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Music performed at home was one of the defining experiences of the 19th-century bourgeoisie. It inspired some of the greatest masterpieces of what has become the concert repertoire - especially songs and solo piano pieces - as well as a lot of underrated music that is less often heard publicly, precisely because it was designed to be performed by friends, such as vocal ensembles with piano, and pieces for four hands. Thanks to the gramophone and its successor technologies, the tradition of performing at home has largely died out. Every so often, though, friends ask musicians to play at home, or musicians want to try out a new programme in a friendly environment, and Hausmusik, as the Germans call it, is resurrected.

Of course, performing tricky or emotionally exposing music to an audience of friends or acquaintances a couple of feet from you - literally spitting distance if you're a singer - in somebody's drawing room, is often far more intimidating than standing on the stage of La Scala or Carnegie Hall. And being in the audience can also be challenging. A couple of weeks ago, a friend asked about 20 of us to come to a party with music, only announcing once we'd all arrived that we would be hearing Zemlinsky's piano transcription of Mahler's 6th Symphony as the centrepiece of the evening's entertainment. Even the most committed Mahlerians among us found the prospect of an hour and 20 minutes of piano transcription for four hands in a smallish room daunting. As it turned out, it was one of the most memorable musical experiences of my life - transparent and compelling, lacking the rhetorical, clever orchestration that, as with Mahler's songs, often overwhelms the directness and authenticity of the musical material.

The Mahler was followed by something utterly different. Marina Poplavskaya, the Russian soprano who has just been playing Elisabetta in Verdi's Don Carlo at Covent Garden, sang an unaccompanied Russian folk song, something about love and magic, melancholy, heartbreak. I can't remember exactly. It doesn't matter, though at the time the words (which I couldn't follow) were a crucial part of the experience, of its emotional contours and emotional impact. It was timeless and itself magical. It embodied something that is, for me, at the same time the touchstone of great performance and almost impossible to capture in words: authenticity.

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