When one player produces two different styles

Most times composers and musicians have a recurring style - but what happens when they sound liketwo different people?

Benjamin Grosvenor displayed  admirable technical discipline, before  metamorphosing into the persona of an old-style relaxed sensualist and showman

Benjamin Grosvenor displayed admirable technical discipline, before metamorphosing into the persona of an old-style relaxed sensualist and showman

Tue, Apr 2, 2013, 06:00

Life isn’t always simple when you tell the truth. As a student, I gave a straight answer in a viva voce to a question about my favourite composer. It was a bad move. The moment I named Erik Satie, it was as if I’d made an obnoxious smell in the room, and the issue wasn’t resolved until, after considerable discussion, I got another name into play. It was Mozart who eventually managed to clear the air.

The response was so negative that I suspect I clammed up in the face of the furrowed brows I faced, and I doubt that I actually managed to explain that a huge part of my fascination with Satie was to do with issues of style. Or rather, in his particular case, the idea of the absence of style.

The more I got to know of Satie’s music, the better I knew that I had been chasing a chimera. But the handful of pieces I’d got to know in those pre-internet days presented a tantalising mix.

Could the man who’d written the glowing, gentle, rocking Gymnopédies for piano, timeless musings with strange endings, also have written the peculiarly detached score for the ballet Parade for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (scenario by Cocteau, choreography by Massine, designs by Picasso, and Ansermet conducting), with siren, typewriter and other unorthodox noise-making objects into the orchestra? Or could he have written both the palely reserved cantata Socrate , a setting of Plato, and the mock classical Sonatine bureaucratique ?

I discovered later that the foreign objects in Parade were there at Cocteau’s instigation, and realised that the oblique streak in Satie’s music and his fondness for repetitive loops, whether busy or calm, were a matter of style every bit as much as the ecstatic urgings of Scriabin or the atonal adventures of Schoenberg.

But I’ve still often wondered what the investigations of stylometry have managed to reveal about Satie, whether the patterns of statistical frequency in his melodic writing or chord sequences are consistent enough to make him readily identifiable, or whether he might somehow have managed to have broken free of the tyranny of numbers.

I’ve wondered that, too, about many another composer, when the commonality between works is elusive to the ear. Or will the number-crunching of notes and chords in music turn out to be as reliable as the calculations of the written word in identifying that a particular passage is likely to be the work of a particular author?

And what about performers? Is there an objective means of analysis that, without any aesthetic judgment, can conclude that, say, the youthfully dashing Alfred Brendel who recorded Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka and Mussorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition in the 1950s are one and the same as the reflective Brendel who performed and recorded Schubert in the 1980s and 1990s? Or even that the Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli who recorded Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 13 in C so differently in 1953 and 1990 are actually the same person?

And what about 20-year-old Benjamin Grosvenor at the National Concert Hall on Wednesday? To my ears, it was as if there were two Benjamin Grosvenors on stage that evening. There was the one who played a range of piano arrangements of Bach (by Kempff, Rummel, Siloti and Saint-Saëns) with admirable technical discipline, who cut uncomfortably straight lines through two Chopin polonaises, and began in the same style in a selection of mazurkas by Scriabin before he metamorphosed into the persona of an old-style relaxed sensualist and showman in the middle of the Scriabin group.

He stayed in the same mould for a heart-warming, affectionate account of Granados’s Valses poéticos , and a dazzling account of a rarely-heard romantic warhorse, Adolf Schulz-Evler’s Blue Danube – Concert Arabesques on the Waltz by Johann Strauss , one of those pieces in which the performer’s busy hands seem to deliver more notes than any one set of fingers should be able to manage.

How on earth, I couldn’t help wondering, would the tools of stylometry reconcile a set of performances that were so startlingly different in their expressive effect as the work of a single individual? Or is there a kind of musical DNA that will infallibly connect the proverbial dots, even when the messages received by the ear seem so seriously contradictory?

W

hat would stylometry have made of Michael Rosewell ’s handling of Bach’s great St John Passion with the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir and RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra on Friday? Rosewell planted a number of grenades under the choir, so that they were periodically made to shriek and snap with unaccustomed explosiveness, as if their very survival depended on it. Credit is due to Rosewell and to the choir’s chorus master, Mark Hindley, that so many of the extreme challenges were so successfully met.

But the effects were extremely puzzling, because the brittle choppiness of so much of the choral singing was not reflected in the musical approach of the vocal soloists and the orchestra.

What everyone shared was a sense briskness. Even the narrative of tenor Mark Wilde’s Evangelist seemed to succumb. Wilde sounded like a natural for the role, always beautiful in tone, every note within easy reach, and with superbly clear diction. But there were times when what appeared to be an interest in heightening the urgency of his delivery led to a counter-productive speeding up of his delivery.

The Christus of Nicholas Merryweather was solid, but lacked the necessary aura, and the Pilate of Gavan Ring was stiffer and more formal. The other soloists – soprano Sarah Power (with a tonal quality that seemed perfect for Bach), mezzo soprano Sharon Carty, and tenor Eamonn Mulhall – rarely seemed expressively comfortable with the strictness of Rosewell’s regime. It was an afternoon in which the sounds may have been glorious, but the style of the music-making was well wide of the mark.

It is good that the NSO is at last beginning to reclaim some of the great music of the 18th-century that it’s neglected for so long – the St John Passion follows a complete Christmas Oratorio last year. But there’s still a long way to go. Symphony orchestras around the world, major and minor, have for decades been working with, and forging deep relationships with early music specialists in the music of Bach, Handel and beyond. Now that Bach is back on the orchestra’s agenda, maybe it’s not too much to hope that an ongoing relationship with a specialised conductor will follow.

mdervan@irishtimes.com