Monday, February 4, 2008

Maturity, Success, and All That Jazz

I seem to have reached an age at which I can remember when many of today's "stars" in the performance of classical music were first beginning to garner attention. Last year I wrote (several times) about pianist Emanuel Ax, who now has such "star" status. I first heard him back when I was working in Santa Barbara. Back then he dished out a meaty program; and what I remember most was his decision to include the "Sechs kleine Klavierstücke," Arnold Schoenberg's Opus 19, which he composed in 1911. By chance he and I both happened to be flying out of Santa Barbara Airport the next morning, so I went up to tell him how much I had enjoyed his decision to program the Schoenberg. However, he was in no mood to talk about Schoenberg at 6 AM; and even then, when I was far more impetuous and enthusiastic in my tastes, I could not blame him! On the other hand the very thought of including these six little pieces (not to mention humming along with them, which, because it was Schoenberg, was kind of a class act) was a somewhat aggressive approach to a Santa Barbara audience. So for many years I looked back on that concert in the frame of what an "up and coming" pianist had to do to achieve a "critical mass" of attention. Then, about 25 years later, I heard Ax perform Mozart's K. 482 piano concerto with the San Francisco Symphony, after which my former colleague, who had joined me for that concert, made a remark about Ax unleashing his inner-twenty-year-old, which became the point of departure for the blog post I wrote about that performance. I eventually realized that this was probably the way Ax wanted to play (and may even have done so) when he was twenty years old; but he had to sacrifice at least some of that spirit in the interest of making a successful career for himself. The good news is that, having made that career, he seems to have recovered that earlier spirit; and, for all my interest in Schoenberg, hearing him last season was a hell of a lot more fun.

I have had a similar experience with another pianist, Richard Goode, whom I heard yesterday afternoon at Zellerbach Hall on the Berkeley campus under the auspices of Cal Performances. My most salient memory of the first time I heard Goode in a recital at Alice Tully Hall, about twenty years ago, was his performance of Robert Schumann's Kreisleriana cycle. This, again, was a very aggressive reading, as if he were hell-bent on making sure the audience appreciated that none of Schumann's demands were too much for him; but, for all that display of technical skill, I found myself getting so overwhelmed by all the trees that I lost track of the architectural forest that Schumann had designed, leaving me rather exhausted by the time I had to deal with Schumann's multiple-personality take on the final movement. I would not say that I heard Goode's inner-twenty-year-old yesterday afternoon; but, while that personality suited the Mozart piano concert that Ax had been performing, it was not the right fit for Goode's offerings of Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Frédéric Chopin, Gabriel Fauré, and Claude Debussy. Still, this was a Goode no longer worrying about how much attention he was getting and how favorable his reviews were. He was more comfortable in his own skin, playing music that he clearly enjoyed playing.

If Ax' maturing led me to listen to Mozart in new ways, what effect did Goode's maturing have on me? I would have to say that my impressions were more mixed; but I would also have to recognize that I heard Ax play only the one concerto, rather than a full program of the solo repertoire. So I am more inclined to dwell on the positive experience of listening to Goode's entire recital, rather than deep-end on points of disagreement. Ironically, the most positive of those experiences came at the very beginning with his performance of the C Major prelude and fugue from the second book of The Well-Tempered Clavier. If we listen to more and more music to become better listeners, then Goode taught me a lot about listening to fugues while unseating some conventional wisdom I had acquired from Donald Francis Tovey and had been carrying around in my cerebral cortex since around 1966. When Tovey prepared the articles on music for the 1906 Encyclopaedia Britannica, I could tell, even at my young age, that topics like "Counterpoint" and "Fugue" were giving him trouble, because he was at such a loss in guiding his readers when it came to listening to an intricate web of linear voices, so complex that it was impossible to attend to everything at once. Consequently, Tovey fell back to trying to explain contrapuntal forms as "textures," which allowed him to weasel out of the extent to which one heard specific "auditory objects" when listening to counterpoint.

I have no idea how familiar Goode is with Tovey. (His biographical statement claimed that he and his wife have collected "some 5,000 volumes;" so I would be surprised if The Forms of Music, the compilation of Tovey's Britannica articles, were not somewhere in that collection!) What is more important is that, as a performer, Goode knows far better than to reduce an entire Bach fugue to a lump of texture with only vaguely distinguishable features. Rather, he takes the concept of the contrapuntal voice and adapts it to the metaphor of social conversation. Thus we have "statements" that a met by "responses;" but we also have situations in which two voices make a statement together or in which (at the risk of pushing the metaphor too far) other voices "nod in agreement" at what one particular voice is "declaring." (Seinfeld fans might really want to stretch the metaphor and argue that there are also "yadayadayada" passages!) Goode achieves these effect by, first of all, knowing just where these "voices" are in the complex of notes on the printed page (not always "intuitively obvious" from the notation) and then giving each of those voices its own dynamic control. Put another way, his conception of performance is based in a set of decisions about how the individual voices move back and forth between foreground and background, yielding an experience that is sort of like listening to discourse in some natural language that is not our native tongue; we come away with a clear sense that Bach (and Goode) had something to say, even if we are not exactly sure we could express that "something" in our own language.

