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."
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