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What Makes A Great Performer? Scholarship, Technique Or Musicianship?


MusingMuso
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I have opened this thread because the subject is in danger of hi-jacking another one, and the question of performance may well run and run, thus obscuring the other thread completely.

 

What I am asking is not what separates a good performance from a bad one, but rather, what separates a good performance from an utterly outstanding one?

 

Mention has already been made of historical awareness and scholarship in its various forms, but is this the full answer, or are there other factors at play?

 

As food for thought, and to level the playing-field a little, how many outstanding performances of the Vierne "Berceuse" have you heard? The notes are simple enough, but very few performers can pull it off to the point that the hairs on the back of neck stand on end and goose bumps appear on the flesh.

 

How many utterly torrid performances of Bach have you heard, and why are they torrid?

 

How many performers can make the distinction between French Baroque elegance and French baroque mannerisms?

 

Ultimately, what is at the heart of a great performer? Self doubt? Perfectionsim? A need to communicate? Showmanship?

Scholarship? The need to be noticed, loved or admired? Virtuosity of technique? Interpretation?

 

There are so many things which can destroy a musician's best efforts, and some things crop up which cannot be forseen, but what is it....really....which is at the core of a great performer and a great performance?

 

MM

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"How many performers can make the distinction between French Baroque elegance and French baroque mannerisms?"

(Quote)

 

Listen to the best in that respect: Michel Chapuis!

 

What is music supposed to do upon ourselves ? I'd say to re-create, in my mind, a "mood" the composer

had in his own when composing the piece.

And so the interpret has to convey this.

 

Other ideas ?

 

Pierre

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How do we judge great performers ?

 

There are great RECORDED performances and there are great LIVE performances.

 

I find the great recorded performances are those that are technically accurate and respectful of the score, executed with obvious understanding of structure, instrument and building, conveyed without excessive gestures that wouldn't bear repeated listening.

 

In the greatest live performances, small mistakes are easily forgiven, there is still the respect and understanding but the playing is shaped to the audience, the building, the mood of the moment, a greater freedom of expression to affect the emotions of the listener. Such gestures, though right at the time, can seem overdone with hindsight. I remember my organ teacher recounting a recital in which the (then eminent cathedral) organist ended BWV 565 in D major... it shocked and delighted the audience but, my word, THAT wouldn't bear repeated listening, would it ?

 

H

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Ever one to look for the glib answer, I would suggest empathy. Empathy with the music, empathy with the historical context, empthy with the instrument and empathy with the listeners.

 

It isn't that simple, of course, because so much depends on the listeners. Your average Radio 2 listener is likely to have different criteria from your average organist. Perhaps one also needs to ask what makes a great listener.

 

It's a bit like the question "what is art?" - to which the conceptual artist may well reply, "Art is what I say it is." Very subjective isn't it? Does MM's question have an objective answer?

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"How many performers can make the distinction between French Baroque elegance and French baroque mannerisms?"

(Quote)

 

Listen to the best in that respect: Michel Chapuis!

 

What is music supposed to do upon ourselves ? I'd say to re-create, in my mind, a "mood" the composer

had in his own when composing the piece.

And so the interpret has to convey this.

 

Other ideas ?

 

Pierre

 

 

==========================

 

 

I hope we could include Kenneth Gilbert among the great performers of the French Baroque; Michel Chapuis being one a very small and select number.

 

MM

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Guest Barry Williams

I hope that the permitted answers are not restricted to 'scholarship, technique or musicianship'. I suggest that the overriding quality is musicality. This generic term comprises different parts according to the circumstances. Thus a 'historic' performance' on an organ with an HOC for members of BIOS might be quite different from rendering a Bach chorale prelude on a Hope Jones during a communion service. It depends on the circumstances - all of them!

 

Music is ordinarily part of the entertainment industry, a fact forgotten by those who inflict 'correct' but boring playing on listeners, though I suspect that a boring player will be a boring player whatever.

 

Adequate technique must be a given, though many performances, even at a professional level, are lacking. Thereafter it is a matter of judgement. (Note the 'e' on this occasion!)

