Classical music's rule-breakers

We explore the performers who like to do things their own way…

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This month's cover star (March 2016 issue) is the pianist Khatia Buniatishvili, one of classical music's rule-breakers. She's a serious musician who is unafraid to take artistic risks, knowing full well that some of her listeners will be thrilled, others will be shocked. And she's in good company. Here's our guide to six performers of the recorded era who are unafraid to do things differently.

Glenn Gould, pianist

‘Maverick’ has become the go-to description for the Canadian pianist, whose best-selling 1955 debut of Bach’s Goldberg Variations set out his provocative stall. Extreme tempos, distinctive touch and articulation and an ability to rethink well-known masterpieces defined his style. Eccentric and reclusive, Gould famously declared the concert dead and believed the recording studio to be the future of classical music.

Nigel Kennedy, violinist

The British violinist captured the public imagination in 1989 with a bold Vivaldi’s Four Seasons recording that sold over two million copies in that year alone. He’s since both dazzled and wound up audiences with his irreverent approach and genre-mashing performances. And last year he returned to the Four Seasons, with a recording that was part Vivaldi, part doorway into Kennedy’s omnivorous creative mind.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violinist

‘To me an interpretation should show how the music created itself in the composers’ imagination,’ says the Moldovan violinist, ‘with astonishment, colours, joy and sadness, pleasure and anxiety and of course with many surprises.’ And there are certainly shocks aplenty when she plays. Patricia Kopatchinskaja has multi-tracked herself for a Beethoven concerto cadenza, learned the art of singing and playing at the same time and brings the same spirit of insatiable curiosity to 11th-century polyphony as to Ligeti, to freshly-minted compositions as to a Tchaikovsky concerto warhorse.

Roger Norrington, conductor

Who knew that vibrato could cause such a stir? Ever since the British conductor started evangelising about music without wobble, he’s faced cries of outrage. Why dispense with the playing technique that makes music expressive, the counter-argument goes. But since the 1960s Norrington has held fast to his quest to bring ‘authentic’, or historically informed, performances to modern audiences. Period instruments, zippy tempos and, of course, no vibrato before Mahler – those are the hallmarks of a Norrington performance.

Patricia Petibon, soprano

Her latest album was called La belle excentrique after Satie, but the title could apply more generally to this French coloratura soprano. Is her singing mannered and exaggerated, or packed with personality? Whichever opinion you tend towards, there's plenty of Petibon to explore on record, from Handel to Hahn, Gluck to Gounod.

Khatia Buniatishvili, pianist

Renowned for her bold and daring approach to the virtuoso piano repertoire, the Georgian pianist often divides the critics. A prodigy who began performing in public at the age of six, Buniatishvili counts Liszt, a great rule-breaker himself, as one of her heroes.  'You can't go anywhere if you don't take risks,' she recently told BBC Music Magazine.

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