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February 8, 2008

More on Authentic Performances

Some time ago, I wrote a blog expressing some frustration with what I considered to be today's overly "puristic" approach to musical interpretation. I commented that there was significant documentary evidence from the first 50 or 60 years of recordings that in the period ending roughly around 1950 there was a wider range of interpretive possibilities than is the case today. And, I argued, this made for less predictability in our concert (and recording) life, which was a good thing...

Some people mis-construed what I said, and I'd like to clarify here. I most definitely did not mean to imply that any given performer on today's concert stages performs at a lower level than performers in the past. As I remember, one blogger expressed astonishment that I believed Muti, Abbado, Haitink, and other conductorial superstars were not as good as the conductors of old.

Actually, that was never my point. My point was that the range of difference between performances by those (admittedly masterful) conductors was far narrower than the interpretive gap that might be found between Mengelberg, Toscanini, Knappertsbusch, Monteux, Szell, and Furtwängler (to name just a few).

I recently obtained a CD from Japan that compiled the last recordings (mostly made in the late 1950s) of Mischa Elman. I was so struck by the uniqueness of the violin playing, the freedom and risk-taking demonstrated by Elman, that I set about comparing recordings of identical pieces by Elman, Heifetz, Kreisler, Hubermann, Milstein, Francescatti, and Stern. I continue to maintain the point that I was trying to make originally - the range of interpretive difference between those violinists is far wider than you would find today between masters of that instrument. This has nothing to do with quality of violin playing; and it is not meant as a criticism of any single violinist active in the past 20 or 30 years. And it is also not meant to imply (as another person inferred) that there is no difference between, say, Perlman and Kremer. But there is no question that what was considered an acceptable range of performance possibilities in "the old days" is far wider than is the case today. The evidence is there for anyone to hear, and it is irrefutable.

If you think that kind of freedom would appall the composers who wrote the music, the evidence is all to the contrary. Brahms is reported to have said to Nikisch, after hearing him conduct one of his symphonies, "so it is possible to do it that way too." And it was said with admiration. Composer Francesco Cilea accompanies tenor Fernando de Lucia in a 1902 recording of an aria from Adriana Lecouvreur, echoing every "distortion" of the written rhythm.

I don't know who it is that sets the allegedly permissible boundaries of music-making, but it is to those "guardians" of taste that I address myself. Can we take the shackles off and allow spontaneous, unpredictable, individual, and passionately different interpretive approach to bring greater variety into our concert life?

Posted by hfogel at February 8, 2008 10:49 AM

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With all due respect,
I still disagree with
the premise of your post.
I think you are
merely setting up a
straw man.
I have heard many
recent performances
of the same work that were vastly different
from each other.
I don't think that
there is any lack of
performances today
that are"spontaneous,
passionately different"
It puzzles me that
so many critics
complain that musicians
today are so
pedantically literal.I have read countless
reviews in which
performers in our time have been mercilessly
savaged for all the
liberties they took with the music.
Take the recent
Beethoven symphony
cycle by Milhail
Pletnev.Some found it
willful.But those same
critics would have
loved the same approach
by any of the most
famous conductors of the past.Somehow,It just
doesn't add up.
Critics insist on having it both ways.

I appreciate the thoughtfulness of your views, and understand the thinking behind them. Part of my issue, in fact, is the fact that the majority of critics do attack as "willful" any interpretations that stray from a safe center. I agree with you about Pletnev's excellent Beethoven cycle - but I believe it is a rarity today, rather than commonplace. In the early-middle twentieth century, you had performances by Furtwangler, Mengelberg, Stokowski, Toscanini, Knappertsbusch, Bohm, Monteux, Beecham, and Koussevitzky (to name just a few) that were all taking place in the same time frame, and were wildly different from each other. I do not believe that there are as many significant different approaches happening today, and I do not believe that overall the differences are as wide as they are. But one of the main points I have been trying to make is that such performances risk widespread critical approbation today, and on that you and I seem to agree.


Posted by: robert berger at February 9, 2008 4:07 PM

I completely agree with you: conductors and critics generally are adverse to taking risks. Orchestras, too, have become homogenized over the last four decades--there's an efficient "international" sound I've experienced in Seattle, LA, Köln, London and Rome. On the other hand, there are exceptions. In 2006 I heard John Axelrod conduct the Dresdner Philharmonie in the Korngold Symphony. Astonishing, overwhelming, like performance time travel. It was an orchestral sound, and a level of conducting, that Schuricht (even though Axelrod, a Bernstein pupil, has a very different podium style) would have found familiar. I suppose it's silly, but I still get misty just thinking about it.

Posted by: Galen Johnson at February 11, 2008 3:32 PM

I agree with Mr. Fogel, but would add, is there truly any conductor today who is on the level of Reiner, Furtwangler, Toscanini? Yes, there was greater interpretive freedom. They were also better!

Posted by: Marc Rubenstein at February 12, 2008 10:51 AM

I agree with your point about interpretive freedom of earlier conductors (though not with the subsequent comment that those earlier conductors were better; seems like the dead conductors are often better regarded than those still working).

I will leave to others to speculate as to why today's conductors and soloists seem to work within more of a straightjacket than in the old days, but I do have a theory about orchestras: modern audition processes. Music students today are often so thoroughly drilled about how to prepare excerpts for auditions - usually to be consistent and bullet-proof - that the personality is essentially beaten out of them. I sometimes wonder if some of the great orchestra players of the past 50-odd years (many of whom won their jobs in the "bad old days" when jobs were won in a much more informal manner than today) would win auditions in today's environment; the very qualities that made them special and distinctive might well split an audition committee and lead to their early elimination.

For all the criticisms orchestras like Cleveland or the Vienna Philharmonic get for the ir selection procedures, they and a few others have at least managed to maintain a relatively distinctive sound or style. That's one virtue of filling vacancies from a limited and perhaps stylistically compatible group of candidates.

Posted by: Marko Velikonja at February 12, 2008 1:57 PM

The notion that all
or most orchestras today sound the same is a
myth.It's impossible for
them to sound the same as
they consist of different
musicians playing different makes of
instruments in concert
halls with different
acoustical qualities.
I could never mistake a German orchestra for an
American one;the timbre of the woodwind and brass
sections is vastly different.Same with
other orchestras;the
Czech Philharmonic has
unmistakably "Czech" sound;I could never
mistake it for a non-
Czech orchestra.
Speaking as an un-
successful veteran of many auditions,the
audition process today
is basically this;
the audition committee
wants not only an
applicant who plays very well,but one whom they
feels fits in with the
section,and the
orchestra in general.
The process itself
can't make orchestras
sound alike.

Posted by: robert berger at February 14, 2008 9:18 AM