I’ve just finished reading Play It Again by Alan Rusbridger. He’s editor-in-chief of the Guardian, and a good amateur pianist and clarinettist if he can find the time.
In Play It Again he gives an account of the 18 months he set himself to learn and perform Chopin’s Ballade No 1 in G Minor, a piece that alarms even the best professional pianists. Snatching a few minutes here and there, often very early in the morning at hotels in Tripoli, New York, Sydney and wherever else world affairs take him, he masters the piece, bar by bar, whilst news stories such as Wikileaks and the News of the World hacking scandal break over him.
He triumphs, of course, in the end, playing the Ballade convincingly to friends, family and teachers, musically and more or less accurately.
Play It Again celebrates amateur music making, and as an amateur musician myself (I play the oboe) I found it both consoling and inspiring. Consoling in that he encourages me to believe that accuracy is not the be-all and end-all of performance (he even gets a world-famous pianist or two to agree with this), and inspiring in that I might just get out my oboe and start practising again.
It is one of Rusbridger’s themes that accuracy is a recent obsession in the performing world, a by-product of the recording industry and the possibility of perfection that it brings. The human muddle of chamber music performed in the 19th century for friends at home, by both amateurs and professionals, undivided in their love of music, has long since ceased to be the model of music-making.
Not that there can be indefinite tolerance for technical error. There comes a point when a piece can be so submerged by mistakes that it becomes unrecognisable (think of Eric Morecambe’s performance of the Grieg Piano Concerto with Andre Previn – ‘all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order’).
But technical perfection is not the most important measure of a good performance. I certainly remember how obvious this seemed when my company sponsored a music competition and I listened to dozens of young musicians struggling through masterpieces that were generally too big for them. I often caught a look of smug satisfaction on the face of the brilliant technician who got through a piece without ‘error’, but it was usually another performance, albeit with a few errors here and there, that thrilled.
And think of the pianist Vladimir Horowitz at 83, returning to play in Moscow after 60 years’ absence. His performances in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire were strewn with errors (though in his youth he was renowned for his dazzling technique), but he received and deserved a standing ovation. Mistakes don’t always matter.
(Watch this recording from 45:16 if you want to hear the Scriabin Etude in D# Minor magnificently played, but with not all of the notes in the right order.)
I also recall the joy of hearing the two most famous oboists in the world (Heinz Holliger, and Maurice Bourgue) stumbling over some semi-quavers when they performed the Zelenka Trio Sonatas in Prague some years ago. Did I think less of them? No, they became human and more like me. I stumble often, but they stumble too.
I work in the field of software systems, where accuracy is a presumption. Software bugs, unavoidable of course, are inaccuracies of a kind, but, sadly, they are never forgiven in the light of compensating values (as musicianship excuses the wrong note here and there). What a relief to know that there are other measures that matter in other fields.
Here’s Horowitz playing the Chopin Ballade in G Minor in younger days
And here’s a newer more completely accurate performance by Lang Lang, but lacking, I think, Horowitz’s emotional understanding of the piece.
Great performances are full of surprises, for the audience and the performer too, and the downside of the risk-taking that makes that possible, is that some of the surprises are wrong notes.