Archive for June 4th, 2011|Daily archive page

Which Performance? The potential pitfalls of recommendation.

In Classical Music, Opera on June 4, 2011 at 1:57 pm

Listening to Chopin Ballades, Baracolles & Fantasie Op. 39, Krystian Zimerman.

A few days ago a friend of mine asked me to recommend a recording of the Vier Letzte Lieder by Richard Strauss for a member of his family. I should disclose immediately that these marvellous lieder are among my most loved pieces of music. Ever. I must own every single available recording and listen to all four songs at least once or twice a week. My relationship with these four wonderful songs is, however, for another time.

However it did get me thinking about the whole idea of recommendation. I suppose one of the reasons for this blog – particularly as I scribble about CDs – is to recommend particular performances and performers. I don’t pretend to be a professional musician or a professional critic (again, a subject of another blog methinks) and I don’t delude myself that people will agree with what I say. But I hope that my observations give people food for thought. Writing this all down definitely makes me think more – both during and after the exercise.

So anyway, my friend knows my love of – or perhaps it is an obsession with – these masterpieces by Richard Strauss and asked me for a recommended recording that he could give as a gift. For a bit of background I gave the person in question a recording of the songs many years ago. At this stage I won’t say which recording. And we have attended performances of them together more than once.

I was about to fire off an immediate response based on my most recent listening and stopped dead. At that point I realised that this wasn’t just about offering an recommendation and therefore an opinion – take it or leave it – but more than that. He was asking me to select a recording which he would then be giving to someone else. In a sense then, the recommendation was a two-part transaction.

I suppose it is the same for everyone when it comes to buying someone a CD as a gift. For me the initial impetus is the performance itself. I’ve bought and enjoyed a particular performance for whatever reason and then – be it as a spontaneous gift or for a particular event – I will then buy it for a specific person. First and foremost for me it is because the performance itself is outstanding in terms of musical standards but secondly because it’s – for want of a better phrase – had an emotional impact on me. Let’s not kid ourselves, we have all been to performances and listened to discs that have elicited a strong emotional response. For me, for example, Leb wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind! either at the end of a complete Die Walküre or as a bleeding chunk as on René Pape’s recent CD gets me every single time. God knows what I will be like in under two weeks when I see it in San Francisco as part of my first complete Ring cycle!

So, here’s the first transaction. You choose to buy a particular recording of a specific composer, performer, performance etc as a gift because you personally enjoyed it. But more importantly there is an emotional dimension to the choice as well. Because you choose it for that particular person based on your friendship, the nature of the event or moment and finally because of what it says about your friendship and the emotional connection you want to make. On the last point it could simply be because you want them to – hopefully – enjoy it as much as you did, or because – as is sometime the case – it marks a moment in your relationship. Or because you think that it will be of some kind of help or support.

However if they are in fact asking for a recommendation as a gift does that change anything? Should it change anything? One of the fundamental reasons for giving someone the CD is because you have enjoyed it yourself. And it would be mad to think that that enjoyment wouldn’t necessarily be the same ‘second hand’ as it were. However the emotional dimension will not be there. Unless of course they are giving the same CD to someone under the same – or similar circumstances – that it was originally received.

Enough to make your head spin? Did mine. Especially when you think of how many recordings of the Vier Letzte Lieder there are to consider.

Of course I could have recommended the recording I had originally given him but somehow that didn’t seem like the right thing to do. There had been a specific reason for that recording at the time. In fact it was because it was the first recording I had purchased. Other recordings – although not necessarily better recordings – had been made since then. So having first thought the answer was easy I now face a pleasurable task. Selecting which performance to recommend. Not an unpleasant task I have to admit. I already have reduced the mental shortlist to four recordings. But there are many factors to consider.

So all I have to do now is sit back. And listen.


Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.

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