As the deadline for my readers to enter the Blog of the Courtier birthday contest approaches, we continue with this week’s theme of looking at people who embody some element of “sprezzatura”: that kind of effortless, self-effacing grace which Count Castiglione, the patron of this blog, thought that courtiers should aspire to achieve in their work and lifestyle. Today we look at two musicians whose recordings I have always enjoyed, cellist Pierre Fournier and pianist Sir Clifford Curzon. One of the reasons I appreciate their respective efforts is that both men clearly love what they are doing, and want to perform each piece as perfectly as possible. Moreover they each have a certain indescribable something – a kind of innate good taste one senses in their playing, that sets them apart and which embodies, I believe, Castiglione’s ideal of sprezzatura.
Before we take a look at these two musicians whom you should get to know, let me offer an important caveat. I love classical music, as indeed I do many diverse genres of music, from Gospel to Hardcore; the first album I ever owned was a recording of Haydn’s “Surprise” and “Toy” symphonies, which I received at about the age of 3. I grew up in a musical household where everyone sang or played an instrument, I took piano lessons for many years, as well as pipe organ lessons, and I sang in both church and school choirs.
That being said, I am no musicologist. I know what I like, but I do not hold myself out to be an expert on music, any more than I am on wine, coffee, etc. Therefore, if you are seeking something more than the opinion of an armchair aficionado, I suggest that you look elsewhere to those more educated than I. My hope is simply to introduce some of you, who may not be aware of them, to the work of these two great musicians, and for those of you already familiar with their work, to have you reflect on whether they do, in fact, embody the ideal of sprezzatura in their recordings.
French cellist Pierre Fournier (1906-1986) is often called the “aristocrat of cellists”, and it is not hard to understand why. There is a confident, upright style to the way he plays a piece of music, eschewing any kind of exaggeration which, appropriately for our discussion, always strikes me as very courtly. As an example of his brilliance, I would point to Fournier’s 1961 album of Bach’s 6 Suites for Solo ‘Cello. I particularly like his interpretation of these compositions, because there is a definite sprezzatura in these recordings, beginning with the familiar first movement of the first concerto, and continuing all the way through, though especially notable in the 5th suite.
I always feel as though Fournier approaches the music as something that is to be played bearing in mind what the composer intended, rather than as a set of parameters to be ignored as one wishes. He keeps the pace of the music going steadily, as to my mind I would expect a musician of the early 18th century performing for members of an aristocratic court to have done. Much as I may appreciate the work of the arguably-more-famous Miroslav Rastropovich on recordings of Romantic period composers such as Dvořák, I always think that fooling around with Baroque music and trying to romanticize it leads to a loss of focus. Trying to turn Bach into Grieg just does not work, and Fournier always understands this.
And speaking of Grieg, let us turn to the work of British pianist Sir Clifford Curzon (1907-1982), a contemporary of Fournier. I have never been able to determine whether the two of them ever recorded together, but I suspect if they did that it was either a great joy in the meeting of two kindred spirits, or it was a complete shambles. For Curzon, like Fournier, was a perfectionist when it came to his recordings, but unlike Fournier, Curzon was possessed of what became a legendary level of stage fight, to the point that he could completely botch a performance because of nerves. In the last few years of his life Curzon was hardly able to perform at all, whereas Fournier was giving concerts and recitals almost until he was 80.
Curzon’s 1959 recording of the Grieg A Minor Piano Concerto, with Oivin Fjeldstad conducting the London Symphony Orchestra has become, for me anyway, THE recording of this piece. When I am out and about somewhere, perhaps driving or in a shop, and the Grieg A Minor comes on the radio, somehow I can always tell whether or not it is this Curzon recording. I say this not because there is anything noticeably strange about it, but because there is, like with Fournier’s recordings, a kind of intangible, gracious quality. In this case, after the thunder of the 1st movement, the 2nd movement makes you want to take a small boat and glide off into a fjord, with some Nordic maiden sitting astern, languidly trailing her hand through the water. I have heard many other recordings of the Grieg, but the combination of passion and perfection which Curzon set out to achieve in his work makes this particular example my favorite.
Count Castiglione writes a great deal about the power of music in his “Book of the Courtier”, explaining that music itself, as well as the ability to perform it well, are gifts from God. “We find it used in holy temples to render praise and thanks to God,” Castiglione writes in Part I. “And we must believe that it is pleasing to Him, and that He has given it to us as most sweet alleviation for our fatigues and troubles.”
It is no surprise, then, that Castiglione goes on to write that the ideal amateur musician is one who embodies the same spirit of sprezzatura in his musical performance, as he does in all other aspects of his life:
As to music I hold the same opinion: hence I would not have our Courtier behave like many, who are no sooner come anywhere (even into the presence of gentlemen with whom they have no acquaintance), than without waiting to be urged they set about doing what they know and often what they do not know; so that it seems as if they had come only for the purpose of showing themselves, and had that for their chief profession. Therefore let the Courtier resort to music as a pastime and almost unwillingly, and not before vulgar people nor very many. And although he may know and understand that which he is doing, in this too I would have him hide the study and pains that are necessary in everything one would do well, and seem to value this accomplishment lightly in himself, but by practicing it admirably make others value it highly.
No doubt both Fournier and Curzon had to perform before some rather vulgar people in their day, and both were professional musicians rather than professional courtiers. Yet each embodies this ideal of Castiglione in their playing, a kind of perfectionism that is kept hidden, making the sound of their recordings seem effortless, and without exaggeration. Both of them are well-worth getting to know, as musicians whose sound comes about as close to sprezzatura in classical music as one can get.