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.
And that’s great because, honestly, not everything else on the program was. The Gluck arias were lovely (I heard Graham perform Iphigénie en Tauride just a few months ago and haven’t much to add at present), but Rameau’s Pigmalion suite was too long and too repetitive. It has its moments—I particularly enjoyed the use of high, trilling winds over the strings, like flying birds over a field—but the early French ballet music all started to sound the same after a while.
The Bach orchestral suite—with its lively bourées and minuets and gavotte—was much more dancelike to my ears. The orchestration was more colorful, the rhythms more propulsive, the melodies more charming. It was the kind of music that seems to demand movement, making it a spirited end to the Baroque showcase, which, overall, I quite enjoyed (though I was disappointed by the lack of meaty polyphony—how can you celebrate the Baroque without a good fugue?!). Contemporary audiences tend to underrate the Baroque, perhaps assuming that it’s all, well, workmanlike, interchangeable instrumentals (ahem). The Boston Symphony Orchestra ably demonstrated that, yes, it can be that, but it can also be gloriously frenzied songs about ferocious yet indecisive tigers. Thank you, Susan Graham.