 

I have mentioned elsewhere on this Board the appalling organ recital programmes at the Fairfield Hall in the nineteen seventies and early nineteen eighties. No amount of brilliant playing would have ovecome the disastrous selection of music, which is another aspect of presenting music.

 

Musicality is so much more than the notes. Further, very few have the true panache, the elan, the lift the notes from the printed page on the King of Instruments, for it is a series of switches to turn the sound on and off. Subtlety comes entirely from phrasing and rhythm. (Registration is relatively unimportant by comparison.)

 

I fear that definition will elude us, but the discussion is interesting.

 

Barry Williams

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What I am asking is not what separates a good performance from a bad one, but rather, what separates a good performance from an utterly outstanding one?

 

How many performers can make the distinction between French Baroque elegance and French baroque mannerisms?

 

Ultimately, what is at the heart of a great performer? Self doubt? Perfectionsim? A need to communicate? Showmanship?

Scholarship? The need to be noticed, loved or admired? Virtuosity of technique? Interpretation?

 

There are so many things which can destroy a musician's best efforts, and some things crop up which cannot be forseen, but what is it....really....which is at the core of a great performer and a great performance?

 

MM

 

Why didn't you include instrument and composer in your list of ingredients?

 

No instrument or music - no performance...

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Interesting question. All of these, but there is also that little bit of 'magic' that is instantly recognisable, but impossible to define.

 

Two examples.

 

'Messiah'. Sargent. Large choir, large orchestra, RAH Organ, orchestration greatly modified from Handel's original. Authentic? No way. Thrilling? Most certainly. The passion, the conviction, the 'guts' were all there, and I am glad to have heard such playing and singing. By contrast some of the recorded perfomance I've heard (and not just of the Messiah, either) sound as if the conductor has a train to catch and simply wants to get the job done as quickly as possible.

 

Second. RFH. 5:55 recitals 30 yrs+ ago. Some included music by Couperin and similar that exploited the range of mutations and softer reeds that this Organ possesses. You know the sort of thing - all trills and twiddly bits. I was a teenager a the time, and attended many of these recitals with a friend, but after while we tended to avoid those players who concentrated their efforts on this type of music. Why? Because many (not all) of the performances were, frankly, as interesting as watching jelly set. I have no doubt that the scholarship behind the playing was immaculate, but if the result is tedious, what's the point?

 

So, scholarship - yes please. Understand the times in which the piece was written, the conditions in which it was played, the style of performance as far as possible, obtain the most accurate score you can. But if what is played is gutless, uninspiring, dull, and lacking that little bit of 'magic', then I for one would not call the performer or performance 'great'.

 

Regards to all

 

John

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Second. RFH. 5:55 recitals 30 yrs+ ago. Some included music by Couperin and similar that exploited the range of mutations and softer reeds that this Organ possesses. ... I have no doubt that the scholarship behind the playing was immaculate

I can think of one I went to that included both Couperin masses and I am quite sure it wasn't!

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I remember my organ teacher recounting a recital in which the (then eminent cathedral) organist ended BWV 565 in D major... it shocked and delighted the audience but, my word, THAT wouldn't bear repeated listening, would it ?

 

H

 

But given that tierce de picard endings to minor key works were more or less at the player's discretion in Bach's time, could it not be argued that this then eminent cathedral organist was merely acknowledging an established custom (even if it were one that had largely fallen into disuse)?

 

Peter

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I remember my organ teacher recounting a recital in which the (then eminent cathedral) organist ended BWV 565 in D major... it shocked and delighted the audience but, my word, THAT wouldn't bear repeated listening, would it ?

Sounds to me like someone had been doing their homework. Just out of interest, are you able to put a year to this recital, roughly?

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Sounds to me like someone had been doing their homework. Just out of interest, are you able to put a year to this recital, roughly?

 

No, I can't put a year to it - my organ tutor is sadly no longer with us. Said performer was the good Doctor, DoM at the Archbishop's seat in the Garden of England...though the actual performance may not have been there.

