I am moved by Lady Percy 's expression of love. CLICK HERE - see if you agree.
Otherwise my novels, short stories, verse, family, music, memories, vulgar interests, detestations,
responses, apologies. I hold posts to 300 words* having found less is better than more.
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Monday, 6 February 2012

Voices - it's up to you

TELL? – Pt 2
The short answer is you can’t tell. No musical performance is definitively good or bad. Opinions always differ.

For decades received wisdom said Beethoven’s metronome must have been faulty, too fast*. So his speed markings were ignored, especially for the piano sonatas. The pianist Friedrich Gulda (who also plays jazz) accepts LvB’s markings. Last week I heard his version of the Waldstein. A right gabble it sounded, but there were YouTube commenters who approved.

All performances are subjective. No more so than with the solo voice. That’s why this series – about judging performance – omits voices since they impose yet another layer of subjectivity.

Mozart’s best known aria is probably Voi che sapete (che cosa e amor) (You who know what love is). I tried out six sopranos, one after the other, on YouTube. First, singing voice tones differ as widely as talking voices and can’t be measured, that choice is up to you. Second, Mozart’s Cherubino doesn’t suit all voices; this aria was too low for instance for Joan Sutherland the diva’s diva in bel canto roles like Lucia di Lammermoor and La Sonnambula. Third, over two or three decades the style of singing this aria has changed radically. Sutherland and (this surprised me) Elizabeth Schwarzkopf articulate the words precisely; younger singers like Frederica von Stade are more legato, giving a smoother effect.

As a result apples aren’t being compared with apples. Any guidance on singing I offered would probably be personal rather than factual. Also, these differences are quite easy to recognise without my dubious help. Comparing instrumentalists (mainly pianists and violinists) is harder and orchestras even harder so that’s what I’m concentrating on.

*Surely LvB would have known. Or is this a polite way of saying he was wrong?


  1. I understand the point about subjective performances. Whereas I cannot easily accept a subjective approach to poetry or to the reading of poetry or to the performance of a Shaksespeare play for example, my approach to music, because I have little or no technical understanding either of its performance or its writing, must inevitably be subjective. Tone Deaf is helping me brush up on what little technical knowledge I have, but I fear that it will always fall very short. I am enjoying music all the more though. Even the rock with which British groups rocked the USA and the rest of the world in the wake of the Beetles, something which I paid very little attention to at the time.

  2. Plutarch: This How Can You Tell? project is turning out to be quite complex. The aim is to help people judge the merit of differing musical performances. I can't pretend I'm an expert in this myself and since I cannot read scores articulating my reactions is probably doing more for me than my readers. In any case I'm still setting out my stall and haven't yet reached the bit that matters.

    Subjectivity operates in two different ways. There are certain well-known (thus presumably worthwhile) pieces which many of us simply do not like (eg, the Tchaikovsky violin concerto which we heard last week). We might be able to explain why we don't like them but if we are very much in the minority we probably have to accept that this is a subjective rather than a reasoned reaction. Subjectivity also plays a part - as I explain - with voices which we simply find uncongenial. Robert Tear's harsh tone is one example, even though he sings in tune and his interpretations are admirable.

    As to poems I wonder. How would you categorise your reaction to a poem which didn't make literal sense at all but had a pleasing juxtaposition of words, or some good phrases which were mere non-sequiturs

  3. It depends on the poet's aims and his success in achieving them. Your question immediately evokes Edward Lear and Lewis Carrol both of whom I admire objectively. Swinburne's poems sound good but often are weak on sense. I wonder about Mallarmé.

    I love the latter but not the former, and could say why but for good reasons not here.