AJ Logo an ARTSJOURNAL weblog | ArtsJournal Home | AJ Blog Central

« Formality in concert: have we gone too far? | Main | Excellence out West, Part 1: The Boise Philharmonic »

November 26, 2007

What is an authentic performance?

I'm a bit of a freak for historic recordings - recordings made roughly in the first half of the 20th century. What I find odd in today's music world is that while we earnestly try to come close to what we believe to be authentic performance practice in music of the 16th - 18th centuries (the so-called "historically informed performance," or HIP, movement), there seems only limited interest in getting close to the spirit that might have imbued performances of 19th- and early 20th-century repertoire. This despite the fact that in the case of that music, we actually have recorded evidence from performers who overlapped with the great composers of that era...

What I believe we can learn from those recordings is that composers of that era did not expect blind fidelity to the printed notes in the score, but more likely considered those notes to be more of a starting point for performances, just as playwrights do not expect every actor to inflect the words they wrote in the same way, or even necessarily the way the playwright imagined them.

One can start with Mahler. We have recordings of Mahler symphonies by five conductors who were professional conductors while Mahler was alive, and who spent some time with him. One of those, F. Charles Adler, was not a major international figure - but the other four were: Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter, Willem Mengelberg, and Oskar Fried. The latter is not as well known today, but actually made the first complete recording of a Mahler symphony - the Second - in a 1925 acoustical recording that stands today as a remarkable document of its time.

Each of these four conductors actually worked with Mahler, and knew him well. Each heard Mahler conduct his own music. If you get to know the Mahler recordings of these four conductors, what strikes you is how different they are from each other. If you don't know the 1939 live broadcast recording of the Fourth Symphony conducted by Mengelberg, you should (you can easily Google it and locate CDs). I cannot imagine a conductor today who would dare to exercise the freedom, the flexibility, and the wide use of rubato and portamento effects that we hear in this performance. And yet, in 1904, Mengelberg sat in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam at every single rehearsal led by Mahler of that same work, and marked his score with Mahler's effects. Is it possible that what we hear in Mengelberg's recording is closer to the Mahlerian spirit than a performance that accurately reproduces the note values on the page? Is it possible that the wide differences between Klemperer, Walter, Mengelberg, and Fried tell us that composers expected an interpretive element to be added to performances?

There is a wonderful recording made in 1902 of an aria from the opera Adriana Lecouvreur by the tenor Fernando de Lucia. This performance would, by today's rather puritanical standards, be considered wildly excessive. Note values are stretched to more than twice their printed lengths, a long-held high note with a remarkable diminuendo would seem to some ears today to be mere showing off of the tenor's remarkable technique. But then one learns that the works' composer, Francisco Cilea, is accompanying the tenor at the piano - echoing each "distortion" with conviction and evident pleasure, and we have more documented proof that interpretive freedom and variety from performance to performance may indeed have been precisely what 19th-century composers expected when they put notes to paper.

Yet another strong piece of evidence is the violin playing of Bronislaw Huberman - whose recordings of concertos by Tchaikovsky and Brahms (and of Lalo's Symphonie espagnol) also demonstrate a flexibility and freedom virtually unthinkable today. And we learn that the 14-year old Huberman played the Brahms Concerto for an audience that included Brahms, who visited him backstage and wrote a very effusive dedication to the performer on his score. When Huberman complained that the audience applauded after the cadenza in the first movement, interrupting the final coda, Brahms is quoted as having responded: "Well then, you shouldn't have played it so beautifully."

I am not promoting sloppiness or undisciplined excess in performance practice today. But I guess I am suggesting that performers should be given - by critics, by academicians and pedagogues, by other musicians - more latitude than today's rather puritanical atmosphere seems to allow. It just might add the excitement of the unexpected to our concert life - and it might also be "historically informed."

Posted by hfogel at November 26, 2007 3:06 PM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


I find the historically informed performances of Baroque music bracing precisely because many of them give more latitude to the interpreter than had previously been given, throwing off the shackles of motoric rhythm and letting ornamentation run amok. I suspect people are reluctant to deviate too much from the standard interpretations now precisely because they have been promulgated so effectively through recordings. But I sure do love it sometimes when I hear someone playing "inappropriately" but with thought and passion behind the notes. Maybe I don't want a recording of it, but it can be quite thrilling live. (And maybe I should want a recording of it! Who knows.)

Posted by: Lindemann at November 26, 2007 3:46 PM

Great, Henry! Two other examples I love...Listen to Rachmaninoff's recordings of his piano concerti following a score, and you will see crescendos where it is marked diminuendo and visa versa! It's a real eye opener! Another is Copland rehearsing Appalachian Spring...and asking the orchestra to make a crescendo where he states, "I didnt write it, but it has become a tradition, and I LIKE it!..."

Posted by: Larry Eckerling at November 27, 2007 7:33 AM

I must respectfully disagree with your comments about authenticity in performance.
There are many great musicians today who are not the least bit pedantically literal interpreters, and they are anything but carbon copies of each other.Are Perlman and Kremer indistinguishable from each other? Not at all.Do Gergiev,Salonen, Chailly and Rattle conduct the same way? Absolutely not.Of course old recordings are extremely valuable and fascinating,but the way those musicians from the past is not necessarily the only way to interpret music.
Critics are constantly complaining about the supposdly literal interpretations and alleged lack of individuality of today's classical musicians, yet I wish I had a dollar for every review I have read in recent years in which they were mercilessly lambasted for the liberties they took with the music.
Those same critics would praise musicians from the past for interpreting the music the same way.
There is too much uncritical worship of old recordings,and too much cynical dismissal of today's musicians.Let's face it,there is a double standard.Thank you.Robert Berger,New Rochelle,New York.

I didn't mean to imply that all performers today were carbon copies of each other, and if I did that is my failure. But I did wish to make the point, and still believe it, that the range of interpretive possibilities has narrowed considerably from what it was 50 and 75 years ago, and that is, for me, not a positive development.


Posted by: robert berger at November 27, 2007 10:22 AM

As a musician preparing excerpts for orchestra auditions, it always felt as if there was very little room for interpretation beyond the "standard." Coloring outside of the lines seemed like a death wish - a sure fire way to get kicked out of a preliminary round. I think it would be pretty interesting to ponder how spending so much of one's time trying to fit your music-making into such a mold does when you are free to interpret a work (solo/chamber) as desired.

Posted by: Michael at November 27, 2007 3:02 PM

Well said, Mr. Fogel. The Mengelberg/Concertgebouw Mahler 4th is a great example of what an orchestra of that time could do. I adore the freshness and effortlessness the music seems to have: the musicians don't seem to labor under the weight of a tradition or a practice, they are liberated by it. These recordings inspire me to no end, and I can't imagine what these ensembles must have been like in the hall. The daring and risk taking that took place makes me think that the whole "scene" was much more alive. I'm a student conductor, and the prospect of trying to revive any element of this era's practice is both enticing and daunting... It's very nice to hear that someone else out there, has also been moved by these older recordings. Mengelberg's Tchaickovsky 5th is another riveting recording from this era (the portamento in the second movement is amazing), as is Nikisch's Beethoven 5th with Berlin from 1913...

Posted by: Garry Kling at November 29, 2007 12:35 AM