 

H

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Said performer was the good Doctor, DoM at the Archbishop's seat in the Garden of England...though the actual performance may not have been there.

Ah, but which one? Gerald Knight, Douglas Hopkins, Sidney Campbell, Allan Wicks - doctors all!

 

Campbell seems the likeliest culprit, not least because I heard him do it at least once. This was long before Peter Williams published his article, but the reasoning was the same - namely that in a large Bach work, ending on a major chord is (while not invariable) so very much more likely.

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Ah, but which one? Gerald Knight, Douglas Hopkins, Sidney Campbell, Allan Wicks - doctors all!

 

Campbell seems the likeliest culprit, not least because I heard him do it at least once. This was long before Peter Williams published his article, but the reasoning was the same - namely that in a large Bach work, ending on a major chord is (while not out of the question) so very much more likely.

...ha ha - how right you are ! 'twas the last on your illustrious list.

 

H

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Well, my short answer would be: proper preparation coupled with a willingness (and technical ability) to take risks. If one of these ingredients is missing, it rarely works!

 

However (and with apologies), here are somewhat less concise thoughts, in response both to this thread and the one that spawned it, '‘Historical Awareness – who needs it?’:

 

These are interesting questions. They should ideally be at the front of any performer’s mind every time they play. But the answers are not easy to find. In respect of pre-1800 music, I used to believe they were to be found in period fingering/pedalling, ‘correct’ articulation and registration, but of course that’s nonsense and I was just looking for something to hide behind; ‘authentic’ smoke and mirrors to justify my performance and add ‘integrity’. Unfortunately, it was an approach endorsed by a number of eminent British organ teachers when I was younger. ‘Expressive technique' was often used to describe a dry-as-dust approach to playing mechanical action instruments when I was at university in the late eighties, yet my experience of listening and trying to discover the closely guarded secrets of making music on neo-classical tracker organs left me cold – it was certainly far from expressive in the way I appreciated that word!

 

Incredibly, words like ‘elegant’ or ‘beautiful’ were never used by my teachers (in terms of goals or ideals!) until I studied with Naji Hakim in my early thirties. The ‘authentic’ approach to anything is anathema to him, even in his own music or that of his predecessor, Messiaen. Seated in the tribune of La Trinité, Hakim would occasionally look over his shoulder and then say in mock confidential tones “It does not matter; he is not here” whenever I asked him about ‘correct’ tempo or registration. Why? Because they were probably the wrong questions to ask. When I asked Maitre Hakim about rubato, of course there would be the initial subjective French approach, paraphrasing his teacher Langlais: “Has your heart ever been broken? You can play Franck then!”, but it would immediately be followed by practical advice: “You must decide OBJECTIVELY what you want to say and where in the phrase you want to say it….tenuto here at the top….accelerando here…rallentando there. Mark it in your score!” In other words ‘feeling’ must not be left to the day. Expression in music is as much a technical thing as good fingering and must be rehearsed. Obviously, it eventually sinks deep into the psyche and then informs your playing without having to grab your pencil every time you wish to ‘stretch’ a phrase, but it was a good approach and had a huge impact on everything I did, especially (bizarrely) conducting Anglican psalms! This was because it instilled a discipline of consideration during the preparation stage: composer's likely intention, fingering, posture, tempo, venue, acoustic, instrument, action, colours, audience, caffeine intake and so on; most importantly, expressive content.

 

Why do we think there are (at least) two schools of thought vis-à-vis the ‘authentic’ performance of César Franck, for example? Well, for a start, none less than the composer himself gave his blessing to quite different approaches to the same pieces of his. I honestly don’t think Bach or Krebs, or whoever wrote it, would give two hoots whether one ended BWV565 with a major or minor chord – he’d just be pleased that it was being played, and (I like to think) would be delighted that the full resources of a modern organ were being used in the service of his music, tempered by ever-indefinable ‘good taste’, of course.

