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


MusingMuso
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When I began this thread, I was naïve enough to presume that the answer would be easy, but the more I thought about it, the harder it got!

 

The trouble is, we all recognise a great performance when we hear it; though some seem to hear greatness where it doesn’t exist.

 

It cannot be entirely subjective, or beyond some sort of precise definition, because we have exams, examiners, critics, teachers, competitive festivals, scholarships and even musical careers which feed on the broad acceptance of recognisable quality.

 

I suspect that a great performance does not come down to technique, which only has to be adequate enough to accurately play what is written. So even the simplest of pieces, such as the Vierne “Berceuse,” can be elevated to greatness by a good musician, and yet totally destroyed by even a virtuoso. I have been as greatly moved by outstanding performances from mere children as I have from internationally recognised artistes playing master-works of fiendish difficulty.

 

A great performance is one thing of course, but a great performer is something else, and right at the outset, we should perhaps be aware of one of the essential handicaps of being an organist. We enjoy an historic repertoire which perhaps exceeds that of all other instruments; realistically from the 15th century to the present day; covering almost all styles and periods of music. Unfortunately, we are thus almost expected to know it all, yet that would be an absurd proposition to almost any other category of musician.

 

So in this respect, I would suggest that a “great performer” is likely to be a specialist in a particular field, and this seems to be borne out to a considerable extent. One thinks perhaps of Tony Heiller’s performances of Reger, Michel Chapuis playing French Baroque music or some of the great French organists playing Vierne. Perhaps we could include Francis Jackson and Paul Durrett playing English music….I hope so.

 

However, in the category of “art is what I say it is,” Virgil Fox showed this to be true, as he combined energy and extreme virtuosity with showmanship; mesmerising people in the process, and re-inventing almost anything he touched. The resulting vitriol was matched only by those who adored the entertainer, to the extent that Fox was the organ equivalent of Andy Warhol, who turned the everday and mundane into something larger than life. It does not alter the fact that he was a great performer, even if he was the musical equivalent to the Shakesperian actor who would say, “Now IS the winter of OUR discontent…..made glorious summer by this SON of York”

 

Some things just aint right, but you delight in them nonetheless, and more seriously, may even learn something new from the differences of perspective.

 

Someone mentioned the Sargent recording of “Messiah”…..what a classic! What a travesty! What genius! It is completely symphonic, utterly bereft of scholarship, and yet, it has real magic and possibly the most compelling soloists of all. It is a recording in which musicality rudely brushes aside both the historical perspective and the original scoring, These were the “Messiahs” of my youth; heard in so many great non-conformist chapels, and sung with conviction.

 

Of course, there is the absolutely contrary approach, where even the smallest inflection assumes an historical significance far beyond its station. I have actually been to performances where the performer paid so much attention to the finest detail; the broader musical purpose was sacrificed to intellectual one-upmanship. This has been especially so in performances of French Baroque music, which if they do not dance and delight, die a death. This is probably why so few performers have mastered the methods of ornamentation and made them serve the rhythmic delights of music largely based on popular dances. As Pierre pointed out, Chapuis was the absolute master of the genre.

 

I think what I am saying, is that a great performance must, by definition, move the listener. If I go to hear someone play the Reubke, I want to be scared out of my wits. When I listen to Alain’s “Litanies,” I want to feel the frustration of one who would pound his head against a brick-wall grasping a prayer-book. When I listen to a great Bach master-work, I want to walk among the lofty arches and intricate carvings of a great musical cathedral; marvelling at both the magnificence of the structure and the exquisite beauty of it. Unless I can feel the love Vierne had for his little daughter, the “Berceuse” is nothing more than a simple sequence of notes in French impressionist style.

 

I’m not sure that I can even begin to answer my own question as to what makes a great performer, but I do know that empathy and musical sensitivity are what separates the good from the great. Technique and scholarship may improve an already good ability, but point me towards a musical snob, someone who is academically obsessed, an empty virtuoso or someone who is musically self-satisfied, and I will show you a bad musician.

 

Maybe the simple answer is that great performers are not made at all, but simply born that way: perfection the aim, yet beyond reach.

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The trouble is, we all recognise a great performance when we hear it; though some seem to hear greatness where it doesn’t exist.

