When perfection isn’t enough

Image of Harry Eyres

I’m no balletomane, but I was struck by a remark in a recent interview with Tamara Rojo, marking her appointment as director of the English National Ballet. Rojo commented that “truly good performances are few and far between – I can maybe count 10 in my whole career.” When pressed by the interviewer on what constituted a great performance, Rojo elaborated: “It’s an alchemy, something beyond your control ... You gel with the public, with your partner, with the music. Some of those great shows haven’t been technically spotless, but something else did take over.”

Only 10 truly good performances! It is a tiny percentage, and not so lucky for those ballet-goers who attended the others. But Rojo was being honest, and applying her own particular criteria of excellence. I felt it no accident that she is Spanish. Her ideas about the almost mystical nature of great performance recalled a celebrated essay on the subject, Federico García Lorca’s “Theory and Function of the Duende” (1933).

Lorca’s template is not classical dance, or classical music, but flamenco. Flamenco singers and dancers know that what makes a performance “truly good” is not technical perfection, or even style, but something darker and more mysterious. “You have voice, you have style, but you will never be a success because you have no duende,” says the flamenco singer Manuel Torres to an unfortunate novice.

So what is duende? Lorca writes in poetic metaphors, not scientific definitions or explanations. He also defines duende by what it is not; duende is not angel or muse, which are too aerial, too intellectual. Duende is dark, earthy, visceral; it comes from the soles of the feet, not the top of the head. “To help us seek the duende,” writes Lorca, not very helpfully, “there is neither map nor discipline. All one knows is that it burns the blood like powdered glass.”

Duende certainly has an intimate connection with death. One of the supreme manifestations of duende, according to Lorca, can occur when the bullfighter faces the bull in the faena. I am rather less a fan of bullfighting than I am of classical ballet, but I have watched a few bullfights. Just once, watching a corrida, I felt that something truly remarkable was taking place, an extraordinary pas de deux of death attended by the spirit of duende.

All this makes duende sound exclusively Andalucian; but not only bullfighters, flamenco singers and dancers can have duende; an artist such as Goya can have duende, or a classical virtuoso such as Paganini. When the old gypsy dancer Malena heard the pianist Alexander Brailowsky play Bach, Lorca recounts, she exclaimed, “Olé! This has duende.”

The classical pianist Murray Perahia might seem an unlikely figure to evoke in the context of duende. He has a marked scholarly bent – he is engaged in editing the complete Beethoven sonatas – and is known for the austere purity of his interpretations. But hearing his recorded acceptance speech at the recent Gramophone Awards, where he was honoured with the first ever Piano Award, I thought Malena would have doffed her metaphorical hat to him too.

Perahia, the scholar-pianist, is also fully alive to the magical live performance. “When you’re performing live you just spontaneously sing it,” he reflected. “The main aspect of a performance is emotional appeal, emotional strength. With recording, you spend a lot of time encapsulating your view of the music in a more generalised way. But the two things you need to synthesise as a performer are expressivity and cohesion.”

I remembered Perahia speaking a few months earlier about his enthusiasm for improvisation and for jazz, which has improvisation at its heart. Few classical musicians practise the art of improvisation these days, but Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven were all great improvisers. You could go further and say that all their compositions began with improvisation.

This year at the Proms, Perahia played Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with spark and a wonderful improvisatory freshness (at moments I felt the rich-sounding Vienna Philharmonic under Bernard Haitink was moving at a statelier gait). I caught that concert on the radio, but I was in the Albert Hall in 2008 when Perahia returned to the Proms after a 20 year absence to play the Mozart concerto Beethoven most admired.

As always with Perahia there were no mannerisms, no exaggerations, no ego. He looked quite amazed by the warmth of his reception from the Prommers. And then he played with the utmost eloquence, with a heart-stopping restrained pathos and sustained nobility of utterance. I turned to my neighbour, a well-known critic, to express, in stumbling words, my admiration of the performance. “I didn’t think Perahia had anything new to say about K.491,” responded the critic, rather sniffily. I could have throttled the man, who had failed to notice the burning breath of the duende.


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