wrong. Everybody knows that Brahms wanted it fast, but Joachim wrote, ‘It’s too hard,’ so Brahms put in the rider, non troppo—not too fast. If you hear Busch or Heifetz play it, they play it very fast. It was common knowledge that it should go faster.”

Tully Potter at Adolf Busch book signing
Tully Potter at Adolf Busch book signing

Potter also bemoans certain trends, specifically that players today “are not allowed to have style. When we listen to Sinatra or Armstrong, we’re listening to their mannerisms. When we listen to old violinists and we say they’re recognizable, a lot of it is their particular style. There is music right up to and including Bartók and Ravel where you have to play portamento—Bartók may have heard one or two people play without portamento, but Ravel never did.”


Trends like these, Potter asserts, don’t always serve the music. “The great piano trio with Joseph Benvenuti, René Benedetti, and André Navarra,” he says, “recorded the Ravel Trio around 1940. It was the beginning of the time when people said, ‘We don’t slide any longer.’ There are two places in the first movement where you absolutely have to slide—one of them a violin, slurred, and then the same phrase in the cello, also slurred—and they don’t do it. And why? It’s so stupid. They’re trying not to. Things like that are crazy. Imagine how particular Bartók and Ravel were—if they’d have known people would come along and not slide…”

Clearly, in order to be a critic, you must be a person with opinions. And Potter has any number of them that he’s willing to share, from admiration of Oistrakh’s technique (“He could even trill with his lovely pudgy little finger”) to how a violinist should choose a bow that suits a piece (“In theory the player ought to have a different bow for each piece—but they would go mad if they tried that”). To quartets, he issues the following advice: “The two violins will be playing in the same style, if you’re lucky. The viola will be a little bit slower, and the cello even a bit slower. The best quartets make it work by osmosis—they seem to understand the places where they should be together—and the best cellists know not to play like a cello all of the time.


“I don’t want a quartet led by the cello.”

Asked how he hears all these things so clearly, Potter says, “You have to trust your own response. Every one of us comes to a concert with our own baggage, the soloist or the quartet or trio as much as we do. We all come with our preconceptions. I try to put everything out of my mind as much as I can. I often won’t spend a lot of time preparing and try to just take it as it comes. I listen.”