Different the Second Time: Variation Brings Life to the Music

I was listening recently to a new operatic recital disc of bel canto arias sung by the remarkable young tenor Juan Diego Florez. Some of the scenes were rarities, but there were some old chestnuts too. The most familiar of all was the famous aria "Una furtiva lagrima" from L'elisir d'amore. As Florez finished the first verse and began the second, my wife and I, already impressed by the beauty, ease, and intelligence of his singing, were totally taken aback. He added variation to the second verse, instead of repeating it exactly as it went the first time. Some singers will vary the dynamics in a second verse, singing softly a phrase that was loud the first time around. Or they may change the phrasing. But Florez added and changed notes -- varying the tune in a way that I would imagine Donizetti actually had in mind, and that singers in his day knew how to do. The effect of Florez's variations was captivating and engrossing, and it did not lose its impact on repeated hearings. 

It got me thinking about the way repeats are rendered in our concert-hall performances. Certainly it's impossible to imagine orchestras improvising variations for repeated sections. But when a repeat is taken, in recitals or even in concertos, it would be nice to hear the soloist play around with the melodic line a bit. So many performances I have come across are given with the repeat taken precisely in the manner of the first statement -- not merely the same notes, but the exact same tempo, dynamics, and phrasing. To me this makes no sense, especially today, when we know the score far better than listeners did in the 18th century. Remember, in Beethoven's time even a conscientious listener might have only gotten to hear the Eroica Symphony a half dozen times in his life. Today, with electronic reproduction and long subscription seasons, serious listeners have heard it fifty or a hundred times, and the repeat doesn't serve its old function of impressing the principal musical ideas in our minds. 

Therefore, if a conductor is going to take repeats, he ought to consider using the second statement of the exposition to develop the performance, to propel it in some direction, and to introduce some new ideas to the articulation and phrasing of the music. Clearly this cannot be capricious, or different purely for the sake of being different, but it does seem to me it would add some dramatic shape and momentum to a performance. And it is so clear to me that adding the unexpected, bringing the element of surprise into the concert hall, has to be a positive development. I'm sure someone will accuse me of promoting a "cheap trick" or something like that, but I don't think so at all. Every piece of literature that we read telling us about the life of classical music in the 18th and 19th centuries indicates an element of theater, of the unexpected, of drama, that is all too often missing today.

And this reminds me of a set of old 78 RPM records I once had containing Bruckner's Fifth Symphony, performed by (I believe) the Saxon State Symphony under Karl Böhm. Side 11 (if I remember correctly) was the first part of the third movement, the Scherzo. Side 12 was the middle section, the Trio. Sides 13-18, perhaps, were the finale. As I'm sure you know, dear reader, the Scherzo repeats itself after the Trio in any classically structured symphony. So how did this work?  Simple. The label of side 12 said something like, "please play side 11 again before proceeding to side 13."  How's that for a truly unvaried repeat?

August 29, 2008 10:54 AM |



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