The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Can you think of performers and performances that help explain the music? | June 28, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

French writer Andre Gide (below, 1869-1951) won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

andre gide

He was also an avid amateur pianist.

He collected and published his “Notes on Chopin,” which The Ear was reading the other day.

The Ear came across this sentence: “Any good performance should be an explanation of the work.”

Makes a lot of sense as a way to explain memorable performances.

The comment brought to mind conductor (and educator as well as composer) Leonard Bernstein (below) and the Vienna Philharmonic performing the Symphony No. 4 by Johannes Brahms (at the bottom in a YouTube video) and the Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” by Ludwig van Beethoven as well as conductor Bruno Walter’s performance of the Symphony No. 1 by Gustav Mahler.

Leonard Bernstein CR Jack Mitchell

It also brought to mind pianist Arthur Rubinstein performing so much Chopin, but especially the Ballades.

It brought to mind the Belgian violinist Arthur Grumiaux performing the solo sonatas and suite for violin by Johann Sebastian Bach, and the Hungarian cellist Janos Starker performing the solo cello suites of Bach. Glenn Gould’s keyboard Bach probably also qualifies.

The Ear thinks maybe Gide is right.

What do you think?

And can you name performances and performers that explain the works they play?

Leave a message in the COMMENT section along with a link to a YouTube video, if possible.



  1. To me it’s comic that someone as dense in his writings (and does anyone actually read Gide, or Proust or Andre Maurois, or do they read snippets and quotes from them?) as Gide could have said that! One needs to be armed with boatloads of explanatory information, footnotes and the like to read even a chapter of their writings.

    The French writer (born in Belgium) who did deserve the Nobel Prize in Literature (and, of course, did not get it) was the great and prolific Georges Simenon who wrote simply but beautifully and with keen insight into psychology and the social scene. So, maybe Gide’s comment applies to Simenon but not Gide himself?

    People do still buy and read Simenon’s books, unlike those of Gide, and in fact Penguin is releasing new editions of his works. The same cannot be said for the three people mentioned in the first paragraph who have failed to reach classic stature in literature and are virtually unknown to most of the populace today, even the literate populace.

    Comment by fflambeau — June 28, 2015 @ 10:51 pm

  2. I think of the late Harvey Van Cliburn, a name he was not usually known by, but it was his full given name, as a composer’s pianist.
    His playing was faithful to the score in a way that many players’ music is not. He avoided speeding up in places that it was deemed traditional to do so, as in the Rachmaninoff Prelude in C# minor, at the series of descending R-L alternating diminished chords, or his Brahms playing.
    His evenness revealed what the music sounds like with excellent execution without an imposed interpretation, much of the time.
    Oddly, I really enjoy the music of massively interpretive pianists like Alfred Cortot and Ivo Pogerelich, as well. They seem to bring a humanness and flexibility to music that greatly appeals to me as well. As a composer and a composer who plays his own music, I am a bit torn between playing “it” straight, and playing it freely, or with a very personal interpretation. My dilemma to solve, and hopefully, for others to try their hand at as well!

    Comment by 88melter — June 28, 2015 @ 9:40 am

  3. One that immediately comes to mind is Alicia de Larrocha for Spanish piano music — Albeniz, Granados, Turina, et al. No one else captured that special sense of style so organically, and with such charm and flair.

    Comment by Tim Adrianson — June 28, 2015 @ 8:57 am

  4. For me, it was Christopher Taylor’s performance of the entire Beethoven sonatas. It completely rebooted my my idea of them.

    Comment by Ann Boyer — June 28, 2015 @ 8:43 am

  5. Remember Leonard Bernstein’s wonderful series of lectures, “The Young People’s Concerts”, on CBS, I think it was?

    Anyone who watched those amazing talks will undoubtedly agree that a good performance does not necessarily explain much of anything. It ain’t necessarily so!

    Bernstein showed that again and again on every program. There are certain insights into great music and to great musicians that are not just apparent on the surface without a great deal of background and expertise. There were whole dimensions to the music that Bernstein revealed that could not simply be picked up by attending a great performance.

    Classical music badly needs another Bernstein. He is missed greatly.

    Comment by fflambeau — June 28, 2015 @ 7:38 am

  6. Alfred Brendel, especially his Schubert.

    Comment by slfiore — June 28, 2015 @ 7:38 am

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