Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Glenn Gould said that during a concert, the performer walks a tightrope, and the audience secretly waits for, or even wants, the artist to fall off the tightrope. Gould lamented that live performances bring out this gladiatorial instinct in all of us. We snicker when the horn cracks, the pianist forgets, or the soprano missing the high note. In Europe, audience routinely heckled performances (or artists) they disapprove of. Even Luciano Pavarotti was victim to this treatment.

Much has been made about Vladimir Horowitz’s famous memory lapse in the second movement of the Schumann Fantasy during his famous Carnegie Hall “comeback” recital. Years ago, I was at a performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin at the Vienna State Opera. When tenor Siegfried Jerusalem’s voice cracked during the demanding final scene, there was a collective gasp from the audience.

Why is our generation so hung up about mistakes in performances?

Many great pianists from the early 20th century had stupendous techniques, but they were often less concern about playing all the right notes. When we listen to recordings from when technology was still in its infancy, we often hear performances that are less than note-perfect.

As recording technology improved, it allowed artists endless opportunity to edit, splicing together portions of a complete performance in order to make it “perfect”, meaning, without wrong notes.

What follows is an entire generation of listeners who would, in the comfort of their homes, be able to listen to a faultless performance at the press of a button. Over time, we come to expect that in live performances as well. In addition, because of the availability of recorded performances, many of the members of the audience attending a concert would be very familiar with the music being played. This, I believe, is part of the reason of an increase in the technical level of music making. Paderewski or Anton Rubinstein would never be allowed in any decent conservatory, people say, because they played their performances were so splattered with wrong notes.

But is that all there is to music making? Playing a “clean” performance and hoping that we do not stumble?

Artists have divergent views in their answers to these questions. Artists like Leonard Bernstein, Alfred Brendel and Sviatoslav Richter had taken to recording their own live performances; performances that they thought represented the best of themselves. In the other extreme, Glenn Gould had completely abandoned the concert stage to devote himself to making music in the recording studio. According to Gould, one of the great pianists of the 20th century, a recorded performance and a concert performance are two entirely different things, and recorded performances should never be compared with a live performance. Gould believed that in the recording studio, the artist has the luxury, with the aid of technology, to create a performance that he or she would deem to be the ideal conception of the music.

As a member of the audience, it is often too easy to be judgemental, especially when performances (we think) do not live up to our expectations. Music making is difficult, and even the greatest artists have days when they are below par. As for me, I would much prefer a performance that brought out the essence of the music rather than one that was clean but sterile.

Would there come a day when we all gather in Carnegie Hall to listen to a “perfect” performance on speakers?

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