The most memorable concert I ever attended was a performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations by pianist Edward Aldwell. This work, dating from 1741 (Bach died in 1750), is an aria and a set of 30 variations. The title page of the first edition includes this rather elegant description: “Composed for connoisseurs, for the refreshment of their spirits“. It is a massive work, and its beauty, variety and complexity make it an irresistible challenge for pianists and a special favorite of fans of Bach.
But this performance was special.
The piece came alive as I have never heard it before or since, and it felt as if everyone in the audience sensed the same thing. We were spellbound. The air in the room seemed to shimmer with every note.
Why was this so special? For me, it was the sense of inevitability inherent in each moment of the performance. As soon as he played a note, I knew that, of course, that was exactly how that note HAD to be played. There were no musical loose ends or offhand, careless musical gestures. It was simply right.
I have sensed that quality of inevitability in other performances I’ve attended, although not to that degree. And every time, my feeling as I leave the concert is a complete sense of fulfillment, a sense of resolution and completion that leaves nothing unanswered. It is exactly enough.
I believe that we can all strive for that “inevitability factor” in our own practice and performance. And I have identified four qualities that are the main contributing elements to that factor:
- Technical security. Inevitability requires the kind of confidence that comes from technical mastery of the piece and of the instrument. The audience must trust the performer.
- A rich vocabulary of expression. This surpasses dynamic range. It encompasses tone, rubato, tempo, phrasing articulation and countless other expressive devices.
- Musical understanding. For a performer to truly communicate a piece of music, he needs to understand if from as complete a perspective as possible. This includes the historical context, the composer’s other works, the music theory underpinnings and structure of the work, etc.
- Flexibility and adaptability. The performer needs to be so comfortable with the work that they can project a degree of spontaneity, not in any flamboyant way, but in a way that allows them to communicate with the audience and create a musical conversation.
These are difficult tasks for any musician. They are the products of true mastery, and are not to be learned in a week, a month or even a year. But they are achievable to some degree by all of us who play, requiring only attention and a measure of devotion to the craft we love so well.