Sunday, February 23, 2014

classical perfection

I'm gonna geek out about classical music for a minute or many.

I'm in Berlin and in three days have seen two of the best classical concerts of my life (and I've seen a lot[1]). Of course, I should admit that my enjoyment of a concert (in any genre) is quite strongly correlated with how familiar I am with the music ahead of time; I'm very artistically dense and have to hear things a few dozen times before I appreciate them. And both of these concerts (or, the parts I intend to ramble about) were performances of music I was already familiar with, in extreme detail when it comes to the Appassionata. But even controlling for familiarity, they were exceptional.

The first was the Berlin Philharmonic, led by Sir Simon Rattle, performing Brahms' 3rd symphony, Debussy's La Mer, and some awful contemporary premiere that I'd prefer not to dwell on. I'm not a huge fan of Debussy, but when played live by the Berlin Philharmonic, it's definitely not bad. But the Brahms was what really blew me away. I'd have been happy shelling out the exorbitant last minute 64 Euro price just for that (and it makes me willing to overlook the Haas... though I really shouldn't have to plug my ears when I go to the symphony!)

In my limited historical understanding, Bach perfected and completed the baroque era. Beethoven perfected classical and started and defined the romantic era. Brahms perfected and completed the romantic era[3]. As you might expect from that categorization and my partiality towards romantic era music, I don't think I've ever heard anything by Brahms that I didn't like. He was maybe not quite the genius that Beethoven was, but much more consistently mindbogglingly wonderful.

Anyway, not only is Brahms' third symphony wonderful, the Berlin Philharmonic is the greatest orchestra in the world. And it's been so long since I've seen a really top notch symphony, I was re-surprised[4] by how noticeable the difference in quality is[5]. Each individual appeared to be as intensely focused and engaged with the music as you might expect from a concerto soloist.

And so accurate. The difficulty with string instruments is that it is really, really, really hard to be exactly in tune all the time. Even the greatest violinists in history, playing solo rather than trying to match a group[6], play plenty of notes that are a bit uncomfortably too high or too low, if you train your ear to notice[8]. So you can imagine the difficulty in getting 40 different string instruments to simultaneously be perfectly in tune. That's what makes orchestras sound distinctly like large groups of instruments, with a somewhat harsh edge to them. I'm convinced that a big part of the reason why violins have a bit of a bad reputation for being irritatingly harsh is because they're most commonly heard in orchestras instead of solo (or played by mediocre soloists...). But the magic of the Berlin Phil is that it sounds like one huge perfectly integrated instrument. It's absolutely stunning.

I guess my overall point here is that I find it fairly unfortunate what a high percentage of variance in quality in string music is attributable to intonation. Obviously stylistic differences are just as large as between, e.g., pianists, but those differences take a back seat: I'd rather hear a very good performance with excellent intonation than an excellent performance with very good intonation, and that is very frequently the real tradeoff between musicians in the highest echelons[9]. None are perfect. (Itzhak Perlman, and more relevantly the Berlin Philharmonic, get close :)

The second concert was a solo piano performance of three Beethoven sonatas and some variations on a theme, played by Lief Ove Andsnes. This was partly a ridiculously fantastic concert because I was seated right there on the podium, about 8 feet from the piano, with a clear view of the whole keyboard. There is literally no other seat in the entire room I would've wanted to trade with, and it was also the cheapest ticket, by some great mystery of the universe[10].

The key part of the concert for me was, of course the Appassionata, which I've probably listened to 200 times in the last six months or so, to a whole bunch of different recordings before settling on one of Sviatoslav Richter's as the best. I like to think I know this piece about as well as a non-musician can.

Listening to this recording, in mental comparison to Richter's, was another illustration of the tradeoff between technical prowess and artistic styling. Not to say that Andsnes isn't technically outstanding (I'll get back to that in a minute) but his interpretation of the third movement might make you think he isn't at Richter's level. For the first movement, I thought the two performances were on equal footing. Andsnes perhaps pulled a little ahead due to his more dramatic rendition. But Richter is a little ahead in that dimension that I don't have a name for but which I'll try to describe: You know how when music seems to depart from the underlying rhythmic structure, but then circles back to it, kind of like a generalized version of syncopation? Sort of like in a lot of African music in which you can never tell where the measures are because the different instruments and different parts of the song weave in and out of different patterns of emphases so smoothly? Some musicians do that so well that you immediately mentally switch to the alternative rhythm and then have to readjust to the underlying framework when it circles back around. And other musicians get there a little more forcefully, so that you can always hear the underlying structure but with some forced off-beat accents. That's the other dimension in which Richter and Andsnes differed a bit. Richter is able to more perfectly fluently switch between metrics. For some reason that mental state of being not quite sure where the true rhythmic framework lays is a really satisfying attribute of any music that uses it well (i.e., again, a lot of African music).

In the second movement, Andsnes was unambiguously preferable to Richter, due to his artistry. And that's all I have to say about that.

In the third movement though (the really famous one), Richter is clearly ahead. This movement is brutal: the faster the better, unlike almost anything else.  It ideally needs to wash over you like a 12 foot wave of indistinguishable notes, so that the melody that occurs at the full-measure frequency scale comes through as the dominant thread, even though four or eight times as many notes as that are happening. I can't even think it as fast as it should be played (as Richter plays it).

