Last night I attended a wonderful concert. Two of my all-time favorite works: the Dohnanyi Sextet for piano, violin, viola, cello, clarinet and horn, and the Schubert C Major Quintet. The Dohnanyi is rarely played—at least I’ve never heard it performed except on recordings or when I played it myself, some fifteen years ago, in the chamber music series I used to organize on the Oregon Coast—which puzzles me; maybe it’s just that it’s an unusual combination of instruments. The Schubert, of course, is generally acknowledged to be one of the supreme works of chamber music.
I thoroughly enjoyed the Dohnanyi. I hadn’t thought about the piece for a long time, but of course once the music started every bar seemed familiar. I was reminded how hard some of the piano part is (Dohnanyi himself was a great pianist; I, unfortunately, am not!), and I marveled to think that at one time I actually got through it creditably.
Nevertheless, the Schubert was the high point of the evening for me, but not because the music that emerged was the best imaginable instance of the piece. It was very good, but not wonderful; there were times when the balance wasn’t quite right, and there were moments of shaky intonation. I’ve heard more “perfect” versions from recordings. But one doesn’t know, of course, how much the recording was doctored, how many parts were re-recorded or edited; the recording may give a perfect version, but it doesn’t give a performance.
What was special about last night was the fact of its being a performance. I talk in my book about the relationship of performers with each other, and I claim that their interaction has many of the earmarks of a loving relationship which lasts during the performance, whatever their relationship with each other may be in daily life. That is what was thrilling last night, seeing the communication between the players, how they adapted and adjusted to one another. One of the cellists, in particular, was a joy to watch from that point of view.
So last night brought out for me what is special about performance, and what it is that performance offers that is unavailable any other way. Performers interact in a sort of loving relation, which can itself also be seen as a kind of artwork, but an artwork whose point is the creation of another artwork at the same time, namely the Schubert Quintet. We hear a masterpiece of music emerge from a human interaction taking place moment to moment before us, which cannot be captured on a recording, however perfect the sounds may be. Performance occurs in real time, like life, and like life it’s gone when it’s over. That is the predicament of performers as artists: they create artworks that endure only during the time of their being created.