This approach to the independent control of multiple voices was also what made the Beethoven Opus 27, Number 2 ("Moonlight") piano sonata shine (pun shamelessly intended). This movement is played so often ("played to death," more often than not) that it is too easy to lose touch with its fundamentally contrapuntal nature; but the way Goode played it made a convincing case that the counterpoint was what really made this music tick. Perhaps that is why this movement was the high point for me, even though the technical demands of the final movement make for the real show-stopper.

Still, counterpoint was far from the central pillar of the program Goode had arranged, although Bach was also represented by five of his "Sinfonias," the proper name for the three-part inventions. I found these less satisfying, perhaps because of my own preoccupation with the problems of both playing and listening too such pieces. Much of this has to do with "turf" that I had staked out on my previous blog in a post entitled, "Bach as Coltrane; Coltrane as Bach." The idea I was trying to develop at that time had to do with how jazz improvisations were not conceived in terms of their notes but in terms of "licks," phrases of different lengths that could be assembled in different orders. My thinking at the time I wrote this post (and I still pretty much hold to it) is that Bach, too, was a great improviser. He, too, thought about his improvisations in terms of licks; and he as much as says so in his extended title of the full collection of two- and three-part inventions (which may be found in The Bach Reader compiled by Hans David and Arthur Mendel):

Upright Instruction

wherein the lovers of the clavier, and especially those desirous of learning, are shown a clear way not alone (1) to learn to play clearly in two voices, but also, after further progress, (2) to deal correctly and well with three obbligato parts; furthermore, at the same time not alone to have good inventiones [ideas], but to develop the same well, and above all to arrive at a singing style in playing and at the same time to acquire a strong foretaste of composition.

Furthermore, as George J. Buelow demonstrated in his article on "Rhetoric and music" for The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, this idea of a "lick" had been around long before Bach. Since this particular collection was included in the "Little Clavier Book" that he had prepared for his son, Friedemann, it seems reasonable to assume that one of his intentions was to educate young Friedemann in what licks were and how they should be properly deployed and performed.

Having said all this, I should observe that, in all fairness, Goode does not strike me as the sort of guy who would groove on Coltrane (particularly that 24-minute performance of "My Favorite Things" recorded in Paris on November 17, 1962). So I can understand that we probably have some major differences of opinion over how to approach these "Sinfonias" (and their two-part cousins). However, since I continue to believe that we listen in order to learn to listen, I probably ought to remember to clear my mind of my personal baggage the next time I have an opportunity to hear Goode play such pieces!

For the same reason I have to confess that I carry a fair amount of baggage whenever I listen to Chopin. In this case the baggage comes from two rather different places that share some overlap in time. One source is Michel Fokine, the "Father" in my "Holy Trinity" of modern ballet; and the other is Arthur Rubinstein, who, thanks to the legacy of recording, has become very much a "father figure" in his own right. From Fokine I learned the extent to which the very concept of dance is latent in much of Chopin's music, not just the dance forms (such as the mazurkas, polonaises, and waltzes) but many of the other works, such as the nocturnes. Thus, for better or worse, I tend to approach performances of Chopin in body-related terms, such as breath and the expenditure of energy. Rubinstein, on the other hand, reminds me of that remark attributed to Brahms about how hard it is to compose with "him" behind you all the time ("him," of course, being Beethoven). That legacy of Rubinstein recordings of Chopin, often done many times over the course of the pianist's life, must be a terrible burden on any pianist wishing to perform Chopin today. I felt this particularly in Goode's performance of the Opus 44 polonaise, where it was almost impossible to clear my head of all those Rubinstein performances I had accumulated in my CD collection.

In this case however Goode's problem may have had less to do with historical baggage and more to do with the setting in which he was trying to make his own voice heard. It isn't that, for example, the performances of the mazurkas were lacking in breath and a sense of energy or that his approach to the polonaise was different from the Rubinstein legacy; it was more likely that Goode's own characteristic approach was too subtly nuanced for the acoustics of Zellerbach Hall, which is just too large for anything as intimate as most of the Chopin repertoire. (This is why, in almost all of the time I was living in Stamford, Connecticut, I can recall going to Avery Fisher Hall only once.) I have become to used too hearing my Chopin down the street in the more intimate Herbst Theatre, so my impressions of Zellerbach were downright disorienting. In a similar way neither Fauré nor Debussy fared particularly well in that large space, and the Opus 63 nocturne by Fauré suffered further by following almost immediately on the heels of the Chopin Opus 27, Number 1 nocturne.

So, as I said at the outset, my impressions were mixed. Still, I came away the better for being informed by many of the ways in which Goode approached the program he had prepared. It should serve as a reminder that performing music is not about always "connecting with the ball" each time you "step up to the plate." Music is always about exploration, whether it involves improvising jazz or revisiting a Chopin nocturne for the umpteenth time. As Merce Cunningham used to say about his own explorations, "Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't." I have never disagreed with this; and I would assume that Goode (and just about every other performing musician, particularly those secure in their reputations) is situated in the same camp.

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