One of my favorite literary divertissements is Raymond Queneau’s “Exercices de Style”- you know, the book in which 99 page-length chapters tell the same (rather absurd) story , each time in a different style. I’m about to try something not as ambitious but in the same vein, in the sense that I’m going to have to exercise extreme restraint in commenting a concert I recently attended. I can reveal neither the venue, nor the artist’s name and instrument, and not even the programme, lest I risk the occasion being identified.
Why bother to write at all, I’m sure you’ll be wondering! The answer is simply that, as I said somewhere before, I have enormous fun writing bad reviews. So I can’t resist trying my hand at this bizarre form, not without realizing that it is also a supreme show of cowardice!
So there I was sitting in a hall somewhere, waiting to hear someone play a very ambitious program on an instrument. The pieces were repertoire staples by extremely famous composers. The artist was rather obscure and is likely to remain so.
It is always a challenge to play very well-known music. It’s a challenge playing any kind of music, for that matter, but there are some works you can hide behind while somehow fooling your audience. Very modern music is a case in point. Not only because you never know whether a strange harmony is intentional or a mistake, but also because the audience tends to fall asleep before long and isn’t paying attention anyhow. I remember playing Hindemith’s 8 pieces for string quartet and trying hard to keep a straight face while perfectly aware that at least 70 % of the notes were simply not on the page, and those who were were not played when they were supposed to be.
With music from the Baroque, Classical and Romantic periods, it’s not that easy. Most of the audience knows what to expect and when to expect it, having heard the best recordings over and over again. With pieces as famous as, say, Tchaikowsky’s First piano concerto or Mendelssohn’s E minor violin concerto or Mozart‘s C major piano sonata (none of which were on this particular programme!), it becomes totally impossible to get away with anything less than technical perfection and interpretative originality. Besides, our occidental ears are used to tonality and have learned to expect a certain behavior within a piece, and it takes genius to surprise us – that is what makes Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven so extraordinary and so far apart from their contemporaries. The infamous Mozart-Salieri so-called rivalry is the proof of the pudding. And only a genius of an interpreter can do them justice.
So, to hear an artist deliver completely botched interpretations of works you know by heart becomes a subtle form of torture. You try to discover some redeeming quality, but, alas!, there is none. You cannot concentrate on the interpretation, as the performance never reaches that stage. The technique is so faulty that you find yourself tensing up and bracing yourself for the next mistake, instead of enjoying the music. Actually, the music is not even there. The lousy technique prevents any attempt at phrasing and pushes the artist (?) to blindly obey the indications on the page – a forte is a scream or a bang, a piano is a whimper and there is nothing in between. And when the piece is written with few dynamic and phrasing markings, as was common for baroque and classical composers, the artist either relies on often badly revised editions, or completely misunderstands the Urtext editions and is totally at sea.
We are thus guided by the unwittingly mediocre (if they realized just how mediocre they are, they most certainly wouldn’t be there) performer into a world of platitudes, obviousnesses and overstatements. This particular artist showed not only a complete lack of understanding of music and style, but also an inexplicable awkwardness with his/her own instrument, not knowing exactly how, when and to what extent to use some of its features, which resulted in an abysmal lack of precision.
Please forgive me for this completely pointless review. I just needed to get over this feeling of frustration and displeasure. The fundamentals of good reporting are often referred to as the 5 Ws – Who, What, Where, When and Why. This time I could only stick to one of them and I do hope I managed to recount Why I Hated What I Heard. Sorry I can’t tell you Who, What, Where and When. Please watch your step next time you go to a concert.