HOW CAN YOU TELL?
Judging an orchestral performance. Sometimes the differences are enormous. Not surprising given the forces available and the indirectness of the process – the conductor imagines the perfect rendition and must then compel others to produce it. The difficulty is deciding whether two widely varying performances (eg, Beethoven by Klemperer and Toscanini) are both legitimate. This, I must confess, is often beyond me.
In sloppier performances the thing that goes first is texture: strings, woodwind and brass dissolving into a single noise instead of identifiable separate layers. This is harder to detect than I make it seem. The different orchestral sections are intended to blend of course. But a blend is a controlled mixture; the undesirable blur occurs when certain instruments are (fractionally) out of synch. The latter happens when the conductor’s cueing is less than decisive.
In most orchestral music rhythm changes frequently. In great performances rhythmic changes may be applied to tiny pieces of the whole – but without degrading the overall rhythmic structure. Thus small separate phrases flutter into and out of major themes, increasing the delicacy of what we hear. Getting this kind of performance out of an orchestra requires great control (and often great imagination) on the part of the conductor. Otherwise the result is much simpler and much more obvious.
In the best performance I ever heard – Brahms symphony 3, Herbert Blomstedt (see pic) , Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra – there was another quality which is hard to define. It was as if the music bounced slightly. I think this may have been due to the “attack” Blomstedt was achieving when music resumed after tiny periods of silence; a hurrying-up which, nevertheless, didn’t result in hurried music. If anyone better qualified to identify this effect can do so, I would be eternally grateful.