The dangers of redundant beauty…

I often wonder, when I buy a sandwich or a cake, why the first is so abundantly slathered with butter, mayonnaise and so on, and why the latter is so unnecessarily sweet. It usually seems to me to be an attempt to disguise the paucity of the basic ingredients. Similarly with people who try very hard to be terribly, unnaturally nice all the time, my inner question is always ‘Why? What are they trying to hide?’

It’s the same with musical performance; when I hear a performance laden with dollops of ‘beauty’ – whether it consists of a constant topping of soupy vibrato, a blurring over-use of the sustaining pedal, or whatever – my thought is ‘Why? Why are they adding this?’ And this happens very, very often – and not by accident. Sometimes it is a way of disguising technical flaws, of course; intonation is much easier when one hedges one’s pitch-bets with vibrato, lack of clarity can be (almost) hidden by the security blanket of the sustaining pedal. But it is often a conscious decision – and that is what I find hard to understand.

Of course, the word ‘beautiful’ can be interpreted in any number of ways; but I’m using it here to depict a deliberately sensual aspect to performance. The spur for these thoughts came from listening to the opening of Beethoven’s 4th symphony, first conducted by Carlos Kleiber, and then by a very successful modern conductor. With Kleiber, the walking eighth-notes in the slow introduction sound compelling but completely natural, a hero threading his way towards his destiny; one doesn’t even question the way they are being played – it seems as if they’re emerging straight from the page. In the other version, the conductor beseeches his orchestra to give every note equal weight, long strokes and heavy vibrato on each one. Yes, it’s a beautiful sound in itself; but so what? When I listen to the tale of a heroic giant, I don’t want to be distracted by being shown the ornate coloured socks and trousers he’s wearing; I just want to hear his story, and what happens to him! The ‘beautiful’ version got wearing after a few bars, and I switched off; but had I not just listened to Kleiber’s version, I might not have realised quite why I felt so bored.

Needless to say, I’m not advocating ugliness! I’m just saying that a lovely sound is not the most important aspect of music – it is just part of it. Shakespeare’s language is extremely beautiful – but if an actor were to drool over every syllable, we would lose the meaning entirely. My belief is that composers do not set out to produce beautiful sounds for their own sake; what they seek to do is to tell a story, to create a structure, to communicate their deepest thoughts and feelings in their own particular language. The sounds of musical instruments or voices are (or should be!) beautiful in themselves; meaningful voices telling truthful tales, not telling us to listen to how sexy they are!