How to get to spontaneity? Practice
To borrow a term from the Olympics, the technical element of playing classical music demands formidable skills and continual work. The ultimate goal is for an artist to be so assured that a performance exudes spontaneity.
Of course, no performance is ever truly spontaneous. Even great jazz improvisers bring years of disciplined work to their artistry and draw upon a personal repository of riffs, runs and chords. You might assume that young musicians by their nature are more likely to be daring and spontaneous. In classical music, it is almost the opposite, even with very gifted conservatory students. Young artists can come across as so intent on replicating in the concert hall what they have prepared in the practice room that their note-perfect performances can seem constrained.
The most exciting spontaneity often comes from mature artists with decades of experience. I will never forget hearing the great pianist Rudolf Serkin on the exact 200th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 1970 play a Beethoven program at Carnegie Hall, ending with a stupendous account of the composer’s most audacious and difficult sonata, the “Hammerklavier.” Here was monumental spontaneity born of utter mastery.
A couple of months afterward, I had the chance to speak with Serkin and complimented him on that “Hammerklavier” performance. He said, “It took me 50 years.” He didn’t mean, of course, that he had been practicing this piece continually for half a century — rather, that starting in his youth, he learned it and kept at it, while studying and playing vast amounts of repertory, including most of Beethoven’s works, and growing as an artist.
This elusive issue of spontaneity has been raised for me by a new Sony Classical recording of Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro.” The album is being unabashedly promoted by its conductor, Teodor Currentzis, and Sony as the “no compromises ‘Figaro.’ ” It was made over 11 consecutive days in sessions routinely lasting 14 hours with a cast of dedicated singers and the orchestra and chorus of MusicAeterna, an ensemble Mr. Currentzis founded in 2004 during his tenure as principal conductor of the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theater in northern Russia. His work had started gaining international attention when he was invited to become artistic director of the opera and ballet in Perm, a remote city 1,000 miles east of Moscow, near the southern regions of Siberia.
He accepted the post on the condition that the budget be increased to enlarge the size of the orchestra and chorus, with good salaries. When the idea of recording the three Mozart operas with librettos by Lorenzo Da Ponte came along, spurred by the Sony Masterworks president Bogdan Roscic, Mr. Currentzis demanded sufficient studio time to avoid what he has called the typical “factory approach” to recording, where performers are under pressure to get the job done.
“My credo is that every performance you give has to be like a pregnancy,” Mr. Currentzis says in an interview reprinted with the recording. “You have to dream, and you have to wait until the time comes when you will see the miracle happening.”
His conviction is that only through extensive work and rehearsals can excellence be achieved. “The radicality of this recording is its precision,” Mr. Currentzis says. Striving for precision, rather than resulting in pedantry, unleashes “freedom and improvisation,” he adds. That is, he says, the “privilege of a no-compromise studio recording.”
Yet a performance can be overrehearsed. There is only so much that can be achieved even in recording sessions lasting 11 full days, which, as Mr. Currentzis rightly notes, is a rarity in the classical music industry. He has been immersed in the Mozart operas for a long time. He mentions, as a formative event in his career, a performance of “Figaro” he gave with MusicAeterna 10 years ago in a Moscow hospital for an audience of terminally ill people.
There are some splendid qualities to the performance this recording captures, especially the precision and vitality in the playing of the orchestra, which uses period instruments, and the interplay among the cast members, including subtly sung recitative over imaginatively embellished accompaniments played on fortepiano.
Still, another quality comes through, a kind of overpracticed spontaneity. In striving for precision and vitality, Mr. Currentzis sometimes goes too far. The overture is performed with such breathless sweep, emphatic accents and rippling passagework that the result feels a little hard-pressed and driven.
It is not going to help the mission of this recording project — which will include “Così Fan Tutte” and “Don Giovanni” — that Mr. Currentzis makes inflated claims for it. In that interview, he argues that what audiences hear in performances of Mozart today is rooted in a 20th-century tradition that was all about “simplifying the material.” It became accepted, he asserts, for orchestras to grow “cavalier about rhythmic and dynamic intricacies.” So vocal soloists followed suit.
Really? Karl Böhm, Erich Kleiber, Claudio Abbado and Georg Solti, to pick just a few acclaimed Mozart conductors, were cavalier about rhythm and dynamics? Or James Levine and Riccardo Muti today? Not to mention the many fine and exacting conductors and singers who work in the early-music movement.
As an example of the problem as he sees it, Mr. Currentzis points to Figaro’s aria “Non più andrai” at the end of Act I, after Count Almaviva has ordered Cherubino, his sex-crazed adolescent page (a mezzo-soprano role), to accept an officer’s commission in the military. In this well-known aria, Figaro tells Cherubino that his days of flitting around the palace chasing pretty girls are over; now he will be marching with muskets over mountains instead of doing a fandango.
