The Difference Between a Good and Great Performance
Many musical performances are good; far fewer are great. What makes a performance good or great? Let's explore this question with two recent recordings of Dmitri Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony.
The more recent of the two recordings (just released) is performed by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra under Mark Wigglesworth. It's good — very good. The opening of the first movement is performed in a deliberate tempo and with every note placed just right. Take a listen:
In my opinion (and, evidently, also that of Stalin's Communist Party, from which a representative snatched the Fourth Symphony out of rehearsals for what would have been its premiere in 1936, leaving it to languish in complete obscurity for a quarter century), this work isn't about perfection; it's about calling out the obvious imperfections of an oppressive Soviet system.
If anything, the opening of this symphony should feel less like tea at the Savoy and more like the business end of a Kalashnikov. This recording is a little too complacent and stodgy, even though, again, very, very good.
In 2008 the Chicago Symphony Orchestra released a recording of the same piece under Bernard Haitink. It's a phenomenal performance. (And I wasn't the only one who thought so — it won for a Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance.) The opening of the first movement is technically flawless, but it also has attitude. This isn't Shostakovich tucking away on the Isle of Wight. This is Shostakovich straight out of the Gulag:
Then there's the third movement, a Mahlerian funeral march which, in the hands of Wigglesworth and the Netherlands Radio Phil, trundles along. But sometimes I get the sense that their minds stray from who or what is in the coffin:
Haitink and Chicago never forget they're in the midst of a funeral for humankind. Each step in this grim cortege brings us closer to the ultimate realization that, like Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony itself, our lives and fates are inevitably controlled by forces dreadfully larger and stronger than we are:
So what makes a great musical performance? Arriving at the essence of the human experience that gave birth to the music. In that essence live the human and the divine.