May 02, 2003
The difference between Schmid and Perlman

One very good way to listen to a great recording of a great piece is to listen to a not-great recording of the same piece first.

I don't know why – curiosity I think, I hadn't listened to it lately – but, whyever, I put on the Arte Nova recording of one of my favourites, the Brahms Violin Concerto. Arte Nova is a me-too version of Naxos which puts out one decent performance of all the best classical music for a fiver a go, and their in-house violinist is a chap called Benjamin Schmid. He does the Brahms.

So I start listening, and I say to myself, this doesn't sound quite right. He's good, but is he great? Nothing sounds quite right. Each note seems to be about 0.000001% out of tune. The beginnings of the notes don't sound quite the way they could. He is good. He can play. If I heard this in a concert, I'd not be growling and wanting my money back. But I don't know, it just sounds like a "could do better" performance to me, he's clinging to the cliff rather than standing

I wonder. I just wonder, I say to myself. Am I imagining all this, or is there someone on the shelf here who really could do better? I switch off Mr Schmid and put on one of my absolute favourite recordings of this piece, the first EMI Perlman recording, the one with Giulini conducting. Long introduction, which is better because it has more base in it, which I like, and because Giulini of all conductors can do those long legato paragraphs that I so like and which they all so liked in the late nineteenth century when this piece was composed. Also, everything is absolutely perfectly in tune.

Enter Perlman, and the miracle unfolds. It's true. Everything is just right. Everything is perfectly in tune. Every note begins in its own distinct way, the exact way it should. Every note, every phrase, every paragraph, means something. In fact it means everything.

Perlman plays the piece a bit slower than is usual, perhaps because of Giulini, perhaps because he wants to, never mind Giulini. This is asking for trouble. Play a piece like this slow, and if every note is not a miracle, you draw the most cruel sort of attention to its unmiraculousness. Could do better and several minutes longer. But of course Perlman makes it work. You savour every instant and bless the tiny extra moment you have to enjoy each moment.

When I think how many decisions a violin soloist has to make per second in a piece like this Brahms concerto, I am astounded at Perlman's achievement.

Take tuning. All music buffs know this, but any non-music buffs who have followed me this far may not know that playing western-scale music in tune is an art, not a science. Our great clutch of notes and key signatures embodies a universe of tiny compromises, which pianists don't have to bother with while they're playing because the tuning is all done, for better or worse, but which violinists have to bother with all the time. As do singers of course.

There are some pieces – the Brahms violin concerto sounds to me like one of them – where every bar seems to be a tuning trap. Another way of putting that might be to say that the tunes wouldn't sound right on a piano, because each one has to be "compromised" in a slightly different way, depending on the notes before and after each note that you are actually being played. Listening to someone like Mr Schmid play this piece, and you wonder (a) what's wrong, and (b) how the hell anyone could ever play this piece perfectly if this guy can't. And then you listen to Perlman, where everything just sounds perfect.

And that's just the tuning. Tempo, legato, vibrato, everything-else-in-Italian-you-can-think-of-o. It all has to be decided about and got right.

Perlman isn't deciding about all this by being a supercomputer who just decides things very fast, any more than I decide what's in front of me by knowing all about electromagnetic waves. Well, not as much more as you might suppose. Instead of (or as well as) that, he brings to bear a tradition of violin-playing and violin-tuning and violin-phrasing on everything he does which spits out the right answers like one of those WYSIWYG programmes where you don't have to think about the machine code, just about how you want it to look. Perlman is one of those people who can look at the score of the Brahms, hear it, and then WPHIWPP (What Perlman Hears Is What Perlman Plays) it, without any further fuss. Oh, he thinks about all manner of bits in the piece when he's preparing it and practising it. He gives immense thought to how he wants us to hear it, and his taste is beyond reproach. But once he's fixed that, out it comes. And what's more he is so totally in command of what he's doing that he can introduce those tiny modifications in response to what the conductor is doing (in this case also a super-great musician) and thus make everything sound even more exactly right.

Genius.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:09 PM
Category: Classical music