The Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood on Friday, July 22.
My college piano professor once told me that modern recordings give us a distorted picture of how music can and should be performed. Artists can record take after take, and technicians can splice together the best parts, and what we hear is both perfect and unreal. Aspiring to that kind of perfection means chasing a virtually impossible standard, but worse, the pursuit fosters a kind of safe, controlled presentation—note-perfect but so carefully collected as to be inert. That, my professor said, is a tragedy. In scratchy old recordings of live performances, the musicians—even the best musicians—hit their share of wrong notes. Some of their runs fly on the edge of control. There are noticeable flaws. And yet there’s a kind of beautiful, crazed passion to those performances that we often lack today. Paradoxically, to achieve genuine greatness, you have to be willing to sacrifice superficial perfection.
Listening to mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, I couldn’t help but think of my piano professor and grin: I suspect he would have adored her performance. Graham has a gorgeous voice, a wonderful sense of phrasing, and an obvious commitment to conveying the meaning of what she sings—all of which were on abundant display Friday night—but her performance of the Handel arias from Ariodante and Alcina wasn’t completely clean. Her elaborate ornamentation came across as more manic than disciplined, and amid all the pyrotechnics, her intonation sometimes sounded slightly fuzzy. And yet, as much as I have enjoyed Graham in the past, I’ve never felt quite so exhilarated by her before. The vibrant energy, the fiery emotion—something intangible gave the music a radiance I hadn’t expected. Graham’s vast technique was still undergirding the lines but it wasn’t binding them; the very wildness of it all was thrilling.