Taking yourself out of the tune
At what point does an instrument’s personality defer to the power of the player, and why did Fritz Kreisler break a violin to prove a point?
WHAT DO YOU hear, I asked myself, the instrument or the player? I was at a recital in the Hugh Lane Gallery recently, when Elizabeth Pitcairn, performing on the Red Violin (yes, the actual Stradivarius that has had a film made about it), with Louise Thomas on piano, was playing Beethoven, Kreisler and Saint-Saëns.
Instrumentalists are trained to be assertive about their musical intentions and personality. They’re geared up to control the tone they produce. Anne-Sophie Mutter doesn’t sound like Maxim Vengerov. Maurizio Pollini doesn’t sound like András Schiff. There’s a very real sense in which the milder the personality of a performer, the greater the chance for any listener to divine the native character of the instrument they’re playing. There’s even a story that the great violinist Fritz Kreisler broke a violin halfway through a concert. He had become so tired of compliments to his violin that he brought along a cheap instrument to demonstrate that the sound was his and then, to prove the point, destroyed it.
Pitcairn’s is not a name that features on lists of great violinists, and nothing about her Hugh Lane concert suggests that she belongs there. But for the Red Violin, that is perhaps a good thing. It has a far better chance of being itself, so to speak, if a large and complex musical personality isn’t being imposed on it. And it’s good for Pitcairn, too. She has at her disposal a superb violin that’s always going to be highly responsive to her inclinations and urgings.
There are, of course, others involved, apart from violin and player, namely the composers whose music was being played. They make the situation rather more complicated, because everything on the Hugh Lane programme also involved a piano. The news was good for Beethoven on that front, too, as Pitcairn and Thomas are both musicianly, well-mannered players. And musicianly, well-mannered players are often more respectful of composers’ wishes than more high-powered colleagues. They’re less likely to falsify musical balances in favour of whoever commands the higher billing (or fee), or to strike attitudes to show their special achievements or trademark techniques at the composer’s expense. And a musicianly performance of Beethoven’s Spring Sonata, which Pitcairn and Thomas offered, is always a real pleasure.
The slightly husky but not throaty tone of the violin could assert itself without any forcing against a lucid and unforced account of the piano part. You could, at times, almost imagine that the music was playing itself.
The music of Fritz Kreisler, so easy on the ear, so ready in its tugging at the heart-strings, requires an injection of personality, a touch of self-admiration, perhaps, that Pitcairn simply didn’t provide. And Saint-Saëns’s First Violin Sonata, with its rapid-fire finale, requires an insouciance that she didn’t manage to conjure up. Yes, there was an air of excitement for the audience to respond to, but it was born more of the effort she communicated than of the kind of demonstrative mastery that can make this particular piece sound really special.
There was no shortage of special moments when Pinchas Zukerman played and conducted the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the National Concert Hall, last Thursday. From a technical point of view, Zukerman is a minimalist. He makes playing the fiddle seem like the most straightforward of activities, as if things just have to be willed and they can be done. You don’t have to think about or wonder at the instrument he’s using. You’re witness to a man with a singular relationship to his craft. He has the kind of gestural perfection that you find from an on-form Ronnie O’Sullivan at the snooker table. It really shouldn’t be possible, you feel, for such apparently unmediated delivery to be achievable.