Saturday, April 14, 2012

reactions to Reactions to the Record, day 2

Spent the day sitting motionless in an auditorium seat, watching highly educated professionals on stage battle with their computers over who was going to be in charge of which slides the computer projected or what music samples it played: them or the computer. Usually the speaker eventually won out, but it was always a struggle.

Another couple of British professors, amid much other intriguing material on the history of violin playing (with actual demonstrations, thus inserting a welcome note of the genuinely practical into the proceedings), asked the interesting question: to what degree do really old recordings sound quaint because the performing style has actually changed, and to what degree is it just because they're really old recordings with really weird and sucky sound quality?

Actually, this question had already been answered earlier in the morning by an undergraduate presenter, who played a clip of Pablo Casals' first Bach recording. This was 1915, long before such habits were widely disseminated, but there's Casals playing with the firm vibrato and richness of tone that resemble how cellists normally play today. And the sound quality doesn't stand in the way of that perception at all. So when the great violinist Joseph Joachim in a recording from 1903 sounds like a nasal insect, maybe it's because he really did play like a nasal insect.

Next: theories, rather plaintively presented, on how to revive interest in classical music. Turn concerts from theme presentations back into the variety shows they were in the 19C. (Um, when was the last decade that variety shows were booming on TV?) Encourage applause between movements. (I'll go along with that one, as long as it doesn't become obligatory and hence perfunctory.) And the big one: step away from the identikit performance style and allow performers to express their individuality, the way actors do. (That may help, but not as much as you think, because the range of performing possibilities in classical music is just not that wide, and it includes "nasal insect.") Nice try, though. Proved that it helps out Scriabin a heck of a lot, at least.

Nicholas McGegan, conductor of the Philharmonia Baroque, rambled on entertainingly about the practical challenges of running a period ensemble. Among them, the strong acoustic differences among venues, which often requires re-rehearsing a performance with different parameters, like tempo, for each venue. He said they've got a church that looks like an International House of Pancakes [I call it the Concrete Tent myself] but has nice sound, another church resembling "a very elegant bathroom," and a theatre that's "as dry as James Bond's martini." Also dry: McGegan's wit.

And another one of those overenthusiastic people who wave around their artifacts of the composer's intent as if they were the holy tablets being brought down from Mount Sinai. This time the composer was Mahler, and the tablets were a score of his Fourth marked up by Willem Mengelberg with (what it said were) Mahler's instructions, and an attendant recording (made long after Mahler's time, of course). This was interesting, because I'd just gotten to the point in Robert Philip's book where he discusses how Mengelberg was his own man and didn't necessarily do exactly what Mahler wanted. Then you have to explain Bruno Walter, another conductor who worked even more closely with Mahler and carried his imprimatur, but whose performances came out quite differently. Presenter tried to square the circle by calling Walter "authorized" and Mengelberg "authentic." wtf does that distinction mean? Philip says that they both had their own styles and that Mahler, like most conducting composers, may have had his own preferences but was less interested in dictating specifics on other conductors than in ensuring that they made his music sound good, which allows for differing interpretations. That makes more sense to me.

In the evening, a concert by the Russian Chamber Orchestra, a group almost but not quite ready for prime time, flipping "period-style" Baroque performance on its head by playing two Handel concerti grosso (Opp. 6/2 and 6/10) and one Bach Brandenburg (No. 5) in the period style of the early-mid 20C. As one of the conductors whose recordings were being used as a model was Furtwängler, not surprisingly this meant: big, heavy, slow, lugubrious. Worked out pretty well, though. After Kumaran Arul played the keyboard cadenza of the Brandenburg (on a full-size modern Steinway, because that's what they used in those far-off days of the 20C, and at about a quarter of the speed that today's harpsichordists tend to buzz it off in, too), the final cadence of the movement came thundering down with a weighty inevitability like I've never heard in a Baroque performance before. The inter-movement applause after that one was spontaneous, and deserved.

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