Ed's talk: Jul 11, 2008

Friday, July 11, 2008

"Authentic" performances in the 21st Century

At this point in music history, after the so-called "original instruments"-"authentic" performances period, we have learned a good deal from it but I want to focus now on the latter part of the equation.

While I agree that it's best to work with as "authentic" a source as possible for an edition, I think it's pointless to think that there is such a thing as one authentic performance, even if the composer is performing it.

For example, I heard Igor Stravinsky conduct "Le Sacre" at Carnegie Hall back in the 60s. But what we were hearing was the music filtered through Stravinsky's then current aesthetic sensibilities and not how he may have performed it at the time he wrote it. And even so, does this make that performance "wrong"?

And even if we had a Stravinsky recording done exactly at the time of the first performance (Pierre Monteux actually was the original conductor), it's obvious that no composer, not even I.S, he of the no-interpretation school, ever performed one work the same way twice as shown by the recorded performances he did leave of the piece. The same is true of other, especially romantic composers who recorded extensively such as Elgar and Rachmaninoff who both left more than one version of a few specific pieces.

The opening of the Bach Chromatic Fantasie is made up of arpeggiated chords which I think, even if these are done in the simplest manner, that a pianist playing the piece would be "going against nature" not to use pedal on these chords! Doubling the lowest notes would also not be out of style when you consider the ability of the harpsichord to do the same an all the notes.

When Glenn Gould did his well-thought-of recordings of the Goldberg Variations, does anyone think they show any more "reality" than other performances? Yes, Gould's shaved hammers give an approximation of the harpsichord twang but I still think it's a "Ye Olde" approach which is also often reminiscent, IMHO, of squirrels scurrying.

And, it is thought that to be authentic in Mozart, you use very little pedal. While it's probably true the the pedals or, at least, knee levers on Wolfie's pianos were not as efficient as the modern piano pedal, that WAM used pedals or , at least, knee levers, is not in doubt. I don't want to hear a romantically heavy approach to this music but the idea that Mozart should be played drily is nonsense. And, even in Schubert's music, why would you want to treat it that same way, as many pianists still do?

Also the idea that Mozart's music should be played without rubato is also nonsense since Mozart himself describes a rubato surprisingly similar to Chopin's. (Following either composers' ideas would sound sloppy to modern ears. They both say that the left hand keeps strict time and the right goes ahead or behind the left Rarely in this case, would the hands be playing together. Therefore, modern pianists let the left hand follow the right in most cases.)

And finally, we have gone through many different musical styles over the centuries. Why would we think that we can turn the clock back on the way we listen to music? We need only to listen to early and mid-twentieth century recordings to realize how often performance style has changed. Even with a composer like Elgar who recorded his "Cockaigne" twice at least, one finds the later recording differs considerably from the earlier and not only in the presence or absence of the pipe organ but also in the degrees of rhythmic alterations and vibrato that were customary at each time.