24 April 2019

What Makes a Good Recital?

This seems to be Recital Month.  Over the past few weeks I have sat in on more recitals than at any other time in the year, and while many of these have been the usual end-of-year student recitals, there seems to be a fair proportion of professional, public recitals thrown into the mix for good measure.  And all this recitalising has got me thinking; about what makes a good recital?

I come out of some recitals feeling I have had a wonderful, rewarding or stimulating experience and others where I come out earnestly wishing I had never been.  The old Trinity College London assessment criteria for a Fellowship recital – - would you have paid money to hear that?” -– is a really good one, but easier to answer than to define.  So I’ have been thinking I liked some recitals more than others?  Was it the music they played, the way they played it, or something else?  Certainly a recital is a total package which involves a great many things beyond repertory and performance, so here’s a kind of check-list.

Performance: The actual quality of the performance plays surprisingly little part.  An ugly voice, a stumbling technique, split notes or even a complete breakdown cause minor irritations at the time, but are quickly forgotten and ultimately overlooked.  We might remember these things later, but often they do not affect our overall feelings about the recital.  Indeed, a memory slip ingeniously covered can make a recital even more memorable and rewarding;: there was that famous one in Berlin by Ella Fitzgerald in which she just threw in all kinds of random names to cover her complete memory loss in Mack the Knife, – and that flawed performance has gone on to become a classic.  I’ have never forgotten leaving a Rachmaninov recital given in London by Artur Rubinstein in which, as one fellow-audience member put it on the way out, you had to “spot the right note because so many of them had been wrong.  Another great 20th century pianist, Shura Cherkassy, was renowned for his bad technique yet, as he himself put it, “””’’”””””Some people like my playing and some don’t, but nobody can say that ‘I’m boring.”  And that’s the key.  The audience does not want clinical accuracy, polished tone or impeccable technique (although they are quite nice to have), they want to be entertained.

Spoken Introductions: The most obvious way to entertain an audience is to speak to them, but so very few recitalists ever do this.  There is good reason not to.  You have to remember the notes and in your nervous state you do not want to have to carry around in your head the baggage of a few words to remember (and it is utterly fatal to read from a prepared script, even if some key points need to be scribbled down and referred to), and maybe your command of the audience’s language is not good.  But I urge every recitalist to try, – even if it i’s just a smile and a word of welcome.  But for goodness sake, do not tell them to Enjoy (that’s the job of your performing) and please do not suggest you will get down to playing Without Further Ado”, – it makes it sound as if you are grudging about playing to them. 

Programme Notes: All good recitals have programme notes to serve as both guides to the audience and souvenirs of the event.  Without a programme note, the audience is lost during the recital– and has nothing to remember it by when they have gone home.  You may be lucky enough to find a professional programme note-writer to do this (my fees are reasonable!) but mostly, you will do it yourself.  It makes sense, since if you are serious about your recital, you will have prepared the programme exhaustively not just as a performance but as an interpretation.  And you will have read about and researched the background to the music. Programme notes are also invaluable in linking the works together so that you do not create the impression of simply having thrown your favourite pieces together to form a programme. Back stories are invaluable in getting an audience into a receptive frame of mind, so the more interesting things you can find out, the more amenable the audience will be to your performance.  Frankly, if I read that Dvorak was rescued from a burning inn when he was less than a year old by his father, and forged his butchery certificate, my ears prick up when it comes to listening to his music.  And when it comes to+ describing the music, do not alienate an audience with dry technicalities - he wrote such-and-such a piece in Rondo form and it modulates during it to the dominant, subdominant and relative minor -– but give them a few notable points to listen out for.  Audiences want to know when to clap, so tell them what to listen out for which will signify the ending (is it loud, soft, big or small?) and give them an accurate timing to within 30 seconds. 

Stage Presentation: So few recitalists realise that they are responsible for this, and so need to instruct those concerned in setting up and sharing the stage.  How is the piano to be positioned?  Where are other instruments to be placed to create the right sense of intimacy (if that’s what you want) or distance (if that’s your choice)?  And what does the page-turner do?  Does he come on and bow, does he leave and bow, does he bring in the music, does he take the music out, does he stay there until the applause has died down or walk off with you as it still rings?  Where i’s the piano lid going to be - – fully open, half-stick, quarter-stick, closed? – What is everybody going to wear?  A page-turner, accompanist, and fellow musician must all look as if they are part of the team and not odd-bods brought in off the street.  In any recital there is one principal – do not allow anyone to eclipse the principal - and that goes for printed biographies too;;: I have lost count of vocal recitals where the accompanist warrants less space than the singer, and while the accompanist is vital, it is the singer whom the audience has paid to hear and see.  If you have hired a Master of Ceremonies for your recital, chain them to a chair off-stage before the recital starts, for; an MC in a recital is always an acute embarrassment and distraction, no matter how good they are.

