Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.We might adapt this principle to music performance by noting that outstanding musical performances are all alike, but every bad musical performance is bad in its own way. But is this true? Oddly enough, I think the opposite is true! Why this is the case reveals something important about the nature of art.
What distinguishes art from mere design is some kind of unique element or tension in the artwork itself. In music, what distinguishes art or concert music from commercial pop, folk or genre music is the same: musical materials or structures that create a unique element or tension in the piece. You might respond by asking what is unique about those innumerable sonatas by Scarlatti or symphonies by Haydn. Of course, they are not innumerable because they do indeed have numbers. And, as I think that I have demonstrated in dozens of posts on Scarlatti and Haydn, the remarkable thing is just how unique each one of those many, many sonatas and symphonies are! I won't take the time to reiterate that here--just use the search box on the right and read my many posts on Scarlatti and Haydn for lots and lots of examples. Good composers never fall prey to the formulaic; each piece has its own individual character even though certain basic structural elements may recur. There are lots of buildings built using bricks, but they can be very, very different nonetheless.
So if you accept the idea that good pieces of music are not good because they fit some kind of predetermined formula, but are good for precisely the opposite reason: that they are the opposite of formulaic, then the next step should be logical. Performances of good pieces of music are good in that they reflect the individuality of the piece of music. The greater the performance, the greater the individuality.
Before looking for examples, let's take a moment to do an analysis of how a weak or poor musical performance might be characterized. As someone who taught guitar at conservatory and university for decades, I'm something of an expert! From long experience, I would describe a weak or poor rendition of a piece of music as including some (or all!) of the following characteristics:
- halting or wobbling pulse unrelated to the musical phrase
- soggy or incorrect rhythm
- mechanical execution of the rhythm unrelated to the musical content
- poor or inappropriate tone colors
- lack of dynamic contrasts or inappropriate placing of them
- poorly balanced chords indicating an obliviousness to the harmony
- lack of awareness of the harmonic movement and tension
- inability to "sing" the melody and make the phrases evident
- obvious technical inadequacies such as inability to play equal notes equally
I'm sure there are many more, but this should give you an idea. Nearly every bad performance I have heard (and I have heard thousands) has included at least one of these faults and many have included most of them! Bad performances, like poor pieces of music, tend to share certain qualities. In the case of a piece of music it is usually boring, repetitive, formulaic, incoherent and unimaginative. In the case of a performance it is weak and inconsistent technically in ways that masks the aesthetic qualities of the piece.
One objection to my theory might be that great performers are often easily identifiable, so is this consistent with them interpreting each piece in an individual way? Yes, I think it is, though the argument is going to be fairly subtle. Let's take Vladimir Horowitz, a great performer on the piano, for an example. If my theory is correct, then he should take a hugely different approach to two composers as different as Mozart and Chopin. Let's have a listen. This is the Rondo in D major K485 by Mozart from a live concert:
From the same concert here is Chopin's Polonaise Op. 53 in A flat major:
Same concert, same piano, same hall, but notice how the colors of the piano are very different. Of course, due to the mechanism of the piano, you can't actually change the tone color. But pianists do so all the time through subtle control of articulation, balance, dynamics and so on. The sound of the Chopin is much thicker and colorful than the Mozart, where he emphasizes the clarity and purity of the sound.
A great musician approaches every piece looking for differences and ways to make it unique. Let's take a couple of other examples. Here is Grigory Sokolov playing Rameau, Les sauvages, originally for harpsichord:
I doubt you could actually play the piano more crisply than that! Now, for contrast, let's hear him playing Brahms. Again, same artist, same concert, same piano but this performance of the Intermezzo No 2 in B flat minor Op 117 by Brahms is legato, flowing and with very different colors from the Rameau:
I think that my theory would be even easier to demonstrate on other instruments as guitarists and string and wind players have more ability to alter the timbre of their instruments. As for singers, well, the possibilities are enormous. But these two examples should be suggestive if not actually conclusive!