Is it possible to define what separates truly great performances from merely very good ones?
Giving a great performance obviously entails much more than playing all the right notes, or even, as Eric Morecambe would have said, doing so in the right order. Though technical perfection is an essential ingredient, it's only a means to an end, and it’s perfectly possible to transcend the odd inaccuracy simply through the power of commitment and depth of expression. In fact, technique is ideally something an audience is unaware of at the time and in the greatest performances, the performers themselves can seem almost invisible.
There are some performances where every note matters and every silence re-focuses the intensity. Every nuance is explored, every shade coloured, every phrase sculpted, every rhythm danced, every line sung, every structure understood, and every drama acted out. The bold and the subtle receive equal value, emotions and logic are portrayed in perfect harmony, and an indefinable meaning and purpose swims alongside a simultaneously free-flowing sense of spontaneity that relegates to the listener’s subconscious the realisation that everything has been thought through.
Great performances push the boundaries of musical ideas to their limits, revealing an all but infinite canvass of expression on which composer, performer, and listener can each play their part. If the lines of what is appropriate are crossed, extremes for their own sake appear mannered. But one should always feel close to the edge - a sense of danger in which anything could happen. Risking failure is an important prerequisite to ultimate success.
Every great performance is unique and a major part of that derives from the artistic honesty of the performer. When performers are consistently sincere, their performances are as unique as they are. You cannot specifically lie of course – it’s hard to pass off a G sharp as an A natural - but listeners sense if at the deepest level musicians are being disingenuous. Disingenuousness comes from disengaging your true self from the performance. Instead you either copy what most people do, and make a musically generic choice, or you copy someone else specifically, and end up with a self-conscious imitation. Neither generates great results.
Most classical music lovers agree which pieces of music are great or not. Not withstanding a wide range of personal preferences of taste, there is a general consensus as to what these masterpieces are. But when it comes to judging performances themselves, there is rarely unanimity. This subjectivity suggests that a significant contribution to great performances are listeners themselves - our receptivity clearly determines how the specific experience will feel. Unfortunately, synchronicity is beyond our control. One can go to a concert with great expectations and end up disappointed just as often as one can be swept off one’s feet by something for which one was completely unprepared. So though the performer’s contribution might be definable, it's hard to say what it is about the particular mood of a listener that turns something memorable into something unforgettable. The crucial component that listeners bring is as mysterious and unpredictable as the human spirit itself.
Leading conductor Mark Wigglesworth is equally at home in the opera house as in the concert hall – and, indeed, the studio, where his acclaimed Shostakovich symphony cycle for BIS is nearing completion. In 'Shaping the invisible' Mark shares his passion for music and his fascination with the philosophies and psychologies that lie behind it. (Photo: Ben Ealovega)