What Historical Recordings Can Tell Us about "Authentic" Performance

Last week I wrote about Kenneth Hamilton's After the Golden Age, a book that illuminates the variety of performance styles prevalent in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I recommended it for anyone interested in the history of performance styles in classical music, particularly music of the Romantic era.  It fascinates (and frustrates) me that we have experienced over the past 20 or 30 years a serious and valuable interest in what is called "authentic performance practice" for Baroque and 18th-century music, but we have not seen a similar interest among performing musicians and those who write about music in appropriate performance practice for 19th - and early 20th - century music. 
In our music schools, for example, does anyone ever expose students to recordings by musicians whose careers overlapped with the great composers of the 19th century? We have hundreds of such recordings, featuring singers who worked with Verdi, Puccini and Wagner as well as conductors and instrumental soloists who knew or worked with (or whose careers overlapped with the lives of) Brahms, Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, and Mahler.

How many young musicians have studied Willem Mengelberg's recording of Mahler's Fourth Symphony? And of those, how many have mocked its supposed excesses, without knowing that in 1904 Mengelberg sat in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and listened to all of Mahler's rehearsals and performance of that piece, and marked his score with what he heard--using it for the rest of his life? How many young singers have listened to the tenor Fernando de Lucia's recording of "L'anima ho stanca" from Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, scowling at its "distortions," its extreme rubatos, its long-held diminuendos, without knowing that the composer himself was accompanying the tenor at the piano? Have any violin students listened to Bronislaw Huberman play the Brahms Concerto in a style far freer than anyone would dare play it today, never knowing that the fourteen-year-old Huberman played it in a concert attended by Brahms? Not only that, but Brahms wrote a very laudatory note in Huberman's score at the concert's end.

I know that I sound like a broken record on this subject (for those of us old enough to remember what a "record" is), but the sameness that inhabits our concert halls today is, at times, almost numbing. Performers who might even think about straying too far from that center line of "just playing the printed notes" will find themselves beaten into submission by their teachers, their colleagues, and the critics.

While I've written on this subject many times, I could and should go one better. I could give you specific examples to experience, if you wish. For those of you who are intrigued by this subject but unfamiliar with the vast world of "historic" recordings, here is a brief list that I believe can open up a new world of experiencing music. Some of these performers did overlap with the great 19th-century composers. Others came later, but chose to tie themselves to that tradition. The list is certainly not all-inclusive, and I welcome additions to it by readers. But I can say that I find all of these recordings to be revelatory in their spontaneity, and in the conviction and passion they display. They are capable of opening any listener's ears to new thinking about music.

MAHLER: Symphony No. 4. Jo Vincent, soprano; Willem Mengelberg, conductor; Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. Pristine Audio PASCD 055, which is available from Pristine Audio's website and is the best transfer of this live 1939 broadcast.

TCHAIKOVSKY: Violin Concerto. Bronislaw Huberman, violin; William Steinberg, conductor; Berlin Staatskapelle. BEETHOVEN: Violin Concerto. Huberman, violin; George Szell, conductor; Vienna Philharmonic. Naxos 8.110903

IGNAZ FRIEDMAN: The complete recordings, Volume 1. Ignaz Friedman was one of the most creative, colorful, individualistic of pianists, and this first volume of his records, wonderfully transferred by Ward Marston, is a great introduction. Naxos 8.110684. You might find yourself wanting the other volumes in the set after you've experienced this one.

BRAHMS: Symphony No. 1. Wilhelm Furtwängler, conductor; North German Radio Orchestra, Hamburg. This is the single recording I'd choose to introduce someone to Furtwängler's conducting. Music and Arts CD-4941 is a complete Brahms set with great Furtwängler performances, and I'd recommend that box as a great buy.

JOSEF HOFMANN: Here is another pianist from a bygone era, who played with a flexibility, warm legato, and singing tone that are just not encountered today. For an introduction to the set, I would recommend Volume 4 of the complete Hofmann, on VAI Audio VAIA/IPA 1047.

