It seems to be the case that concert organisers these days are determined, above all else, to fill the concert hall, and that appeared to be the case with the Canberra Symphony Orchestra’s recent Tchaikovsky/Rimsky-Korsakov offering. The Tchaikovsky was the Piano Concerto No.1 in B Minor, while Rimsky was there with his Scheherazade symphonic suite. The hall was full, the band was in excellent form, and the audience responded to the virtuosity of the young soloist, Vietnamese Australian Hoang Pham.
It was the fifth or sixth time I had heard the Tchaikovsky concerto live, and I have a few recorded versions. The truth is that I don’t really like it, and never have liked it, and though Hoang Pham had played the difficult work admirably, I finished feeling that I never would like it, no matter who played it.
And being prodded after the concert by my wife to explain why, I have had a go. Tastes in music, as in anything else, are not for argument, really. Yet I can point to aspects of the work that explain, at least to me, my feelings. To begin, the pianist has a tremendous amount of work to do, and a lot of it is difficult, and loud. The orchestra is often loud too. The first movement, which is the home of much of the loudness, is more than half of the whole concerto. Themes are introduced, and then neglected, like the big theme that opens the work. By the time you get to the sweet and tranquil second movement I am in great need of some peace and quiet.
Third, the work does not draw me in (more of that later). It is as though I am outside, looking in at it, rather than being picked up and taken into the musical world that the composer has prepared for me. It is all surface and show (and noise). Yes, it has moments of great beauty, and Tchaikovsky was never short of a melody, but for me the work does not go anywhere. I can put up with the banging and wait for the lovely episodes, but at the end I feel that there has not been enough musical food for my sustenance. There is too much virtuosity and too little real musicality.
Rimsky-Korsakov would commonly be placed in the second rank of composers, with Tchaikovsky in the front, but with these two works, in my opinion, that placement would be reversed. Scheherazade is a splendid orchestral piece. You don’t really have know anything about the Arabian fable which is its inspiration. The music is enough, wild, romantic, exuberant, haunting, wistful and dramatic. It has four movements, and has some claim to be a symphony of sorts, but even that doesn’t matter.
I’ve written about the piece before, as I have about Tchaikovsky, and the CSO performance was a brilliant one. This is music that took me into its world. Yes, I know it well, and know what is about to happen in every bar. I still get a thrill from some of the harmonies, the shifts, and the returns. Rimsky-Korsakov used leit motifs and I don’t care if they refer to the sea, or to the storyteller or to the sultan: they are the kind of beautifully organised musical repetition that gets you in. The work is a wonderful whole, and when it finishes you’re not sure whether to cheer, laugh or to cry. It is full of musicality.
What does that term mean? Dictionaries are not much help. A paragraph I came across said that searching for it is almost pointless: [A]t the risk of being a obscure, a strong argument can be made that what is most “music” is precisely what most evades verbal definition — that the essence of “musicality” is the thing which most refuses to be pinned down in words. By virtue of that fact alone, it is most what is worthy of being irreducibly called “music”. You can’t catch the movement in the stream as it flows by, you will be left with a handful of water, not the flow. I recognise that this will not help those who want an easy, memorable definition.
One way in is to look for melodiousness and harmony, a feeling of rightness, of appropriateness. Schubert has it in spades. So does Mozart. All great composers have it somewhere in their oeuvre. The Beatles have it in songs like ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Eleanor Rigby’. You don’t find it in the screaming violin passages in Mahler’s symphonies. You do experience it, again and again, in his lovely song cycles. You can find it in music that might otherwise seem almost arid, like some of Phillip Glass.
I wrote some time ago about attending a concert in the Mendelssohn house in Leipzig where two pianists showed an audience how technical virtuosity is empty if it is not connected to musical feeling (though I am sure that was not their intention). If the passage, or work, is simply there to make the performer’s life difficult, then of course it will be hard for anyone to bring out its musical quality, for it may not have much of it. A lot of Paganini’s violin music gives me this feeling. Bach’s ‘Well-tempered Clavier’, in contrast, is replete with musicality, as are lots of his keyboard pieces which were composed to provide technical exercises for his sons.
In the case of the Tchaikovsky concerto Hoang Pham played the lyrical parts with great feeling and skill. But there was nothing much he or anyone could do with the bombastic opening. Tchaikovsky’s musicality is abundant in the ballet music, and in parts of his symphonies. I don’t find much of it in his first piano concerto.
As I said, these are questions of taste, and I am explaining my own rather than trying to convert others to it. I am probably deeply old-fashioned and unreconstructed in all of this. I find a lot of modern music too loud, too dissonant and too complex for my taste. I search for musicality, and lament its absence. That doesn’t mean that I yearn for ‘Swoon’ music, the theme of the current ABC Classic FM countdown. Too much of that can be sickly.
Music is such a puzzle. We find it hard to define it. Its range and reach are vast. Writing about it is not nearly as important as listening to it. But over a long life I’ve come to value the composers and the performers whose aim is to produce aural beauty, even if I do not wholly understand what they are about. Beethoven’s string quartets, of which I have also written, possess a great deal of beauty, but that is not their real claim to fame, which is that in their entirety they represent a musical journey over a composer’s life that expresses the essence of music, at least as I understand it. Musicality is the highest expression of humanity’s highest art form.
And we still can’t say exactly what it is.