Saturday, July 21, 2012

Music @ Menlo, day 1

So the Menlo Festival has started, and I've spent there the first of several scattered days over the next three weeks. My formal reviews of some of the big evening concerts come later, and otherwise I'm contenting myself with the free events, the lectures and the "prelude" concerts. The preludes are performed by the junior international artists, and very worthwhile they often are. Today's was a good workmanlike program, with a fine Dvorak Op. 87 Piano Quartet, solving that problematic work with a lyrical shine and a strongly folklike swing. The scherzo didn't jangle, nor the Lento rise to passion, but the outer movements were courtly and enjoyable, a more notable achievement. It was paired with Haydn's Lark Quartet, likewise gentle and reserved.

The lecture was on the currently fashionable topic of examining composers' original manuscripts to determine their intent. This is much easier these days due to extensive online archives. Cellist and festival co-director David Finckel, using Julliard's manuscript collection, went over the manuscript of Beethoven's Op. 127 quartet's scherzo and his own photographs of the score of Dvorak's Dumky Trio, which he took in Prague (this manuscript is not online). Some of the assumptions arrived at by this process seem to me to be questionable - if a particular cluster of notes or a direction in a ms. appears to have been written in before or after the rest, does that make it more or less important, and which is which? or, if one passage was written down in its final form the first time, while another was crossed out and rewritten several times, does that mean the composer cared less about the exact notes in the second case? - but if it serves the cause of making performers think deeply about the music, any fancy stories they come up with can be for the good. Finckel burbled, something he rarely does, as he described finding two pages in Dvorak's score which had been glued together by the composer. Prying them apart (!), he found the passage from the next, unglued, page, only written differently, with lots of tremolos and grace notes not in the final score. So does this mean that you should play the passage with a stronger vibrato on the verge of tremolo (it was the composer's original idea), or does it mean that you shouldn't (he did reject it, and even went to the trouble of gluing it up)? And, unmentioned by Finckel or anyone else, this ties in with the history of performance style. At the time Dvorak wrote, custom was not to use vibrato except as a special effect. If we play with today's conspicuous vibrato, we're already most of the way to what Dvorak wrote on those cancelled pages, and to add more is merely to exaggerate it. This is a murkier subject than you perhaps suppose.

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