Coming up tonight on BBC Radio 3, and streamed throughout the coming week on site, is the Lebrecht Interview with one of the most self-possessed artists I have ever encountered.
Hilary Hahn, last year’s Grammy winner for the Schoenberg concerto that hardly anyone else dares to play, puts neither a note nor a hair out of place. We eyeballed for an hour in a studio in Liverpool, the shutters slamming down whenever the conversation touched on private life.
I don’t pretend to have got the measure of Hilary – she’s too smart for that – but you may form a bit more of an impression of what she’s about from listening to her duck and weave under a hail of questions.
Fiona Maddocks, the thinking person’s critic of choice, attended the same performance as I did, formed some parallel impressions (down to one telling detail) and wrote an account of it in today’s Observer that could hardly be more different if it were in another language.
Read it here.
Now some may regard the difference between us as glass half-full, half-empty syndrome, others as a pair of irreconcilable philosophical perspectives. Fiona and I, it should be noted, have been good friends and colleagues for a long time. We enjoy vigorous disagreements and hearty cups of tea.
But what strikes me is that the tone of her review, run against mine, is contrapuntal rather than contrarian. Taken together, the reader has a three-dimensional impression of the cincert, rather than the usual flat snapshot.
Music can strike two independent minds in quite similar ways and yet produce two totally divergent lines of thought. This, for me, is one of the art’s compelling attractions and a vindication of the embattled profession of criticism.
Watching Bernard Haitink at the BBC Proms last night, I experienced my usual frustration at his suppression of emotional contrast, his flat dynamic line and his fussy accentuation of peripheral detail. There was much to admire, as well, not least the tension that Haitink creates at the opening phrase and sustains to the last.
But in more than thirty years of watching Haitink I have never been convinced by his approach to Mahler and the Ninth he gave last night with the London Symphony Orchestra will not lodge in my memory beside those I have heard from, to name an indelible few, Bernstein, Tennstedt, Solti, Sanderling, Gatti and Rattle. Which may be why I am noting these thoughts in a blog, as a point of reference for the interpretation chapter of my next book on Mahler.
Still, mine is just an individual sensitivity exercised through one pair of ears. Others with me who were hearing the work for the first time were moved. So, too, apparently, were some members of the orchestra.
My eye was caught by the facial expressions of some of the under-utilised players – the E-flat clarinet (Chi-Yu Mo), the principal bassoon (Rachel Gough) and above all, the piccolo player, Sharon Williams.
The piccolo spends much of the first movement perched at the end of a row of hard-working flutes with not much to do except count bars and worry about rising mortgage rates. Most players in these circumstances adopt an attitude of glacial detachment that veers from mild ennui to the characteristic NY Philharmonic grimace of what the heck am I doing here?
Ms Williams, by contrast, seemed completely absorbed in the music, swaying along with the flutes, smiling at the surrounding sounds. It was impossible not to share her pleasure, to be drawn into a performance that was objectively unappealing. Music is an infectious germ. It is so easy to get carried away.
The new Lebrecht Interview series starts tonight on BBC Radio 3 with an unbuttoned conversation with William Christie, early-music pioneer and the American who revolutionised the culture of musical performance in France.
‘Am I being indiscreet?’ he says, at one point.
Yes, he is. We talk for 45 minutes, no holds barred and all names named, about how great musicians abuse their students, how public funding gets distorted by political vanity and how an individual with tunnel vision can overturn a state bureaucracy.
The broadcast will be streamed here for seven days – up to the next Lebrecht Interview.