FERNANDO DE LUCIA: Opera arias and songs. This two-disc set (Pearl 9071) captures the last truly great pre-Caruso tenor to make significant recordings. This is singing with a freedom that might astonish you, but it does include the aria from Adriana Lecouvreur mentioned above, in which the tenor is accompanied by Cilea himself--which to me suggests that composers expected this kind of interpretive freedom. De Lucia's singing will take some getting used to--his vibrato is very strong by today's standards--but it is worth recognizing that the important composers of the day (Puccini, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Giordano) all wanted him to sing their operas.

ROSSINI: The Barber of Seville. Riccardo Stracciari (Figaro); Dino Borgioli (Almaviva); Mercedes Capsir (Rosina); Lorenzo Molajoli, conductor; La Scala Orchestra. This 1929 recording has a sense of spirit, abandon, and spontaneity that is almost never heard in modern opera recordings. And it has truly great singing from Stracciari and Borgioli. It has been available on many labels, including EMI, Grammofono, and Musica Memoria. I'd recommend Googling it to find out what is currently available.

GYÖRGY CZIFFRA: Paraphrases and Transcriptions. Hungaraton 31596.  If you want to hear wild, abandoned, free-style piano playing with impeccable technique, this disc has it. Cziffra--a great pianist whose career was shortened in part by the tragic death of his son in a motorcycle accident, which devastated Cziffra--was one of the monster technicians of the mid-20th century. This is thrilling pianism.

January 23, 2009 4:17 PM | | Comments (4)



The issue is not "playing the notes" vs. individual interpretation so much as making sense with one's interpretation. That is what engages and thrills listeners.

Yes, we must be profoundly grateful for the legecay of recordings left to us by legendary musicians of the past.
But I am frankly sick and tired of the constant use of old recordings as sticks with which to bash today's young musicians, as well as older and established ones.
The notion that all of today's classical musicians have no individuality and offer nothing but"cookie-cutter" performances is one which I reject absolutely. This is a myth.
Any age that has the likes of such greats as Gergiev, Kremer,Pletnev, Barenboim, Eschenbach,
Fleming,Terfel, Hampson,Levine, etc, to name only a handful, has nothing to be ashamed of.
These are all highly individual, imaginative and compelling musicians,and no one could accuse them of being carbon copies of other musicians ! Like them or not, you cannot dismiss them lightly.

Oh, Henry, that's some list of recordings! You left out what Furtwangler can do with Brahms 4th, however...Would any conductor today blaze through the first movement coda like he did? As for your statement "How many young musicians have studied Willem Mengelberg's recording of Mahler's Fourth Symphony?" my inclination was to say I'd hope ALL of them. You're telling me today's students are unfamiliar with Mengelberg, Hofmann, and Friedman, and others? Sad. I agree with you about the uniform sameness, though I think the clouds are starting to lift a little. I've heard some daring cadenzas and interesting interpretations in the playing of some recent soloists. But the recording machine, along with easy and casual access to music and all the other arts, has in some ways done more harm than good. How well to do we really LISTEN today? When I was in Salzburg and Vienna in '06, I got so sick of all the tributes to "The Divine Mozart," with everyone talking about his happy, sunny music, not apparently hearing everything past the cheery glaze. (And the glaze itself often isn't all that cheery.) "Why is Moe-zart the greatest composer ever?" gushed some woman in a taped museum tribute to Wolfie who was identified as some sort of music education specialist. "Because he gives us faith in life!" she practically yelled. I pity anyone who has been "educated" by this woman and those like her. People need to stop talking, praising, cheering, and promoting music and start *listening* to it more. Anyway, great post, Henry, as usual.

Henry, you're amazing. This is such a wonderful topic! I agree with you, in that Ignaz Friedman was a wonderful artist. I may add Moritz Rosenthal for the piano afficionados out there. And, since I came from the studio of Adele marcus, her long lost recordings are now available on cd. These are recordings found in her apartment closet after she passed away--what a treasure buried in the closet! The Liszt b minor Sonata, well, not sure if it can be topped. Cziffra--yes indeed--you can catch some of his playing at YouTube. As for me, Josef Lhevinne was one of my idols! Great topic, Henry! I wonder if those letters by Brahms are available on the internet to see?

Thanks. You've mentioned a number of my own favorites too. As for those Brahms letters, I'm not at all sure if they're available on the Internet - sadly my schedule doesn't give me as much time as I wish it did to do that kind of research.


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