20 April 2018

False Encores

This was a magnificent concert.  One of those you felt genuinely glad to have attended. 

The first half featured a single performer on a single instrument playing a single work; Qin Li-Wei performing the Sonata for Solo Cello by Kodaly.  I must have heard this performed live several dozen times by cellists of all shapes and sizes, some famous, some unknown.  Despite that, it’s never been a work for which I have developed any kind of affection, and I have never even bought a recording of it.  Qin’s performance not only changed my whole opinion of the piece, but drew my attention to qualities in it I had never imagined existed.  The hallmark of a great performance is to make the listener not only reassess a work but to change the listener’s life in some way; and by those criteria, this was a great performance.

Qin found in Kodaly’s music a sense of longing, a sense of dreaming, a depth of passion and emotional intensity, as well as a surprisingly strong feeling of space and place which was more than just the obvious injections of folk-culture which you find in almost all Kodaly’s music.  He took us on a journey which was so absorbing it came as a shock when it ended; had we really all been sitting in that hall listening to him for over half an hour?  I marvelled at the technical feats Qin so effortlessly pulled off, and I lapped up his tightly focused, infinitely shaded tone.  But more than anything else I sat utterly absorbed in a world of profound musicality which effectively re-defined for me what a good performance was all about.

The second half featured two performers on two instruments but still just playing a single work.  Qin was joined by pianist Albert Tiu in Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata. 

If the Kodaly is a work which has never previously struck a chord with me, the Rachmaninov is its polar opposite.  From the moment I first heard it – George Isaacs and Martin Jones performing it at one of the Monday evening Reardon Smith Lecture Theatre Chamber concerts in Cardiff in 1973 – it has been one of my most treasured musical acquaintances.  I have been to a performance whenever I have seen one advertised and my personal record collection includes eight different recordings (admittedly three sent for review and one given in part-payment of my having written the CD booklet notes, but four deliberately bought with my own money in order to deepen my personal relationship with a work I adore).  It may not have been the first work by Rachmaninov I ever heard, but it was undoubtedly the one which made me realise that he was both a truly great composer and one with a unique ability to speak directly to me through his music.  One of my proudest boasts is that I met a man who had met Rachmaninov!  The Cello Sonata is like a deep and dear friend, and it would take a greater performance than any I am ever likely to hear to make me in any way fundamentally change my opinion.

So, since Qin and Tiu had no chance of making me change my mind about the work or even look at it from a different perspective, I was happy just to sit back and luxuriate in their playing.  Tiu is an instinctive Rachmaninovian, but even he excelled himself here, showing profound understanding of the almost orchestral detail in the piano part, and revealing such a depth of empathy with Qin that this stood out as an exceptional example of true chamber playing.  For his part, Qin rode the work’s emotional ebbs and flows with a kind of searing purposefulness which had the heart racing and the skin tingling with the sheer intensity of feeling.  The second movement in particular had a wonderfully incisive rhythmic impetus to it which was as thrilling to me as any music can be, and if the ending of the first movement had not quite come off as well as it might, the ending of the second was a brilliant piece of coordinated musicianship;  Rachmaninov’s gloriously robust and throwaway endings are often the highlight of a great performance.  Towards the end of the finale, I did tend to find Qin’s tight vibrato – more a strained wobble than a full-blooded vibrato – inappropriate to the grandness of the music’s character, but there was no question that the majestically celebratory ending was a fabulously executed climax to a brilliant performance.

I was as enthusiastic as anyone in my applause (well, not perhaps as enthusiastic as the legions of admiring groupies who ululate and shriek whenever either Qin or Tiu, or both, appear on stage) and was happy for them to come on and take as many curtain calls as they wanted.  But then, to misquote Frank Sinatra, they went and spoiled it all by doing something stoopid like an encore. 

After any performance I need to savour and digest what I have just heard.  I need to reprocess the performance in my mind to reaffirm my impressions and to relive some of the highs and lows I experienced during that ephemeral thing we call a musical performance.  After a great performance such as this, I need to go home and take the performance with me in my head, often spending much of the night going over little things which at the time, I hardly noticed.  In that way, like a good meal, I feel I am fully digesting it at leisure and extracting every last gram of goodness and benefit from it.  An encore often denies me that pleasure.

Of course there are occasions where a performance has been so wonderful that nobody wants it to end, and an encore is demanded.  This was certainly the case last night, and I had no immediate objection when the two of them reappeared on stage with Tiu’s page-turner grasping a large copy of music.  (The page-turner had decided after the Rachmaninov that she would take a bow as well as the actual performers.  Page-turners can make or break a performance, as any pianist/organist will tell you, so it’s absolutely right that they should be acknowledged by the audience – it just looks really silly when they bow as if they were doing the playing themsleves.) I did have an objection, however, when far from reinforcing the impact of the Rachmaninov by playing something which would keep that atmosphere alive and prolong the moment for us in the audience, they shattered it with a clumsy tango by Piazzolla.  Great admirer of Piazzolla’s music as I am, there is a place and time for everything, and this was the wrong place and the wrong time for a Piazzolla tango.  On top of that, the playing of this seemed pretty haphazard, and went on for the best part of 10 minutes.  It was like a great meal in a fabulous Chinese restaurant ending with a sour Fortune Cookie which then got stuck in the teeth and revisited the taste-buds for the next few hours as tiny crumbs dislodged and were swallowed.

They compounded this misjudgement by immediately coming back on stage complete with page-turner (another bow after the Piazzolla) clutching yet another musical score.  There had not even been time for the audience to decide whether another encore was required – we were still trying to get to grips with the violent gear-change from Rachmaninov to Piazzolla – yet one was obviously going to be imposed on them regardless.   I made a hasty exit in order to get home and root out a recording of the Rachmaninov to see if I could salvage some memories of the wonderful performance I had experienced earlier.

In the early days of public performance, when audiences were allowed to show their appreciation by applauding whenever they felt the performance deserved it, performers knew what the audience did and did not like, and would happily play the more appreciated items again (hence the word, encore, which quite literally means “again”).  We have countless examples of a movement from a symphony or sonata being repeated, sometimes several times, and even of entire works being encored.  The practice of imposing a totally different piece of music on a programme as an “encore” only came about when audiences started to stop showing their appreciation of specific items in the programme itself.  The conceit of sitting in silence through a complete work, especially one which has no connecting thread between the movements other than the coincidence of tonality, has destroyed the value of the encore and undermined the integrity of the performance.

A young performer told me the other day that he did not like it when people “clapped at the wrong time”, since it put him off.  How much more off-putting is it to have something wholly inappropriate tacked on to the end of a carefully devised programme.  Yet, until audiences begin once again to respond genuinely to what they hear when they hear it, performers will never know what the audience would really like to hear encore (again).

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