It’s a powerful word. Can it apply to music? Should it? Even when it does, is it the point? Is perfect music inherently better music?
I don’t think a performance can be perfect. Technically flawless- yes. Magical- yes. Perfect? No. All too often, the price for technical accuracy is too high- a Coke can is, in a technical sense, perfect- flawlessly engineered and manufactured, but it’s not all that interesting. Performance needs risk, and risk sooner or later leads to mistakes- that’s the price we all live with for great music making
A creative work, however, can be perfect. For my money, Brahms is a pretty consistently perfect composer. I suppose not everyone agrees. I remember a friend in college, a young composer possessed of the certainty of youth, who said “Brahms is a terrible orchestrator. Maybe the worst ever. Everything is so dark and dull- he just didn’t know how to use percussion. A real orchestrator would have used timbers like glockenspiel to double those endless violin melodies and give them some sparkle.”
The mind reels at the idea of the theme of the Finale in Brahms 1 doubled with glockenspiel. I think his orchestration is, well, pretty damn perfect.
Brahms….He never wrote (or at least never published) a bad, uneven or unfinished piece. The early pieces don’t sound like he has anything left to do to become Brahms and the late ones don’t sound like he’s running out of gas. You never find a passage that seems a little short on inspiration or a little weak on craft. Pretty much everything he wrote strikes a flawless balance between emotional engagement and intellectual rigor. You feel like the artistic personality is absolutely defined, but not limited. The four symphonies are, beginning to end, like so much else he wrote, pretty much perfect works.
Actually, there are quite a few perfect pieces of music. Mozart 40 is a perfect piece. Beethoven 7 is perfect. Mahler 6? Perfect. Bach wrote an awful lot of perfect music. Haydn may have written even more.
But is that the point?
Mozart 41 is not perfect- the seams do show in places. There are predictable moments and moments that sound less-than-inspired. In spite of this, it is arguably an even greater work than the perfect 40th. Beethoven 3 is not perfect- the piece is and always will be top-heavy, with the 3rd and 4th movements bound to feel somehow like a letdown after the first two. Is it a lesser work than the 7th? I don’t think so.
Schumann’s four symphonies are certainly not as perfect as those of Brahms, but I think you can make a strong case that they were way more influential and remain in some ways more compelling.
I recently did a program with Surrey Mozart Players in which one conspicuously perfect work was framed by two works that are as fascinating as they are flawed, or at least problematic.
First up was Beethoven’s complete Incidental Music to Goethe’s Egmont. Of course, the Overture is about as perfect as pieces get, but putting it at the top of this piece only highlights how problematic the rest of the piece is.
Beethoven never intended this music to stand on its own, and this shows. Some of it is a little paint-by-numbers, some feels a little repetitive while other ideas feel like they don’t get a fair development. It’s actually a little distressing to hear Beethoven tossing about ideas and not developing them properly. Most of all, one can hear how much Beethoven wanted to stay out of the way of the dialogue and the drama. Much of the piece sounds like an accompaniment to a concerto- one in which the soloist never plays.
I said as much to the orchestra. Whatever its flaws, this music is a very personal expression of some of Beethoven’s most fiercely held convictions about liberty, self-sacrifice and freedom. “I know it sounds like a great accompaniment looking for a tune, but you’re really accompanying a metaphysical idea. You’re accompanying Beethoven’s own concept of liberty. The piece could just as easily be about Tahrir Square as 16th C. Flanders. Just as you would cradle a great violin tune in sound in another piece, you’ve got to cradle this idea of freedom here”
It’s a miracle nobody responded to my little speech with the dreaded “so do ya want it louder, or softer?”
Anyway, with people all over the Middle East risking and sacrificing their lives for the same cause Egmont gave his, Egmont felt more important, relevant and powerful than ever. Is it flawed? Of course. Is it wonderful, moving and essential Beethoven? Damn right it is.
Last up on the concert was another flawed masterpiece, Schubert’s 4th Symphony, the “Tragic.” Written when he was still a teenager, it’s really fascinating. On first acquaintance, it’s almost too easy to see it as a document of a great talent still finding his identity and building his toolbox. In places you can see, plain as day, the Schubert of the Cello Quintet, Wintereise and the Unfinished Symphony, but sometimes when the piece is at its most radical, he pulls back to something more conventional. It’s almost as if he still felt like he had a teacher looking over his shoulder. In other places, you feel like he is trying to express something but hasn’t found the tools to do it- a wild idea comes along he can’t quite develop, or he gets to a corner where he finds himself stuck so just jumps back to safer ground.
Still, I LOVE the piece. The more I live with it, the more I realize he’s farther along in it than I realized at first. Yes, the seams show, and there are awkward moments and unfulfilled promises, but there is so much in it that is so convincing. You really feel like he is totally unafraid of going in his own direction- he’s not trying to write a Beethoven symphony with all that linear drama, nor imitate Haydn or Mozart. Only Schubert could have written it. In the end, maybe it isn’t that the piece shows an unfinished technique- perhaps it is just that he himself was still unfinished as a personality. It is the work of a teenager, of someone finding himself. As a document of all that attendant angst, pathos, passion and ambition, in showing the promise and flaws of a great young talent, it’s pretty flawless.
In between sat the great Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. A perfect piece if ever there was one, by a composer whose teenage works need no apologies or explanations. I love the piece, but what always strikes me about it is how much anger and violence there is the first movement. Mendelssohn does charm as well as anyone who ever lived, but I wouldn’t pick a fight with him for anything.
But if the Mendelssohn offers a perfect listening experience in a way the other two works don’t, I’m not sure the experience is any more moving or meaningful, if the Schubert and Beethoven are played with enough imagination and conviction. In some ways, the Schubert and Beethoven are more important pieces. They tell us more about their creators and our selves and our times than many more polished pieces. For the performers, our job is put that across to the audience in spite of the flaws and rough edges in the music.