Thursday, July 31, 2008

Off night, or age?

I don't write often about classical music, despite my great appreciation of it. (In fact, I could find only one previous mention of it in this blog, and I would have thought it would have crept in a time or two more.) Never having played an instrument (though you should hear my rendition of Amazing Grace on a tin whistle - spine-tingling), and having been an extremely casual listener before I was 25, I would be presumptuous to throw around any particular commentary ("ah, his rubato was superior, but I can't say I cared for his use of gratuitous appoggiaturas at all").

Oh, I have definite likes and dislikes as to music, and perhaps one day I will feel emboldened (or desperate) enough to put some of those thoughts on this blog. But I have close to no clue in terms of actual performances, either about the choices the performer makes or their actual ability. I take that back, somewhat; I once heard a performance of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto by the Chicago Symphony with principal clarinetist Larry Combs. The central movement, the Adagio, is in my view one of the truly shatteringly emotional pieces of music, even if I don't take into account that it was written soon before Mozart's far-too-early death. It is to be played slowly, as the marking would indicate, but Larry took it at a pretty good clip, as if he had some party to get to. For me, the structure was obliterated, and that angered me, so I do occasionally have an opinion as to performance choice.

At any rate, I went to the Ravinia Festival last night to hear an all-Beethoven program, the centerpiece of which was pianist Leon Fleisher playing the 5th Piano Concerto, the "Emperor." I won't recount the entire Fleisher story, remarkable as it is (the Wikipedia link I provided is a good summary of his long career and struggle with dystonia). He has just turned 80, and figures prominently in any taxonomy of piano performance and teaching, linked directly to Beethoven himself. Last year he was honored by the Kennedy Center with their prestigious award (of course, so was Diana Ross, so take it as it is).

The first movement was all right, perhaps a little muddy, but well within the boundaries of performance choice. The second movement, a truly lovely example of modified scales over a subdued orchestral background, was played beautifully (for the music-philes out there, I do recognize that there is more going on than my description would indicate, it's one of the few scores I've looked at, but the main impression is as I have said).

But, sadly, the third movement was just a mess. I accept wrong notes as part of live performance (I had the distinct pleasure of hearing Evgeny Kissin play all five Beethoven concertos with the CSO over two nights, and he missed a few notes - a very few). But Fleisher made so many mistakes that it was hard to listen to it, and every such disruption to a piece of music like that hurts the overall impression.

Perhaps unfairly, the first tendency is to ascribe a night like this to Fleisher's age. That may be wrong, he may have just had an extremely bad movement, but that is the first thought. And you think about that, and you begin to realize the extra pressure on a performer of a certain age, as every performance is taken as a referendum on their continued potency.

So I'm going to try not to think that way, but to remember a well-played, touching second movement, and chalk the ending up to a bad night. After all, not every blog post is absolutely top-drawer insight and revelation, some of them are just OK.


Greg said...

Go hear a student performance at Northwestern sometime. I think the top conservatory students often outplay the big-name soloists.

Androcass said...

That's probably true, but it doesn't leave much room for name-dropping (unless the student becomes really big later on).

Anonymous said...

You should try listening to the music, instead of the notes.

Androcass said...

I agree, anon, until the number and steadiness of the wrong notes interfere with the music. I don't have any hard and fast rule on what constitutes interference; you'll have to take my word that this performance was sufficiently marred.

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