Some pieces of music are really hard to perform, but audiences don't really care any more. Mendelssohn Symphonies are a killer for the woodwind, and don't even mention Schumann's Second to a violinist. These days, the standard of professional orchestras and choirs is high, almost uniformly so when it comes to technical matters. So the work that goes into reaching that level is taken as read. Conductors do their best to make us aware that their ensembles are fearless in the face of demanding music, but it always seems to fall on deaf ears.
Last Saturday, Mark Elder was on the radio taking about the two Ring Cycle instalments he has recently recorded with the Hallé. Almost everything he said was about the difficulty of the music, and about the collective psychology that the orchestra had adopted just to face these scores. But discussion of Wagner seems so alien when framed in these terms. Elder mentioned, as if it was a commonly-known fact, that Götterdämmerung is by far the hardest of the four operas to perform. That makes sense, but I'd never thought of it like that. You go along to a Wagner performance and you just assume that everybody involved is on top of the music. But take a look in the score – every single performer gets a real workout, and you can't say that about many operas.
At the other end of the classical world sits John Eliot Gardiner. (Although saying that, has anyone ever suggested Wagner to him?) He's currently on home turf with a new recording of the Bach Motets out this month. The cover image is of the high-wire artist, Philippe Petit. Gardiner is making the point that these works are extraordinarily difficult to sing. He writes in the liner that they make 'colossal demands on everyone who performs them.' But we'll have to take his word for it, because the (live) performance on the recording is immaculate. More to the point, the singers make it sound easy, which it evidently is not. However, comparison with some of the lesser recordings on the market soon brings those 'colossal demands' into sharp focus.
So what is the solution? It seems that conductors in particular will continue using every avenue available to emphasise the musical difficulties their ensembles face. The performers themselves, the singers and orchestral musicians, get too few opportunities to tell their side of the story. The curious result is that, even the musicians who make up the most venerable ensembles tend to find their individual contributions taken for granted. We need a bit more empathy all round, and we should take every chance we get to celebrate the fact that professional orchestras can play all the notes.