Repertory: I a’m inclined to think that this is the real key.  Certainly analysing the recitals I have attended recently, without a shadow of doubt the most memorable have been because of repertory.  As I see it, there are three golden rules for choosing repertory. 

·         First, choose music you want to perform. There is nothing more contagious than indifference, and an audience quickly recognises when your heart is not in it.  You may play a piece well, but if you do not like it, do not perform it.  It is not necessary to adore everything you play, but you must really want to share it with others. 

·         Secondly, there must be some coherence to the programme.  Random pieces thrown together because you like them does not make for a good recital.  Forge a connection between them and make this clear in the programme notes so that the audience feels they are sharing a journey with you and not merely sitting in the hall as outside observers.  The more imaginative the connection, often the more fascinating a programme you can build.  How about a recital comprising entirely works which are “Opus 40, or one where all the works were written in the same month (regardless of year), or all written in the same year?  How about a recital made up of works written in 1519, 1619, 1719, 1819, 1919 and 2019?  Celebrating an anniversary is always a good thing.  As I write this, for example, I note that today marks the birthdays of Giovanni Martini (an Italian composer who lived between 1706 and 1784) and Roxanna Panufnik (the English composer, noted for her choral and vocal works, born in 1968). On this day exactly 100 years ago the French composer Camille Erlanger died at the age of 56.  It’s also the birthdays of singers Barbara Streisand’ (1942) and Norma Burrows (1944), while tomorrow marks the 101st anniversary of the birth of Ella Fitzgerald. It doesn’t take too much brainwork to devise a programme which includes something with a connection to at least one of these, and if I were a singer, I could construct an entire recital just around these six names.   

·         Thirdly, avoid the predicable, especially pianists.  Everyone who has ever shown even the vaguest interest in the piano will have heard the famous Beethoven Sonatas, as well as most of the music by Chopin and Debussy.  If you put it in, all that will happen is that people will compare your performance (unfavourably) with another they have heard.  I live in continual despair that, while the piano boasts one of the largest solo repertories of any single instrument, fewer of those works are programmed into recitals than for any other instrument.  What is it about pianists that predisposes them towards a mentality which avoids exploration?  Some of the best piano recitals I have been to recently have been presented by Stephen Hough who invariably finds something unusual to play and often devises whole programmes of almost forgotten music.  Why not Pierne instead of Debussy, John Field instead of Chopin, or Rossini instead of Beethoven?  A bit of programming imagination can transform a recital from tiresome predictability to absorbingly intriguing at a stroke, and unlike a concert where audiences like to the familiar, a recital hinges on the individual rather than the repertory, so to be adventurous is good.  Speaking for myself, I will avoid any recital (no matter who gives it) of Beethoven, Chopin and Debussy, simply because I’ have heard it all so many times before it’ has lost its allure for me.  Conversely, I will beat a path to something more unusual.

So with all that in mind, I should perhaps come clean and suggest which of the two-dozen or so recitals I’ have so far attended this month, stands out as the best.  It was, ironically, the one I was looking forward to the least.  A trumpet and trombone recital given by two members of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra – Chris Moyse and Kevin Thompson, – with Nicholas Loh as their accompanist.  In a funny way this was the perfect recital.  The playing was not flawless but oozed enjoyment and enthusiasm.  The spoken parts were informal, easy and informative.  The stage manner was beautifully relaxed (especially from Loh who had an instinctive understanding of his role which played into the narrative of the whole recital).  But most of all, the repertory comprised totally music I had never heard before, yet I felt was well worth hearing, even if it was, ultimately, unmemorable.  Moyse and Thompson told how they had scoured the music shops of Hong Kong looking for unusual things, and you got the impression they were really enjoying exploring this music and sharing it with us.  That, in turn, led to the audience falling into the mood and clearly enjoying the totality of the recital.  This is what makes a good recital.


  1. Fascinating as ever.
    But what's with the exotic punctuation and apostrophes ?

    1. An attempt to find a more easily readable font ended up with Transport, but as it is a font designed for road signs in the UK, it does not have punctuation marks, although you would have thought it did with places like Westward Ho! and Pratt's Bottom to sign! I tried unsuccessfully to import them from another font!

  2. Thanks. Personally I find the font (or fonts) yes previously use more readable on a mobile device with a small screen. To my eyes serifs, narrowing of letters etc seem to make it harder to read.