How can someone who is not a musician or performer, with little or no grasp of the technical side of music, develop an appreciation of a particular piece of music or the work of a composer more generally? I offer the following thoughts on the basis of some 40 years' listening to (mainly) classical performances and recordings as well as much reading and reflection.
There are really two sets of questions:
• What are the characteristic features of a successful performance of a major classical work?
• How can you tell, in advance, that you will be likely to hear such a performance?
What is a successful performance?
One definition of a successful performance is that it is one where the listener is under the impression, during the concert and immediately afterwards, that what they are hearing is the music that the composer heard or imagined they heard when composing the work.
Of course, there can be no such thing as a "definitive" performance. A major classical work will always be greater than any single performance of it, despite what may be argued by devotees of memorable renditions by Herbert von Karajan (Debussy's La Mer), Régine Crespin (Berlioz's Les Nuits d'été), Fritz Reiner (Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra), Victor de Sabata (Puccini's Tosca, with Maria Callas, Tito Gobbi and Giuseppe Di Stefano), Sir Thomas Beecham (Bizet's Carmen), Vladimir Horowitz (Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto) or Sviatoslav Richter (Liszt's Piano Concertos). As is the case for quality in higher education, we are dependent on proxies.
In my experience, successful performances have all or some of the following features:
• Freshness and immediacy: it feels as if the performers have come upon the work for the very first time, and are fascinated by it
• The performance has an "improvisatory" feel: it feels as if the performers are creating the work as they play it
• Commitment and engagement: the players play as if their lives depend on it
• Advocacy: the work's strengths are magnified and the weaknesses minimised
• Understanding: "one right way" - the listener feels at the time that this is the only way in which the piece can be performed.
There are of course many variables here. Neither composition nor interpretation is an exact science. Notation is inevitably imprecise. At best, a score can be only a map. The greatest interpreters seem to be able to get behind the written notes to apprehend what lies beneath them (listen, for example, to Wilhelm Furtwangler's account of the opening of the third act of Tristan und Isolde).
At the same time, interpretation involves so many decisions (pulse, tempi, rubato, expression, phrasing, dynamics, tone, colour etc), many of them subconscious, that it can be taught only to a limited extent. This is true when there is just one performer. When there is a group, and especially where there is a leader such as a conductor, there are then issues about how they convey their intentions to and through their fellows - who may have their own well-founded views as to how a piece should be played. (There is a famous tale of a new conductor being asked by the notoriously hardbitten members of the New York Philharmonic whether he wanted the Bruno Walter or the Dimitri Mitropoulos interpretation of a particular symphony by Gustav Mahler.) It is not for nothing that conducting in particular is described in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians as "one of the most difficult (and most rewarding) of all musical activities", and anyone who doubts this should read Gunther Schuller's The Compleat Conductor.
Other factors that come into play include things such as acoustics and indeed the reaction of the audience: many famous interpreters (Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Sergiu Celibidache, Furtwängler) resisted recordings because they saw the audience as part of the performance. The great Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, on the other hand, would not give live performances, on the grounds that recording had made concerts superfluous!
How can you predict a successful performance?
One obvious starting point is the composer. I would search out any recordings or performances by the composer. Sir Edward Elgar, Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten, Dmitri Shostakovich and Pierre Boulez have all left recordings of some of their own works. While these may not necessarily be definitive, they are all worth hearing at an early stage.
For example, while there are many fine recordings, no other conductor has yet managed to convey the febrile character of Elgar's first two symphonies. Composers are also a useful source for performances of others' works. Britten's recordings of choral and/or orchestral works by Elgar, Mozart and Schubert are fascinating as they show one composer reacting to, and moulding, the work of another (his piano accompaniments to the Schubert song recordings of Peter Pears are even more revelatory, although it is hard to forget Dudley Moore's wonderful spoof of Britten's own compositions in the original Beyond the Fringe).
If a composer's recording or performance is not available, then one could turn to one of their associates. Most of the great composers have had associates or amanuenses, who may have provided moral support, given advice, shared their labours or just been working with them when particular pieces were being composed. Very often they have been dedicatees and/or conductors of first performances. Examples include Walter and Mahler, Erich Kleiber and Alban Berg, Clemens Krauss and Richard Strauss, Yevgeny Mravinsky and Shostakovich, and Robert Kajanus and Jean Sibelius. Although, again, these may not be definitive, they are a good starting point for developing an understanding of the music.
Even where there is an associate (and Mahler had several, although Walter was the closest), there are a number of cases where, in my judgement, a particular conductor seems to have a particularly authoritative view of a composer (or, in some circumstances, a particular work or group of works). In roughly chronological order of composer, I would suggest Bach (Otto Klemperer), Handel (Beecham), Haydn (Beecham), Mozart (Erich Kleiber), Weber (Carlos Kleiber), Beethoven (Felix von Weingartner), Schubert (Karl Boehm), Mendelssohn (Klemperer), Berlioz (Beecham), Schumann (Rafael Kubelík), Brahms (Weingartner), Wagner (Furtwängler), Bruckner (Furtwängler), Tchaikovsky (Mravinsky), Dvorak (Václav Talich), Verdi (Arturo Toscanini), Puccini (Karajan), Janácek (Charles Mackerras).
Although some names recur, this is very much "horses for courses". Nationality is important. It is quite difficult, and relatively rare, for a conductor to excel consistently in the music of another nationality, although some of the names in the list are such cases. Most of the composers are German or came from countries where the central musical tradition was German. Most important, all are dead. Is this just nostalgia? Don't we always assume that current practitioners are "pygmies standing on the shoulders of giants"? Or has there been a decline in standards of conducting, if not necessarily in other areas of performance?
I believe the latter to be the case, and suggest that anyone who disagrees should listen to recent recordings or performances of the standard classical repertory, from Bach to Berg. Few attain the heights of the interpreters I have selected, or those of many others that I could have. Perhaps of more interest is to speculate why this should be. I end by offering some possible reasons.
First, the role of the conductor has changed so that there are no more "superstars" (Toscanini, Karajan, Klemperer and so on). But which came first? If a new Carlos Kleiber (who died in 2004) were to emerge, wouldn't they be recognised as such? More serious, I believe, is the combination of the separation of the functions of composing and conducting (many of the great conductors were frustrated composers), the decline of German composing after the so-called Second Viennese School (Berg, Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Alexander von Zemlinsky et al.) and the coming of the Nazis, all in or around the 1930s. Post-war Germany has certainly produced some fine composers, but not a single conductor of the first rank.
None of this is to deny that there are some fine conductors working today (many of them, incidentally, from Northern or Eastern Europe), or the achievements of the period instrument school (Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Sir Roger Norrington, Christopher Hogwood et al.) in taking us closer to what the major classical works may have sounded like when first composed. Recent recordings with small numbers of singers of Bach's St Matthew Passion - arguably the greatest work in the whole classical canon - feel like an Old Master painting has been cleaned for the first time. But if it is spirituality you are after, Klemperer's your man.