This afternoon, I rather unexpectedly had one of my most affecting concert experiences ever: the violinist Julia Fischer playing an Ysaÿe solo sonata and the Franck sonata.
I almost didn't get in; though it was a short concert starting at 1 p.m., Cadogan Hall was full to the brim; I was deep in the returns queue and only three people behind me got in.
I've been a fan of Julia Fischer for years: her recording of Brahms' concerto was enough to make me a follower, and I've seen her play live once before — as soloist with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe playing Mendelssohn's concerto. I'm enough of a fan to have wanted to go despite the program (Ysaÿe and Franck aren't typically my sort of thing). But this was a solo recital, where I'd really be able to hear her play, close, and without orchestra.
I expected an outstanding performance, but what raised this concert from outstanding to memorable was the brief, mid-concert interview she gave. Because the concert was part of the BBC Proms, a presenter (the concert was broadcast live) asked her a few questions between the two pieces.
One question involved the flood of recordings available today — including the useful glutton, YouTube — and how they compare to the early recordings made by turn-of-the-century violinists. Julia explained that the early recordings often sound so different from those of today "simply because they didn't have the possibility of YouTube; they couldn't listen to all the other colleagues... They played in their own style with their own ideas."
The simple concept struck me. Musicians playing in their own way because it's what they wanted and what they thought their audience wanted. None of the obsessively self-conscious comparison of recordings performers subject themselves to these days. Surely they must have listened to other violinists and their teachers, but the whole culture about the 'correct' way to approach a piece may not have existed then — certainly not to the point it does now.
(That can only be a positive thing: look, for example, at the wild diversity in musical styles being written in the first half of the 20th century. In contrast, history has shown us more recently that 'taste police' have turned out to at best narrow-minded and at worst oppressive.)
She's not saying the technology isn't beneficial, she's advocating independent thinking. Welcome words to my newly-graduated ears.
She went on to discuss one particular way the changing times had altered interpretation: "Today we are trained to be very rhythmical in style, and at that time not necessarily everyone had a metronome at the age of five... so of course the playing was much freer. And there is a certain difference between being rhythmical and playing like a metronome, which is actually not playing in rhythm."
There's a bit of new music phobia (you know the sort I mean: "Any deviation from the tempo is an error!") dashed. I've fretted for years about the propensity for modern composers to spell out even the tiniest change in metronome marking for the performer. In my view, either they'll understand the music and interpret it or they won't.
Finally, she spoke about the Franck sonata she was about to play, a very well-known and often-performed piece. "It's a dangerous thing to believe that just because something is well-known, you have to make it sound special." Amen to that; if you see a musical with a well-known song, chances are that song will be tortuously 'individual'.
And then she said something that hit home to me not just as a musician or conductor, but as a composer: "Trying to do something completely different from everybody else is as bad as doing it exactly the same as everybody else."
As she spoke, I felt like someone was picking at the knot of musical neuroses and paranoias the College planted, unraveling its tangled threads into orderly, observable thoughts. Perhaps this has only exposed my own niggles and worries rather than detailing the outstanding music I was lucky enough to hear. But the two are inseparable: her comments got to the heart of what I've been trying to digest of late, and I was left somehow unguarded, open, receptive.
The whole experience was overwhelming in the best way. To find a performer who really thinks about music is rare enough, but it comes through in her playing. Her interpretations are mature, perfectly paced, and never showy; she can be confident as well as vulnerable. I haven't found deeper, more meaningful performances anywhere.
Her performance of the Franck was, predictably, outstanding. I say predictably because I already knew it would come from a genuine artistic impulse. She said before she began:
"Even if you know it, I hope you will enjoy it anyway."