The aria is run through, as Mr. Currentzis says, with a dotted-note rhythmic figure, both in Figaro’s vocal line and the orchestra. But in many performances, that rhythm is “smeared” casually into triplets, he says, which undermines the “sharpness and cruel wit” of the music, a “mock military march.”
On Mr. Currentzis’s recording, that dotted-note rhythm is certainly dispatched with bite and crispness, both by the hearty Figaro (the bass-baritone Christian Van Horn) and the orchestra. But it is not much more precise that most performances I have heard. And there is something a little stern about the interpretation.
And this is, after all, an interpretation. Other conductors and their Figaros have teased out more playfulness in the aria and the dramatic moment. Why shouldn’t a Figaro really poke fun at Cherubino, even if it means playing a little loose with the rhythm?
A revealing moment in this recording comes toward the end of the opera, when the Count (Andrei Bondarenko), having been exposed as a philanderer by his wife (Simone Kermes) asks her forgiveness with the melting melodic phrase “Contessa, perdono” that builds into an affirming vocal ensemble. Mr. Currentzis calls it a passage of “divine harmony,” which is not going too far, and it sounds that way in this performance.
Still, he and his ensemble milk the moment for maximum sublimity. For all the beauty, it sounds a little inflated. Other interpretive takes are possible. After all, the Count’s contrition is likely to be short-lived. In the bustling final ensemble that follows, everyone is ready to celebrate the renewal of love with dancing and fireworks. Some performances that have moved me expose a little undercurrent of posturing in the Count’s apology and the crowd’s joy.
Also, though I admire the commitment of this mostly gifted cast, some singers are not the strongest: for one, the soprano Fanie Antonelou, who brings a light and sweet but weak and sometimes shaky voice to Susanna. No amount of rehearsal time and preparation can compensate for this.
Last summer, Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival presented a “Le Nozze di Figaro” that was a miracle of seemingly effortless spontaneity — a staged concert performance conducted and directed (very imaginatively) by Ivan Fischer with the Budapest Festival Orchestra and a winning cast at the Rose Theater. Over the past 30 years, Mr. Fischer has built this orchestra into one of the most admired ensembles in the world. Here was a supple, glowing, transparent and natural “Figaro.”
Last summer, Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival presented a “Le Nozze di Figaro” that was a miracle of seemingly effortless spontaneity — a staged concert performance conducted and directed (very imaginatively) by Ivan Fischer with the Budapest Festival Orchestra and a winning cast at the Rose Theater.
Over the past 30 years, Mr. Fischer has built this orchestra into one of the most admired ensembles in the world. Here was a supple, glowing, transparent and natural “Figaro.”
The atmosphere was wonderfully informal. The singers passed between the orchestra players onstage; now and then, Mr. Fischer just sat among the strings and kept an eye on things. Since the aim was to be immediate, there were occasional shaky entrances or scrambled moments in the playing. It hardly mattered. This distinguished, vibrant Mozart performance seemed the result of involvement with this music over decades, not a crash session of intense rehearsing.
This question of spontaneity, as I have suggested, is elusive, and, of course, subjective. Many people revere the playing of the super-virtuoso pianist Lang Lang for its overt expressivity and freedom. For me, Mr. Lang’s passionate liberties seem calculated, as if he is milking a phrase to make sure his audience feels it as deeply as he does. This is the opposite of spontaneity.
Arthur Rubinstein, one of the towering pianists of the 20th century, was a master of spontaneity. At its best, his playing combined insight, poetic sensitivity and brilliance. He was never one who cared about absolute precision. Since he lived through several technological advances, he recorded chunks of his repertory several times, including Chopin’s 51 mazurkas, which he recorded three times complete: in the late 1930s, the early ’50s and mid-’60s, a project he finished at 78.
I especially love the last recording, which presents this great pianist, born in Poland, performing the most Polish of works by Poland’s most revered composer, pieces Rubinstein first played as a child. You can be sure that he did not practice too much going into these sessions. As was his way, he wore reading glasses and played from the printed scores. He performs these melancholic dances with wondrous lilt, keen awareness of harmonic shifts, and an uncanny combination of lightness and substance in his touch.
But uncompromising recording conditions do not automatically assure excellence and spontaneity. Consider, for example, a live television performance from 1956 at the Rockefeller Center Studio of the final scene of Act I from Puccini’s “La Bohème,” featuring Renata Tebaldi as Mimi and Jussi Bjorling as Rodolfo, with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra (available on YouTube).
The performance is full of compromises, since little cuts are made to the music, including an exchange between the two characters when they meet, and the voices of the other bohemians shouting from outside for Rodolfo to hurry up, which comes after the two big arias. Playing Mimi, the tubercular seamstress, Tebaldi looks like an attractive, healthy Italian matron; playing the starving poet Rodolfo, Bjorling could be a stiff, well-fed Stockholm banker.
But, wow, do they sing! Suddenly these two artists, at the height of their popularity and greatness, become the essence of a young couple swept away impulsively in love. The performance is miraculous, overwhelming. And seemingly spontaneous.