“Mirror, Mirror…”

Ever since I first heard Lydia Mordkovitch’s recording of Prokofiev’s first violin concerto a few years back I’ve been thinking about the role of the performer, their function as mediator between me and the music itself (if there is such a thing). I had not previously known that concerto, and my first reaction was that it was lightweight, even frivolous. But a second and then a third hearing convinced me otherwise. Now I place it among the most moving pieces of music I’ve ever heard.

But after a couple more hearings I became curious about how another performer, Anne Sophie Mutter, would perform the piece. So, I decided to have a listen.  After just a few minutes, I turned it off. What I was hearing was not the Prokofiev concerto. It sounded so different from the Mordkovitch version, it seemed to be another composition entirely.

What I’ve been wondering since is why. I consider Mutter to be the greatest living violinist. At the time, I was unfamiliar with Mordkovitch beyond that one performance. I had experienced the genius that Mutter brought to Mozart and Brahms, had heard her evolution from wunderkind to mature artist — and beyond. I had thought her performance could only enhance what I had heard in Mordkovitch’s. Instead, it seemed to violate it.

Was I only reacting as I might to any alternative rendering of the performance that had first revealed the music to me? That first hearing of a composition tends to imprint itself on us so strongly that the music and the “interpretation” are virtually indistinguishable. I have nevertheless recognized and appreciated performances that are far superior to my initial experience of a composition, even when that second revelation occurs years or even decades later. A first kiss is a first kiss, but there may well be other passions, perhaps just as or even more memorable.

I can’t speak with any real authority about the work of either Mordkovitch or Mutter, but my experience of their separate performances in this one instance raised a question that has outlived my initial reactions: To what extent is a performer a vehicle, conduit or, as I think of it, a clear pane of glass through which we experience the music, and to what extent are they a kind of second composer whose performance is itself a creation as original as a musical composition?

My thinking on this has evolved. At first I thought I saw a clear distinction: Mordkovitch was that clear pane of glass, an unobtrusive aperture into the essence of Prokofiev’s music; Mutter (and her fellows) a kind of composer in her own right, her performance as much a creation as the composition she’s playing, each new rendering an opus, as it were, just as all of a composer’s compositions can be said to be one single composition in various forms and stages of development.

But nothing is ever so clear-cut, or remains so unless we are so wedded to an idea that we cannot bear to see it overturned or even significantly altered. I have heard recordings that seem to be near-perfect representations of the experience of a concert hall. I know now those recordings are the result of great artistry on the part of sound engineers. Is there an artistry on the part of the performer that corresponds to the skill of those engineers, involving an almost saintlike sublimation of personal ego for the sake of letting the music shine through unimpeded by “interpretation”? Or, does this apparent simplicity involve, as does all art, a great deal of artifice and delusion, the way good prose that seems simple and straightforward is the result of many hours of work on the part of the writer to achieve that “effect.”

There is room certainly for both types of musicians, and I’m not sure we should value one over the other. Ultimately, there may be more of this in the ear and mind of the listener than I have yet explored. But the question, however naïve or tentative, enriches for me music’s, indeed all of art’s, limitless possibilities.

(Read a great piece relevant to these thoughts at Harold Knight’s blog on the occasion of J.S. Bach’s recent birthday and why it is “the most important day of the year.” )

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4 Comments to ““Mirror, Mirror…””

  1. What interesting questions you raise! You made me first of all go listen to Grieg’s third violin sonata (slight personal leap of logic here) because my son wanted to play it from the first time he heard it, and because I knew that he could, once his skill level allowed, because it suited his introverted but passionate soul so perfectly. Is it because my father’s family was Norwegian, and brooding is in our blood like a storm waiting for some inevitable but long-delayed outburst? Is it because my own son’s father died when he was just nine, and my son still carries the need to mourn and rail?

    I don’t know–but yes, I think both the clear pane and what we might call the artfully obscured glass exist, sometimes in the same performer. I am, as I’m sure you know by now, a clear-pane advocate if ego is what’s obscuring the glass. But your question has made me think there’s another issue involved that may explain the Mutter “violation”: I think some temperaments or sensibilities resonate better with whatever underlying essence a particular piece of music aims to capture. If performer and composer are in touch with and moved by the same source, it’s as if the wind blowing across them both suddenly turns mere grass blades held between the fingers into instruments. Or it’s like harmonics. Or something. (I’ve been sick for a while, and am too enervated to research or straighten out this analogy, but I trust you’ll know what I’m pointing to.)

