October 7th 2017

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Green energy push has left us blowin' in the wind

EDITORIAL Lessons for Australia in NZ election results

CANBERRA OBSERVED Assurances on religious freedom needed now

ENERGY Peak oil turns out to be another moral panic

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Timor Leste, Australia reach new border treaty

BUSHFIRES Disaster awaits as advice again goes unheeded

GENDER POLITICS Does biological sex matter?

SAME-SEX MARRIAGE Intolerance of the 'Yes' campaign for all to see

EUTHANASIA Medical murder: three historical cases

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Gallant Taiwan survives alone in the bitter sea

SAME-SEX MARRIAGE Prepare for apologies in a generation's time

SAME-SEX MARRIAGE A reflection on the use and abuse of the thought of the Angelic Doctor

MUSIC Stupendous talent: What to do with all that ego?

CINEMA Trollhunters: Guillermo del Toro's TV fantasy

BOOK REVIEW Debunking the 'harmless' tag


EUTHANASIA Victoria's death bill: questions that need answers

Books promotion page

Stupendous talent: What to do with all that ego?

by David James

News Weekly, October 7, 2017

There is an inherent tension between the celebrity egotism of classical musicians, which is part of the marketing, and the abnegation of the ego in a true interpretation of a composer’s work.

Left to right: Claudio Arrau, Alfred Brendel, Daniel Barenboim

Consider, for example, three of the great classical pianists: Daniel Barenboim, Claudio Arrau and Alfred Brendel. All three are virtuosos; so when they turn their hand to playing the Beethoven sonatas, they bring an indisputable technical prowess. What they play reveals their conception of how the musical lines should be executed. It is as if they are revealing their understanding of Platonic forms: pure mind, even though the playing is intensely physical.

Of the three, this writer prefers Arrau. He seems to grasp Beethoven’s ideas and expressions, developing a great intimacy with the mind of the composer. In particular, his strong rhythms match Beethoven’s distinctive pulse. One can imagine Arrau (without any evidence whatsoever) as a humble and deeply respectful person.

Brendel is also a favourite. The word that springs to mind to describe his playing is magisterial. His ability to develop themes over a long period introduces the listener to a journey; when he is playing Beethoven, it is very much a spiritual interrogation and development. One gets less sense that Brendel is close to the composer, however. Rather, he sits alongside him in a deeply profound conversation that constitutes a great musical spectacle.

Barenboim is of course a brilliant, complete pianist. But his Beethoven seems a little too idiosyncratic, almost as if he is intent to prove that he is a brilliant, complete pianist. In part, this is probably because the introduction of recording technology meant that the older interpretations are preserved, so newer pianists feel the need to do something different. In classical music, the weight of history is great.

The tension here is that to get to such a level as these players requires a degree of focus and determination that must surely require a great deal of self-obsession and probably ego. Yet once you have attained that level, ego must be lost. The performer has to get out of the way and let the composer have their say. Of the three, Arrau achieves that best.

One of the strangest interviews this journalist has experienced was with David Helfgott, the subject of the film Shine. Helfgott had mental health issues and it quickly became obvious that an interview would be impossible – he mainly seemed to want to repeat that we both had the same name – so I interviewed his wife instead.

David Helfgott

While that was happening, Helfgott started to play the piano in the Great Hall in the National Gallery of Victoria, where he was later to perform. I was concentrating on the interview, so was not especially listening. But when he began to play all the hairs on my neck stood up. His touch was extraordinary, electric.

I subsequently attended many of his concerts. His technique was not always flawless and may not have pleased the purists (whoever they are). But I came to realise that it was a rare opportunity to transport oneself back to the 19th century and the distinctiveness of that aesthetic. As one who has often been skeptical of the Romantic period and its excesses, this was a memorable and enlightening experience.

The reason Helfgott’s playing was so authentic, it seemed, was that his personal difficulties meant that his personality did not get in the way. He was able to achieve a kind of non-present state as a performer, so that the composer became much more present. It was a delight. The performances completely lacked any of the aridity that can plague classical performance.

The relationship between the muse and the personality of an artist is always an intriguing one. Talk to jazz performers – and it is most likely that classical musicians feel much the same – and they say that when the music is working well, they are less aware of effort and thought; they enter the kind of altered state of being, or rather non-being, that is supposed to occur in meditation.

Yet at the same time, most performers have either a healthy dose of egoism or, if they are subject to self-doubt, then at least self-absorption.

The question that remains, then, is whether this is a paradox – in the style of “he who loses his life finds it and he who finds his life loses it” – or is it a mere contradiction?

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.

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Last Modified:
April 4, 2018, 6:45 pm