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CLASSICAL  June 2006

CLASSICAL June 2006

Subject:

Re: What Makes a Performer "Great"

From:

Dave Lampson <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 13 Jun 2006 13:46:22 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Karl Miller wrote:

>Of course there is a very valid perspective of the notion of letting the
>music speak for itself.  ...

This description is fairly close to my preference.  But then, I'm
relatively less picky about interpretation than many.  This is not to
say I don't appreciate a performance with a strong perspective, it's
just that I think there's a number of possible perspectives that work,
and I can appreciate the variety.

It strikes me that there may be as much variation in what we listen
for in interpretations as there is in the music we like.  At least among
listeners, we seem to have a somewhat better vocabulary for discussing
desirable and undesirable interpretive qualities than is commonly found
in discussions of what we like and dislike in the music itself.

>I am reminded of one of my favorite works...the Barber Second Symphony.
>Listening to the composer's commercial recording of the work, and thanks
>to a most generous friend, hearing the composer rehearsing the piece
>with the Boston Symphony...I found it very odd how little "interpretation"
>he put into his performances.

Really?  I don't find it odd at all.  A composer at the podium is already
spilling his guts, so to speak.  He has already made a significant
investment.  A conductor almost *has* to "tinker" (not necessarily meant
pejoratively) with it to make it his own.  It seems to me that composers
and conductors come at a performance from entirely different perspectives.

>... They are clear
>and let the music "speak for itself." Yet, when I listen, I will choose
>the Koussevitzky broadcast, or the broadcast I have with Alsop conducting
>the Minnesota Orchestra.  Both are filled with incredible excitement.

I think there are also different types of excitement.  A restrained,
anticipatory performance can be exciting in some works.  A bold,
race-to-the-finish line performance can be exciting in others.  And one
man's exciting can either be superficial or boring to another.  If you
read enough reviews you can certainly see many examples of this.

>Much has been written about musicians being so restrained in their
>performances.  There was, I believe, some attempt, in the early part of
>the 20th Century, to rid us from the "excesses" of the interpretations
>of the romantic era.  What little of those performances that survive...well
>I don't find them excessive.  I think many went to extreme in the opposite
>direction.

I do find some of them excessive, though sometimes charmingly so (Mengelberg
comes to mind).  But you may well be right that there has been a bit too
much homogenization, at least in the major orchestra and conductors.  I
also find it paradoxical that just as we're seeing this phenomenon, and
there's so much concern expressed about it, what nearly always is left
out of the equation is historical performance practice.  HIP may well
not appeal for a variety of reasons, but it is hard not to acknowledge
it represents a movement towards more individual, even idiosyncratic,
performances of old chestnuts, as well as lots of rediscovered music.

>And then, as many writers have suggested, there is the notion that the
>recording has "set the standard." If you drop a note, or if it doesn't
>"sound like it does on the record," you are, in the minds of some,
>something less of a performer.  ...

This is pernicious, I think.  It's probably one of the two or three
really bad things about recordings.  And it's deleterious to all music,
not just classical.  I have no idea what, if anything, can be done about
it other than to emphasize the importance of seeing live performances.
Until one begins to have some understanding of what a piano played in a
natural acoustic by a real musician, it's impossible to judge a recorded
piano performance.  In any case, the real thing should always be the
frame of reference, never the recording.

Dave

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