It was the first day of the third roughly-biennial Stanford symposium on historical performance practice as revealed in ancient recordings, and I managed to get to a few of the sessions and the concert.
Some guy who calls himself a "sound archaeologist" used recorded examples to try to convince us that three performances of the same Schubert song were stylistically diverse enough to count as different works. That depends on where you're coming from. Anyone familiar with pop music cover versions would stare at that claim in disbelief. Then he tried to convince us that early Brahms piano recordings with deliberately sloppy articulation were better than ones with even articulation. Maybe for you, buster, but not for me. (His "bad" example was Dame Myra Hess. I always liked old Dame Myra.)
Another presenter, British by nationality, employed his countrymen's noted rhetorical tick of proclaiming an intention of discarding the baby with the bathwater (his choice of metaphor) to see how provocative he could be. Like the sound archaeologist (and, indeed, like 99% of the speakers at any of these conferences) he decries the modern "geometric" style of playing that presents the notes as they appear on the page and extols the older "vitalist" style in which the score is only a suggestion, a beginning point for an individual interpretation. (Terms from Richard Taruskin, the big looming physically-absent presence - he was going to be here, but he's in the hospital - at this conference.) Where the presenter's argument led him into intellectual incoherence was in describing adherence to the score as elevating the composer into a "fascistic dictator." Wouldn't the neo-vitalist project of unearthing and worshipfully reproducing the style of the composer's own 1903 sound recordings (presenter-provided example) be a potentially worse fascistic dictator than following the score? (Not that the guys in this project have gone that far; but is any "geometric" performer really doing that either?) On top of which, he explained that the "vitalist" style died out because, via its perceived elevation of German music as emotionally superior to all others, it got sucked into Nazi ideology and was thereby discredited. Weren't the Nazis actual fascistic dictators? In his conclusion he briefly noted that slavery to vitalism would be bad too, but his estimate of the relative dangers seems misjudged. And this from a guy who also considers the interchangeable artistry of the "geometric" style to be an economic conspiracy to save money on rehearsal time.
The evening concert aimed to provide contemporary examples of older-style performance as inspired by records. The problem for me is that I can't really hear that if I don't already know the work. Lieder by Clara (instead of Robert) Schumann, and a surprisingly witty trio for the "we need to back-order this" combo of oboe, horn, and piano by the oft-cited but rarely heard Carl Reinecke were pleasant to listen to, but if they showed the claimed asynchronicity of timing or expressively variable tempos, you couldn't prove it by me. Then there was Rachmaninoff's suite for 2 pianos, Op. 17. That one I have heard before. This was a more enjoyable performance than Music@Menlo gave: more incisive, more varietal, and frankly sounding more like Rachmaninoff. Was that because the performers, Stanford piano pedagogues Kumaran Arul and George Barth (also conveners of the conference) were conspicuously out of sync in some passages? Maybe, but if so I don't see how. I think it was because they were just interested in playing the music and didn't try to make a show out of it.