 

I thought John Scott’s RAH Proms Buxtehude was superb, and I’m glad he didn’t shun thumb pistons and high pressure reeds here and there. However, microphone placing meant that his articulation (particularly the pairings) sounded far less subtle than they are, say, on his recordings from St Thomas Fifth Avenue, where he could obviously relax and not have to fight two conflicting aesthetics (not to mention electric action).

 

Most recently, playing a recital of largely Baroque music at Christ Church, Bristol (a gently romanticised 18th century organ tracker action) I played the final Ricercare from Bach’s Musical Offering. I had preceded it with some Brahms, and simply couldn’t help playing the Ricercare more ‘like Brahms’ in order to communicate what I felt the piece said on that organ. The result was shattering, for both me and the audience, and I believe, utterly convincing. Of course, the piece would have worked in our ‘received authentic’ detaché style, on organo pleno throughout (cutting 16’ pedal stops as appropriate, to make sense of textures/pitch etc), and I’m sure that’s how I’ll play it at Malmesbury Abbey on 22 Sept (quick plug: 7.30 pm kick off). I think the key to a ‘great performer’ is one who is utterly convinced of what s/he is doing and can communicate that with total conviction to the listener. Or, as Briggs says, paraphrasing Mozart, one who can make every performance sound like a great improvisation.

 

I have never had any truck with the uber-cautious ‘ooo-careful-now-that’s-a-bit-too-exciting’ brigade that sadly plagues the organ and Anglican choral world. One rarely finds it even in period instrument circles, for example, where no rhetorical gesture is considered too much!

 

Ultimately, we are playing the music of dead composers, having ourselves encountered Mahler, Schoenberg, Ives, Stockhausen or Mantovani (not to mention Miles Davis, The Beatles, Sex Pistols or Oasis), on organs blown by electricity, beneath electric light, from nicely printed scores, using prescription contact lenses, to a Mondeo-driving middle class audience, some of whom even enjoy nice snippets of Classic FM and Graham Kendrick on Sundays. You can’t ‘unhear’ such music or forget contemporary influences. There’s no such thing as an ‘authentic’ performance and I’m not sure whether such a thing would be particularly desirable anyway. As for what makes a ‘great’ performance, on one level, our job is to understand, and then to referee, often competing aesthetics, and make the best job of it. I agree with the earlier contributions that extol the virtues of what performance practice and analysis can teach us – indeed, we have a duty as musicians to learn as much as we can in the service of our art – but ultimately, if we don’t MOVE people, or at least make them actively LISTEN to what we’re saying, then there’s little point and the organ will continue to be regarded as a cold piece of Gothic machinery driven by megalomaniac train spotters with no people skills.

 

I absolutely adore Ton Koopman’s Bach, but am also profoundly moved by Horowitz (listen and weep

): respect is due to a musician of such transparent technique, modesty and life experience.

 

Ian Ball

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Ian - I must agree with you. You make many excellent points, very clearly.

 

A certain performance of JSB's Prelude and Fugue, in C major (BWV 547), by PC (l'O de N.-D.: disc 1, track 1) springs to mind. I cannot now ever imagine playing that piece any other way. For me, there is a particular 'rightness' in his interpretation of the fugue (and the massive tonal resources which he employed at the climax); a cursory glance at the thickening of the texture as the climax approaches, then the gradual thinning-out - the dynamic level exactly matching this.

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Guest Patrick Coleman
I have never had any truck with the uber-cautious ‘ooo-careful-now-that’s-a-bit-too-exciting’ brigade that sadly plagues the organ and Anglican choral world. One rarely finds it even in period instrument circles, for example, where no rhetorical gesture is considered too much!