    In writing we have only one composer, but as everyone who has ever given or attended a reading knows, the piece can be completely spoiled if it’s read out loud, or “performed,” in some wrong way. It’s not necessarily about how practiced the voice is, though a nervous reader can certainly botch even the most beautiful prose. It’s more about whether the reader believes in and understands and wants to transmit the heart of the particular matter. I think therein lies the difference: what particular matter does the particular piece of art aim to explore or disclose or celebrate or honor?

  2. Thanks, Barbara, for pointing out how a performer “resonates,” or not, with a particular piece of music…or, I think, with a particular composer. I recently purchased a few more recordings by Mordkovitch, one of which received an award for best recording of the year (Shostakovitch). I’m looking forward to seeing what my reaction is to it.

    I also agree that readings of prose can be highly problematic. A bad reading can destroy an otherwise decent piece of writing, though my first appreciation of Shakespeare’s genius was the result of attending a production of Lear that was abominable. The words seem to shine through not despite but because the actor (Lear) was so bad. I assume this was because of the contrast between the poetry and its delivery.

    Generally, I find everything sounds better read aloud, though. In fact, I’m suspicious of readings, especially by professional actors. A good actor can make the telephone directory sound like high drama. I never judge a piece of fiction on the basis of how it comes across read aloud. There may have been a time when stories were always read aloud even when the reader was alone (I think it was Augustine who first observed, historically at least, someone reading silently to himself, and he thought it odd), but nowadays we assume the written word to be something read silently and it must carry its weight that way, not with the help of a skilled performer. Having said that, I love to hear the written word read to me, even by a computer, which, by the way, reads everything as if it were of equal artistic value, letting the wheat and the chaff go their different directions.

    I was just playing a waltz by Grieg last night (“playing,” in my case, having the broadest possible meaning) and was struck how distinctive his voice is. That short piece had the same melancholy, the “brooding” you refer to, of his piano concerto or anything else he wrote. He was one of my first musical loves and remains so.

    • “In fact, I’m suspicious of readings, especially by professional actors. A good actor can make the telephone directory sound like high drama.”

      For sure–I was once married to one, and life was damned confusing! 🙂

      “(I think it was Augustine who first observed, historically at least, someone reading silently to himself, and he thought it odd)”

      I didn’t know that–how interesting! In the big picture, of course, writing’s ancestor is the oral tradition, and I think it’s not just the sound but also the eye contact and the whole person-to-person interaction of storytelling that affected our brains in some way that we still hunger for, although the neurological effects of fiction are apparently deep in language itself, including written language (I’m thinking you must have already seen this interesting article from the NYT, but just in case):

      http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-neuroscience-of-your-brain-on-fiction.html?_r=1

      “I love to hear the written word read to me, even by a computer, which, by the way, reads everything as if it were of equal artistic value, letting the wheat and the chaff go their different directions.”

      Even there, I think Victoria and Alex get the wheat award. Bruce and Junior just don’t have their hearts in the job. 🙂

      “I was just playing a waltz by Grieg last night (“playing,” in my case, having the broadest possible meaning) and was struck how distinctive his voice is. That short piece had the same melancholy, the “brooding” you refer to, of his piano concerto or anything else he wrote. He was one of my first musical loves and remains so.”

      I so admire you for taking up the piano. Maybe later in life some of those pruned neurons we lost at sexual maturity somehow resurrect, once the paths-more-travelled-by have been worn out. I’m still trudging in the ruts of what I know, in order to eek out an adjunct faculty living. But your role model gives me hope for when I win the HGTV Dream Home (that’s still the main holding in my IRA plan) and get to retire.

  3. I arrived here with the intention of saying something about Kant’s inextricable interaction between the knower and the known, but having read your exchanges have decided that it is completely off track.

    It was well worth the second visit, though. Thank you both.

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