Classical: Four concerts show up the limits of formalism in music

Technical virtuosity was where it should be – a backdrop to effective communication with the audience

'Let's make it as good as we can." Those words of John Wilson, the principal conductor of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, in an interview with Michael Dervan published in this newspaper last Thursday, kept echoing in my mind during and between the four concerts I attended last week.

The interview and the concerts drove home the uncomfortable fact that the space between aspiration and delivery is filled with a multivalent mixture resistant to definition. I also realised that performers bring their best to any work when they get that mixture right.

Not that “right” should be taken to imply that there is a single correct way. Nor can the multivalency be reduced to a list of reliables: good ensemble, tone and balance; fidelity to the score; technical proficiency and so forth.

The flaw in prioritising any of these is the flaw of formalism: that an ideal performance is one that captures the music’s self-contained qualities, that represents the composer’s intentions, that faithfully reproduces the score. Formalism’s self-contained certainties had many of us, myself included, seduced for decades. For example, only in recent years have listeners come to appreciate that weaknesses found by many critics of the 1960s and 1970s in recordings of Elgar conducted by the composer are not weaknesses at all: the performers of the 1920s and 1930s had different priorities.


Yet it is also true that certain qualities seem essential for certain pieces or genres. For example, the best singers don’t just sing; they elevate poetry via song. From Jussi Björling to Dolly Parton and from Elvis Presley to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, words seem to lead in ways that incorporate, but go far beyond, having clear enunciation, apt timing and good dynamics.

Focused artistry 

All those were strengths in Sharon Carty's lunchtime recital at the Hugh Lane Gallery on Sunday, when she presented a Schubert programme with pianist Jonathan Ware. But what made this recital special was the way this partnership captured the inner aspects of the songs, from the ecstasy of Ganymed to the serenity of Du bist die Ruh. Adjectives seem inadequate for such focused, intelligent artistry.

There, and in almost all the performances I attended, technical virtuosity was where it should be: a backdrop. Wilson said as much in his interview, when explaining that, in rehearsals: “We’re always working to find the best way of delivering the music to the audience, which can be a fiddly, technical thing.” He said nothing about getting it right. Rather, all that work is directed towards communication, towards people.

Almost by definition, a good performer is a communicator; but they also do not see the music as an object. It might be pleasure, it might be pain: it can be anything. The strength of the audience’s experience can have remarkably little to do with whether some of the music is “better” than other music. Rather, the artistic value of the music and of the performance seems to depend on whether they have set out their space, and whether they fill it. Sometimes the music completely overspills, and, as in some late Beethoven, rises into unsuspected heights; and sometimes, as in Beethoven’s occasional bouts of garrulity, it overspills and drains away because its ambition exceeds its composer’s judgment. So too with performances.

Indeed, a small space fully filled turned out to be one of the highlights of the week. That was on Friday night at the National Concert Hall, when the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra was directed by Mexican conductor Alondra de la Parra.

The programme opened with Frederick May's last orchestral composition, Sunlight and Shadow (1955), and ended with the 1947 version of Stravinsky's ballet suite Petrushka. The combination of conductor and orchestra produced performances that were always lively and characterful, but above all communicative.

In the Symphony No 2 (Sinfonia India) completed by Carlos Chávez in 1936, the sometimes rough balance seemed unimportant compared with the rhythmic verve and the strength of melodic shaping. One could see why that Mexican composer had stimulated Copland in the 1930s, when the latter was striving to produce music of truly American character.

The programme also featured the Concerto No 1 for Marimba and Strings, written by Brazilian composer Ney Rosauro in 1986 for the large, five-octave marimba. That instrument makes a huge, warm sound, and the demeanour and virtuosity of soloist Eriko Daimo (playing throughout with four mallets) made this a performance to remember. What will linger in the memory is her encore solo, an arrangement of the Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana. Watching and hearing the four mallets play slow-moving, long-line, four-part harmony was extraordinary. No recording could capture that mesmerising combination of sound and sight.

All-Mozart programme

The RTÉ Concert Orchestra's all-Mozart programme on Thursday night at the NCH fulfilled all that one could have hoped for from the wisdom and insight suggested by Wilson's interview. The Concerto in C for Flute and Harp K299 was beautifully played by the orchestra's principals, Joshua Batty and Geraldine O'Doherty; and the Symphony No 40 in G Minor K550 was played with a confidence and discipline that was refreshing for the ways in which it managed to combine long-line grace with muscular shaping.

Yet, when all is said and done, some things are better than others. Would anyone who was in the NCH on Wednesday night dispute my claim that Paul Lewis’s recital was an artistic triumph? It is not just that Beethoven’s three last piano sonatas are pinnacles of western art music. It was also that Lewis’s insight and imagination transcends formalistic notions that faithfulness to the score means faithfulness to the composer’s intentions.

So much of what I heard seemed new, as if everything had been thought through afresh. It made me wonder, on many occasions, if Beethoven himself had thought of that possibility. And if he hadn’t, so what? This recital had such integrity that doubt seems Pecksniffian.

Michael Dervan is on leave