Let me tell you
Stratospheric Barbara Hannigan
Birmingham and BBC Proms
One to treasure
One of the
Book and CD
Book + 4CDs
old saying was once instilled into children learning a
musical instrument, playing a game, studying this or that.
On the face of things it seems to be undeniable; the more
you do a thing, the more familiar one becomes with all
that it demands of one’s ability to do it to absolute perfection.
ago there was a popular television programme which featured
members of the public causing laughter and amusement when
their attempts to do something they were unfamiliar with
resulted in such ludicrous results when compared with the
experts who had demonstrated how something could be done
with a quick sleight of hand: making a piece of pottery,
icing a cake, painting a picture or whatever.
a musical instrument is certainly a technique where the
notion of ‘practice makes perfect’ is applicable. Not just
mastering the specific technique of one’s chosen instrument
- like learning to drive a car - but in constantly practising
and thus becoming thoroughly familiar with a particular
piece of music - like the driver who daily drives along
the same familiar road, knowing every bend, conscious of
every potential hazard.
artists are well aware of this. Time and time again they
go over the concertos they have already mastered; for to
miss a day’s practice their technique - at least to themselves
- loses its absolute perfection. To them, to miss a week’s
regular practice becomes evident to their listeners as
well. So indeed ‘practice makes (and keeps) perfect’.
can this sometimes be overdone?
continental tradition - especially in Germany - has always
seemed to insist on lots and lots of rehearsal for a concert,
so that guest conductors from abroad have generally been
not only surprised but often disconcerted by the British
way of scheduling relatively little rehearsal for a performance,
relying instead on the fine sight-reading capability of
British orchestral players. It has to be admitted that
the insistence on plenty of rehearsal does ensure absolutely
safety in the eventual performance: everyone is as familiar
as possible with the work being presented to the listener.
perfection was remarked on - so we are told - in the earlier
part of last century when, for example, the Berlin Philharmonic
came to Britain and demonstrated a precision that British
orchestras at that time seemed unable to match.
conductor, every individual performer, is different in
his or her attitude to rehearsing or learning a new work;
some need a considerable time to come to terms with what
a new works needs, while others appear to have quite a
staggering ability to learn, or even perform almost at
sight, something new and unfamiliar.
the face of it then, it would appear that the old saying
is true: the more familiar one is with what it entails,
the more perfection is likely to be achieved.
is not easy to define; how in musical performance might
it be sensed?
from the nature of the music itself, which is concerned
with the way the composer has designed it, unlike a painting
which is complete once the artist has applied the final
brush-stroke, a musical work requires further ’interpretation’ by
the performer. In this inevitably lies a quality of perfection
of lack of it which naturally can vary enormously.
it is a characteristic of the times in which we live, and
for all we know, probably something of the same characterised
earlier generations’ way of regarding things by their technical
excellence. We tend to be over-awed by the seemingly assured
technical perfection of ever younger and younger performers.
How is this achieved one wonders?
all this exemplary wizardry there is often something lacking.
This is also sometimes the case with much older and very
experienced concert artists, not least conductors.
excellence has been achieved by dint of much practice;
practice that - maybe just sometimes - has gone too far?
like the brass name plate on the old fashioned doctor’s
surgery, which the housemaid was required to polish rigorously
every morning without fail, so that perfection should be
ever maintained, eventually the letters on the brass plate
were themselves ultimately rubbed away to illegibility.
So the musical performance has been so honed to an indefinable
perfection that all sense of spontaneity has been erased
in the process.
of the long tradition - largely on account of economic
necessity - of only the minimum of rehearsal, British conductors
have generally had to be able to manage with the situation.
Not all of course, some of our most distinguished conductors
have insisted on lots of rehearsal, considering this essential
to achieve the perfection they aspired to. However, others
have tended to take a broader view, realising that - especially
with familiar works in the repertoire - shall we say Brahms,
Schubert, Beethoven, and many other often-played classics
- too much rehearsal does not achieve an elusive perfection
but mere tedium and ultimately a lack-lustre performance.
Players often rise to the challenge of a spontaneity of
performance, which might even be a little dangerous to
their peace of mind, but can be invigorating.
while it is undeniable that practice makes perfect, perfection
in the widest sense can sometimes be a bore; it is just
coldly precise so that a sense of adventure and sparkling
spontaneity is lost. There are many parallels with other
human experiences, the way we regard musical performance
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