The performance of Western art music is a supremely curious thing. It is, by its very nature, at once a traditional pursuit and a perpetual reinvention. Before I come dangerously close to opening a can of worms, let me clarify: in any given year, hundreds (if not thousands) of orchestras and performance groups around the world will invariably overlap in their seasonal selections. In other words, it’s totally plausible that in the span of a year, audiences from Tokyo to Moscow will flock to hear Brahms’ Symphony no. 1 any number of times. Yet, as it probably goes without saying, no performance is quite like any other. In pursuing a deeper understanding of classical music, it’s often easy to forget that while the music (i.e. the ink on the paper) will by and large remain the same, the performers are always changing. This constant development, in my opinion, is one of the fundamental forces behind the power and beauty of Western art music.
In this column, I’ve talked mainly about the composers themselves while recommending a few albums here and there. This week, I want to change gears entirely — I want to share with you some of my favorite performers from this era and the last. They range from pianists to sopranos, and command virtuosity across numerous styles. Of course, musical taste is subjective; you might not be fond of everyone I mention. But something tells me you’ll like at least some of the artists on this short list.
-Two weeks ago I fortuitously rediscovered my love for a woman who has perfected her craft while hiding from the limelight. I’m starting my list with Martha Argerich for a reason: she is the most phenomenal pianist alive today (you can take your Lang Lang elsewhere, thank you). Remember Ivo Pogoreli, the Croatian pianist I recommended in my last column? A furious Argerich left the jury for the 1980 International Chopin Piano Competition — which she herself won 15 years prior — when he was dismissed in the third round. She thought him a genius; her peers disagreed. Her recordings of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G are, in my humble opinion, unsurpassed.
-When it comes to string players, I admit I’m biased toward violinists, having been a mediocre one myself. Gil Shaham and Cho-Liang Lin are two of my very favorites because they not only play with such great feeling but also because their grasp of technique is as good as it gets. They do, after all, hail from the prestigious studio of Dorothy DeLay, a pillar of the Julliard School of Music. Check out Lin’s recording of Saint-Saëns’ Violin Concerto No. 3, and Shaham’s recordings of Barber’s and Dvorák’s violin concertos.
-It would be criminal, of course, not to throw in a few singers. Here’s where I can easily get into hot water: opera fans know what they like and won’t hesitate to judge the hell out of your tastes. In any case, I’m very partial to tenors, and none is more impressive than Franco Corelli. While he didn’t wield the most nuanced voice, his booming upper range and effortless command of opera’s most demanding roles will long remain imprinted on the modern operatic tradition. My favorite sopranos are few and far between, but all are the quintessential diva: Birgit Nilsson, Montserrat Caballé, Leontyne Price and Mirella Freni. These women, like Corelli, owned the headline roles of opera — Nilsson and Freni championed Puccini, Price shone through Verdi, and Caballé reigned over Bel Canto.
-I have to wrap up my short list with some conductors, lest they be forgotten. Picking and choosing conductors, I find, is more an intuitive process because they are necessarily making music through other people. In that sense, a fine orchestral recording says as much about the musicians as it does the man holding the stick. My favorites are too numerous to list here, but I’ll share with you the ones I listen to most frequently: Sir Georg Solti, Leonard Bernstein, Neville Marriner, Ricardo Chailly and Karl Böhm. A last recommendation — instead of listening exclusively to their studio recordings, find some clips of these guys in rehearsal. Often the most entertaining and insightful performances never reach the concert hall.
If none of the names I’ve listed interest you in the slightest, I promise I won’t take it personally. Frankly, I’d be astonished if you wholly agreed with my tastes. Use this woefully short roster as a springboard, if you like. As I said, while the music may remain the same throughout history, the sound is always changing.