 

Ultimately, we are playing the music of dead composers, having ourselves encountered Mahler, Schoenberg, Ives, Stockhausen or Mantovani (not to mention Miles Davis, The Beatles, Sex Pistols or Oasis), on organs blown by electricity, beneath electric light, from nicely printed scores, using prescription contact lenses, to a Mondeo-driving middle class audience, some of whom even enjoy nice snippets of Classic FM and Graham Kendrick on Sundays. You can’t ‘unhear’ such music or forget contemporary influences. There’s no such thing as an ‘authentic’ performance and I’m not sure whether such a thing would be particularly desirable anyway. As for what makes a ‘great’ performance, on one level, our job is to understand, and then to referee, often competing aesthetics, and make the best job of it. I agree with the earlier contributions that extol the virtues of what performance practice and analysis can teach us – indeed, we have a duty as musicians to learn as much as we can in the service of our art – but ultimately, if we don’t MOVE people, or at least make them actively LISTEN to what we’re saying, then there’s little point and the organ will continue to be regarded as a cold piece of Gothic machinery driven by megalomaniac train spotters with no people skills.

 

 

Ian Ball

 

Another outbreak of common sense :unsure:

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I think the key to a ‘great performer’ is one who is utterly convinced of what s/he is doing and can communicate that with total conviction to the listener.
Yes, this must surely be a pre-requisite. If you do not have complete conviction in your own performance, how can you expect to convince your audience?

 

I have never had any truck with the uber-cautious ‘ooo-careful-now-that’s-a-bit-too-exciting’ brigade that sadly plagues the organ and Anglican choral world. One rarely finds it even in period instrument circles, for example, where no rhetorical gesture is considered too much!
The downside is, I suppose, that a performance may be too highly "flavoured" for some tastes. That need not prevent it being great, since such epithets are bestowed by a consensus which need not be unanimous. Which brings us back again to the whole issue of listening practice, for what constitutes a great performance depends as much on reception as on the performer. It's that issue of empathy again.

 

But fashions change and sometimes the empathy is lost. People used to revere Schweitzer's performances. Whilst I have only heard the excerpts on Amazon, I would be surprised if I were able to conclude today that they were great (even though I think there are positive points we might draw from them). Similarly the somewhat Bartockian approach to playing Bach that was common back in the 60s, where (some) players relied on articulation and motor rhythms to make their musical points. This style of playing is decidedly out of fashion now, but I actually find that it can be extremely satisfying, so long as it is done well (when it is not it immediately falls into the deadly, robotic "sowing machine" mode). I am very much in a minority though - and think I probably always have been. In those days I admired enormously Lionel Rogg's first series of complete Bach recordings, even though they were criticised at the time for being rather inflexible. Evidently Rogg agreed, for hardly had he completed the cycle than he recorded it all a second time. I have never heard this later set of recordings. Rogg's performances were regarded as great at the time. Have they withstood the test of time? Some of his early performances still excite me; others no longer convince. Will Hurford's equally neo-Baroque Bach still be regarded as great 50 years hence, I wonder?

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Was it not? (Oops! :unsure: )

Indeed not. Listen to the (uniformly bad) recordings of him playing, and you will hear a gentleness and flexibility, whether playing his own works or Mozart, Scarlatti, etc, which is quite unlike the way that some people play his music.

 

Paul

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I'm gutted! And there I was, loving what I saw as the driving virility of vol.6 of Mikrokosmos, especially the last piece! :o

Great piece! but strength does not mean inflexibility. Compare different performances of his second piano concerto, and listen to the "two-part invention" bit in the first movement; the performances that are rigid and mechanical are as bad Bartok playing as they would be Bach.

 

Bartok both edited and transcribed a great deal of 17th and 18th century music. There is a discussion of his manner of performance of it in the preface to a volume of his transcriptions (published by Carl Fischer, ISBN 0-8258-0406-X):

 

The fact is he played baroque textures [...] in an unusually transparent, linear, sensitive style. [...] an irregularly tense, sometimes nervous, performance. Tension originated primarily in the liberal but eloquent use of different shades of accents, in surprising agogics and often no less surprisingly fast tempi, in a shocking combination of touch and musicianship [...] If one is not familiar with Bartok's own performances, there can be a danger of exaggeration, of misreading the performance instructions.

Admittedly, without such comments and awareness of his style, his piano transcription of Bach's Sonata 6 looks very heavy indeed!

 

Paul

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