One of the few musical joys missing in the two programs I heard last weekend afternoon at the NIH Auditorium in Bethesda, the Quartetto Italiano did nothing wrong, and Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire was similarly flawless Saturday night at the Kennedy Center. Only a curmudgeon would criticize either performance. Here goes.
The joy of imperfection is one peculiarly appropriate to Romantic music, and Romantic music was all I heard all weekend - an all-Beethoven program by the Liszt, Chopin, Villa-Lobos (a late but authentic exponent of Romanticism) and Ravel's hair-raising "Gaspard d la Nuit" by Freire.
Most of this music is capable of inspiring performers to test their limits, to take risks, to forget momentarily tht the seats out there are full of people who bought tickets and lose themselves, their cool, their control, in the effort to reach the music's core.
What happened instead wer3 77 7nstrations of perfectly controlled technique, subtleties alore, lucid expositions of musical form, fine gradation of tone, dynamics and expression. But there was almost never a sense that the performers were excited about what they were doing and absolutely never a feeling that they were not quite sure they could pull off the phrasing or tempo in the next passage at the level of intensity they had chosen.
Beethoven's "Grosse Fuge" invites - almost forces - the interpreters to such excesses (when a quartet really gets turned on by it, you can hear a bit of sandpaper on the strings). But the Quartetto Italiano resisted the temptation and produced instead an interpretation perfectly proportioned and somewhat smaller than the music's final possibilities. Freire gave a similar treatment to Liszt's "Apres une Lesture de Dante" and to "Gaspard"; Chopin's Sonata in B minor drew a more impassioned effort from him, but never the sense that he was taxing his technique or enlarging his identification with the music.
There is nothing at all wrong with this kind of performance, and may be a necessity of jet-set tours where the same program is used again and again. But it is a bit like a TV dinner would be if it were made of really good ingredients.