Friday, 12 March 2010

Artist Unknown

A friend tells me that she’s just bought the Beethoven piano trios on CD, so naturally I ask, ‘Who’s playing them?’ ‘Oh!’ she says. ‘No idea. I’m afraid I didn’t look at the names of the players.’ Why do people seem to think the performer is irrelevant?

A relative of mine recently confessed that although he was becoming quite familiar with the classics of the piano trio repertoire, he doubted whether he would be ever able to discern any difference between performances of those works by different groups. When I express dismay, he says, ‘But surely there can’t be much difference between top-level musicians playing the same works. Aren’t you all aiming at the same result?’ By that I suppose he meant that all musicians are trying to arrive at a perfect realisation of that holy text, the musical score. But there’s another way of looking at it, one expressed beautifully by musicologist Christopher Small when he pointed out that one might as well turn this perception on its head and consider that it’s the job of composers to give musicians something to play. At the end of the day, you can’t hear music unless it is played, and it is the character of the playing which most impacts on listeners at the moment of performance. Personally, I wouldn’t put the performance above the score in order of importance, but I do think the performance is crucial. Well, I would think so, wouldn’t I? But as well as knowing that a good piece can be ruined by a bad performance, and that a bad piece can be greatly enhanced by a good performance, I also truly believe that a great performance can bring a good piece to a new level.

I remember hearing Italian soprano Cecilia Bartoli in a programme of rather trivial Italian arias of the baroque and classical periods. Any thought of the music’s triviality was however completely driven away by the energy and commitment she gave to it, performing it as though she thought it was utterly fascinating. I remember thinking that it was an object lesson in how to perform second-rate music, and in fact I’ve learned from her example.

But even music of the finest quality can reveal new aspects of itself and even become transcendent in a fabulous performance. My husband Bob still remembers his awe on hearing Carlos Kleiber conduct Verdi’s Otello at Covent Garden in the 1970s. It’s an opera he’d previously heard in fine performances with other singers and other conductors. However, in Kleiber’s hands the opera suddenly struck him as a miracle of expressive coherence in a wholly unexpected way. Even though he knew the music very well, he was so gripped by the performance that he remained glued to his seat long after the performance had ended, unwilling to break the atmosphere. Later on, he heard that Bernard Haitink had attended the same performance with a fellow conductor and had said to his companion, ‘Well, that was the finest evening in the opera house that you or I will ever experience.’ Yet what remained for Bob was not the sensation of Kleiber’s personality but the conviction that Verdi’s Otello was even better than he had realised. When he could bear to listen to it again, performed by other people in later years, the effect was not the same. He realised that the alchemy at Covent Garden had been created by music brought to boiling point by particular musicians.

Of course, this kind of experience is not confined to music. How many schoolchildren, bored and irritated by having to study Shakespeare, conclude that there’s nothing in it for them until one day they get the opportunity to see a really good performance of one of his plays, when all of a sudden a door is kicked open in their minds.

This is an extract from Out of Silence by Susan Tomes, scheduled for publication later this month. It is a diary of a year in her life as a performer. Taking as its inspiration Schumann's remark that ‘I am affected by everything that goes on in the world, and I think it all over in my own way’, it aims to show how a working musician mulls over and draws energy from the events of everyday life.

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