Composers from Amazon.com's Get Started in Classical:
This is from Amazon.com's Rehearsal Space.
List of Composers
Does practice make perfect? It depends on whom you ask...
by David Patrick Stearns
Utopia gets surprisingly mixed reviews in classical music.
Any number of artists and their admirers will tell you that
their favorite performances are those that had no
rehearsals. Then there are those who create a mystique
around themselves by insisting on greenhouse
circumstances that musicians are said to long for. The
latest is Krystian Zimerman, the Polish pianist who is
touring the world playing both Chopin concertos with an
ensemble he hand-picked himself, the Polish Festival Orchestra, which offers him
endless rehearsals and a chance to analyze nearly every chord. Even though the
group has played engagements all over Europe and spent seven days making the
Deutsche Grammophon recording that would take other forces seven hours, there are still daily rehearsals up to four hours long.
"Five years ago, I wouldn't have dared this performance, because it's so far out of range of the kinds of performances we have
on the market," he says.
Zimerman contends that the range of musical interpretations worldwide has become extremely narrow due to the copycat
syndrome: Everybody decides who does it best and then does it the same way, and only huge amounts of rehearsal time can
allow musicians to break out. But theories are one thing, execution another. Newsday critic Justin Davidson heard one of the
first concerts on the U.S. leg of the tour and considered whether such extensive rehearsal time were the mark of amateurism:
"The Polish Festival Orchestra played well enough, but no more.... I wonder whether ... Zimerman could really concentrate on
what his hirelings were doing while he played. He may specifically have asked the horn and bassoon to come in with forceful
urgency at certain spots, but they sure sounded late and loud to me."
One can only hope that lateness and loudness aren't typical. Though such problems are exactly the types that would be
inevitably minimized in recording, the performance has a level of originality and inspiration that would make up for momentary
lapses. The recording's hallmark is its drama: It's so pregnant with subtext that it seems like an opera without words, and often
achieves this effect with an initially disquieting, but ultimately revelatory, elasticity of rhythm. Davidson's reaction suggests that
the players are the victims of a self-absorption that can kill any sense of objectivity.
On top of that, Zimerman is surely spread thin, not just in juggling pianistic and conducting duties. Financially, the tour is
certainly madness, as he is charging only his usual recital fee for a performance that includes the feeding, housing, and
transportation of some 60 musicians. Because he's essentially the producer as well as the star soloist, he claims, he's sleeping
only four hours a night. Not that he minds--he's dreading the tour's end: "I've never been so happy for such a long period of
time. This is worth any money."
This isn't the first time that denizens of utopia have proved to be as fallible as mere mortals. Though Zimerman is allowed a bad
night, those reaching for the sun seem to fall harder than most. Just because the late Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache
demanded and got so much rehearsal from the Munich Philharmonic didn't guarantee stellar results: Bartók's Concerto for
Orchestra, for example, emerged with strange, gluey, Brucknerian tempos. The EMI release of Beethoven and Brahms
performances vary wildly: His sense of long lines and discovery of hidden details give his rendition of Beethoven's Symphony
No. 3 a cataclysmic impact. Even when the second-movement funeral march is slowed to a standstill, it becomes an expression
of excruciating grief. But Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 is so lead-footed as to be a disaster. His Symphony No. 9 fares well
until the finale, which is strangely sleepy and ragged. Similarly, Brahms's Symphony No. 2 receives a blazing performance, while
the Symphony No. 1 lumbers.
Conductor John Eliot Gardiner often has the luxury of concentrating on one piece of repertoire at a time--he runs his own
orchestra--but at the 1997 Lincoln Center Festival, when he performed Beethoven's Leonore back to back with Kurt Masur's
concert performances of Fidelio with the New York Philharmonic, Gardiner's lack of depth was sorely evident. In his classical
efforts, Keith Jarrett concentrates intensively on one piece of repertoire at a time, but that seems not to have translated into
successful Mozart concertos. Jarrett has often sought an interpretive purity that can give Bach the dignity of a Grecian statue,
but he slights Mozart's worldliness in his latest volume of concertos and often sounds detached, a bit plain, and a tad slow.
Anne-Sophie Mutter spent a year playing nothing but Beethoven violin sonatas, and the results have also divided critics; like
Celibidache, Mutter hits and misses, veering between astonishingly precise insights and flourishes that sound artificial and
affected. Could she, too, be a victim of interpretive monogamy?
"I'm not made that way," says Daniel Barenboim, the ubiquitous pianist and conductor who epitomizes the dangers of going too
far in the opposite direction. "If you have a curious nature as I do and like many different things, you have to be careful that you
don't spread yourself too thin, that your breadth of interest isn't so large that you can't concentrate on details. If you're of the
nature of someone who concentrates on one thing, you have to be careful that you don't lose yourself in details. Both
approaches have their pitfalls." And perhaps the ideal lies somewhere in between.
David Patrick Stearns is the classical music and theater critic for USA Today. He also freelances extensively for
Opera News and BBC Magazine and is a musicology graduate from New York University. He lives in New York City
and writes impossibly wacky plays under a pseudonym he will never reveal.
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