I personally don't think Richter sacrifices any artistry in his rendition, although maybe a robot with arbitrarily fast fingers could be programmed to add a bit more of that and I just can't imagine what it would sound like. So when I hear anyone play it slower, I assume they just can't play it faster. For example, compare the above link to this one. The overarching melody drags unbearably and I have to stop it after a few seconds.

So, when Andsnes started the third movement about 30% slower than Richter does, I chalked it up to a (very excusable!) lack of Richter's superhuman skills. It was still very very good, of course, but Richter really spoils you[11]. But then, to my surprise, in the last break before the final wave (at 6:12 in the first link), he picked up the pace to match Richters. And he's right to do so! There should be a jump in speed there, but when you're going as fast as you possibly can to start with, that jump isn't achievable. But nonetheless, I much prefer that tiny oversight/sacrifice of Richter's to a wave of notes that's more gelatinous than fluid, even on top of the slight noticeable sloppiness of some tiny bits in Richter's[12] that is probably as inevitable as imperfect intonation is for violinists. If Andsnes can keep up the pace he had at the end for the rest of the movement, he can do it.

And now it's 3:40am and I'm going to end this ridiculously long blog post and go to bed.

~~~~

[1] In junior high orchestra, we got extra credit for going to concerts if we brought back a program signed by our parents. I brought these back almost every week[2], and one Monday brought in three at once, from the previous Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday afternoon. My orchestra teacher, with an expression of sudden realization, said to me "you have to actually go to them!" I was quite indignant at the suggestion I might be lying about it or silly enough to think that bringing in random programs was sufficient, but luckily he believed me.

[2] People really underestimate small college towns, for this reason. There were so many concerts or other cultural offerings through the university and not enough of a population to drive the price above nearly zero. And I could bike to them all.

[3] Well, there's Rachmaninoff et al... but that kind of romantic music has a distinct later flavor. And Rachmaninoff died in 1943, well into the contemporary period.

[4] I also saw the Berlin Philharmonic play Beethoven's 7th symphony in 1999, which also makes my list of best concerts ever, although the conductor's interpretation wasn't my favorite.

[5] To be fair, part of the greatness of the experience was due to the audience, which was informed enough to clap at the right times instead of stutteringly shattering the intentional silent transitions between movements, and was also very polite: hardly anyone even coughed, the ones that did almost all saved it for the gaps, and you can bet your life no one's phone even vibrated. Makes an enormous difference! Especially compared to free concerts in the park, which have been most of my symphony experiences for many years.

[6] That is, it's much easier to notice when two simultaneous notes are 1 hz off from each other than when the gap between two consecutive notes is 1 hz larger than it should be. Soloists really have a lot of leeway for that reason[7], and really fantastic string quartets are the ones who have been playing together for so long that they've learned to tune to each other nearly perfectly.

[7] And even better, play a fretted instrument... a BIG part of the reason why Chris Thile's mandolin renditions of Bach's solo violin partitas are so wonderful is that every single note is exactly on. Plus the ability to do 3 or 4 part harmony. Plus... it's Chris Thile. This is also why I love classical guitar and piano music; I can listen to it without my subconscious being slightly on edge about the possibility or remembered reality that the next note might not be exactly what I want it to be. Speaking of which, why is there no such thing as a fretted violin? Sure it would limit a lot of things, but in many cases I think that would be a great tradeoff. It would certainly make grade school orchestra concerts a lot more bearable...

[8] And so the danger in my habit of listening to the same piece on repeat for a hundred times in a row until it's essentially in my ears' muscle memory is that those uncomfortable notes become ingrained in my brain in association with the piece. I'd suggest iterating between several recordings, but that's often not possible: no one plays the Beethoven violin concerto like Perlman, and there's only one recording (to my knowledge) of him doing so.

[9] Then again, once again, I'm artistically anti-gifted, so maybe that's just me.

[10] As a stereotypical economist, I was elated before the performance even started by this outrageously good deal. 8 euro! And to think I was about to pay 35 euro for a seat up in the rafters when the website cut off pre-sales and claimed it was sold out! And what a stroke of luck that I showed up to see about last minute tickets at exactly the right time to get to the front of the line, and then left for dinner and came back once again at exactly the right time to get to the front of the open-podium-seating line.

[11] For this reason, I have no desire to ever hear the Beethoven violin concerto played live unless it's performed by Perlman. It's impossible that I wouldn't be disappointed with such a high reference point.

[12] There's one wrong note in the recording I've listened to a hundred times, and it's ingrained in my memory (see [8]) and drives me crazy. I need to go back and find another of his great recordings (there are several, but some definitely better than others) without it.

4 comments:

  1. For the sake of your continued enjoyment of great classical music, I REALLY hope Brisbane has a good orchestra! What a shame if you had to wait until the next time you're in Berlin! (Isn't Berlin great?!!)
    Thanks so much for this amazing blog!

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    1. Yep it looks like they have at least 4 major orchestras (Brisbane Symphony/Phil and Queensland Symphony/Phil). They can't all be bad!

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  2. Melbourne has lots more to offer than Brisbane, especially if you are art and/or classical music enthusiast.

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    1. yeah, so I hear, but I don't shell out the big bucks for concerts all that often, so probably about as often as I'll be in melbourne or sydney :) and brisbane has all the great nature, which is a much stronger motivation for me actually.

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