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?
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