But who are you to judge this? Like I said, beauty is in the eye of the beer holder. If someone hears greatness in a performance, then that is a perfectly legitimate and valid judgement for them, even if the rest of the world raises its eyebrows. Rather than dismiss such an opinion, we would do ourselves a favour by trying to understand it. After all, if a performance that moves someone leaves you stone-cold the failing is going to be yours, not theirs. At the end of the day you may still choose to reject thier taste, but I think this is a rather different issue from whether the performance is great or not. I happen to think that it is perfectly OK not to like a great performance; it does not automatically mean you are a lesser musician. On which point:

 

It cannot be entirely subjective, or beyond some sort of precise definition, because we have exams, examiners, critics, teachers, competitive festivals, scholarships and even musical careers which feed on the broad acceptance of recognisable quality.

Clearly at any given moment there are a variety of objectively made value judgements that have become commonly accepted for the purpose of defining quality, but fashions change. History has taught us time and time again that opinions about greatness are not immutable!

 

I suspect that a great performance does not come down to technique, which only has to be adequate enough to accurately play what is written. So even the simplest of pieces, such as the Vierne “Berceuse,” can be elevated to greatness by a good musician, and yet totally destroyed by even a virtuoso. I have been as greatly moved by outstanding performances from mere children as I have from internationally recognised artistes playing master-works of fiendish difficulty.

Well, I think that the technique has to be better than "adequate enough". One has to be completely comfortable technically with the piece. But I agree you don't need to be able to play the Duruflé Toccata to play the Berceuse.

 

We enjoy an historic repertoire which perhaps exceeds that of all other instruments; realistically from the 15th century to the present day; covering almost all styles and periods of music.

Oh, come! It's better than the guitar; it's probably better than the harp. Er...

 

Technique and scholarship may improve an already good ability, but point me towards a musical snob, someone who is academically obsessed, an empty virtuoso or someone who is musically self-satisfied, and I will show you a bad musician.

I realise (or at least hope) that there is a degree of hyperbole in this statement, but it is patently not true all of the time. Such people may be bad musicians, but they are surely much more like to be musicians with limitations - something that is likely to be true of most of us.

 

But basically I agree with you.

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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

 

I feel it appropriate to point out that Ian absolutely practises what he preaches - his Reubke at Gloucester a few years ago is still the very finest performance I've ever heard. I wasn't particularly fussed about the piece until that evening, and now I want to hear it again and again, but as it was that night; massively emotionally charged and utterly convincing in every way. Noone has yet quite managed that since, for me at least.

 

When I'm listening to a performance I like to believe that the player is convinced that the piece he is playing is the best piece ever written, full understanding, as Ian explains far better than I could, is imperative.

I also like to be convinced by the performer that playing the organ is the best thing in the world. (which, of course, it is! :o )

P.

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Indeed not. Listen to the (uniformly bad) recordings of him [bartok] 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.

 

Absolutely. I remember hearing a radio programme about this, and his reading of his Allegro barbaro had none of the piano-breaking savagery which is so often heard.

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I feel it appropriate to point out that Ian absolutely practises what he preaches - his Reubke at Gloucester a few years ago is still the very finest performance I've ever heard. I wasn't particularly fussed about the piece until that evening, and now I want to hear it again and again, but as it was that night; massively emotionally charged and utterly convincing in every way. Noone has yet quite managed that since, for me at least.

 

When I'm listening to a performance I like to believe that the player is convinced that the piece he is playing is the best piece ever written, full understanding, as Ian explains far better than I could, is imperative.

I also like to be convinced by the performer that playing the organ is the best thing in the world. (which, of course, it is! :unsure: )

P.

Thanks Paul. Cheque's in the post.

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I think what I am saying, is that a great performance must, by definition, move the listener. If I go to hear someone play the Reubke, I want to be scared out of my wits. When I listen to Alain’s “Litanies,” I want to feel the frustration of one who would pound his head against a brick-wall grasping a prayer-book. When I listen to a great Bach master-work, I want to walk among the lofty arches and intricate carvings of a great musical cathedral; marvelling at both the magnificence of the structure and the exquisite beauty of it. Unless I can feel the love Vierne had for his little daughter, the “Berceuse” is nothing more than a simple sequence of notes in French impressionist style.

 

Amen. Couldn't have put it better.

 

Regards to all

 

John

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