It has been now perhaps 30 years since what was once called the “original instrument” movement in classical music took solid hold. Now usually referred to as the “historically-informed performance practice” movement (what a bureaucratic sounding phrase; I loathe it; there must be something better to call it), it has permeated not only the small bands of re-enactors (like Civil War re-enactors, really), but the mainstream classical music culture as a whole. Even when playing on modern instruments, performances are likely to be inflected by the historical re-enactor crowd.
And so, you get bouncy Beethoven and manic Mozart, often played with two or three fiddles to a part. It all sound anemic to me.
But I’ve been listening to the perfect antidote. I recommend you listen to the 1968 recording of The Antiphonal Music of Gabrieli, played by the combined brass sections of the Philadelphia, Cleveland and Chicago orchestras. It is absolutely glorious and I cannot imagine anyone coming away from listening to these choirs and not thinking “Wow!” and wishing they instead had heard the music on wheezing sackbutts and cornetts. (Sample here).
Or Glenn Gould in his 1955 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a disc that can still shock a listener with its energy and life. The re-enactors insist Johann Sebastian should only be played on a harpsichord, but there is no keyboard more prone to monotony of tone and expression than the clangy jangly ear-assault of a harpsichord. Give me Bach on a piano any day, whether Gould or Rosalyn Tureck or Daniel Barenboim or Jeremy Denk. (Sample Gould here).
Just listen to Hélène Grimaud play the Busoni transcription of the chaconne from the Bach second violin partita, listen to it build to a glorious climax, with such brilliant pianism. This is music. (Link here).
Now, before you go away thinking I am a cranky old codger refusing to move with the times, I assure you I recognize the benefit to humankind wrought by the young whippersnappers. As far back as 1978, I got on board when I purchased an LP set of Handel’s Op. 6 concerti grossi led by Franzjosef Maier with the Collegium Aureum. It was bright, energetic, forceful and clean. For me, it was a revelation, compared with those soggy older recordings I had on Nonesuch or Turnabout. Handel was freed from the concrete shoes he had been wearing since the 19th century. It was liberation.
Many a composer has benefited from the historically-informed performance practice and many of the old works have been rediscovered. Vivaldi, Telemann, Geminiani and others have been reborn with new interest in their works. Beyond the Four Seasons, we now have scores of recordings of Vivaldi’s operas and vocal works. And a host of French work by Lully, Couperin, Rameau.
It wasn’t all peaches and roses, however. Under the mistaken idea that “original instruments” would refresh just about anything, I bought another LP, this time of Handel’s Water Music played by La Grande Ecurie and La Chambre du Roy under Jean-Claude Malgoire. What a horrible sound they made, scratchy, whiny, out of tune and struggling with the notes. The horns in the minuet, about 20 minutes in, is enough to make your eyes water. It didn’t just put me off original instruments, it put me off my soup. (Sample the opening of the Royal Fireworks Music here).
Of course, in those prehistoric-instrument days, string players were way ahead of wind players, who had not yet quite figured out how to play the old hautbois and chalumeaux. Things have improved greatly since then and many old-music specialists have become quite virtuosic. Nowadays, you can buy a CD of some obscure Baroque composer and feel sure you’re getting the real goods.
But, of course, while the re-enactors have gotten better, there has been a down side, also. When you find a new plaything, you want to daub it everywhere, and so, we even now have “historically informed” Berlioz, Wagner, even Bruckner. Like mustard on watermelon.
The tenets of the historically informed have become a kind of dogma and doctrine, and it gets applied to everything. A recent recording of a Beethoven symphony had four first and second violins, two violas, two cellos and a single bass. That might work well for Vivaldi, but for Beethoven it is a travesty. When he had the opportunity, Beethoven himself preferred 20 first and second violins. Brahms, who is now offered with chamber orchestras (because he once did that at Meiningen), actually much preferred the Vienna orchestra with 68 string players.
A recent recording of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony was released, conducted by François-Xavier Roth, according to “historical” practice. All the rules were followed. A reviewer lauded the performance, writing, “Thanks to Roth’s fleet interpretation — he seems intent on freeing Mahler from excess romantic baggage — we hear details usually buried under bulbous bellows and portamento-laden strings.” I had a good laugh: Mahler went to great lengths to put that romantic baggage into the work.
I wonder if next we can expect an edition of Mark Twain with all the excess humor taken out, or perhaps a Picasso run through a computer program to rearrange those Cubist faces back into something more like a passport photo. The portamentos are written into the score, after all.
As far as it being performed according to historical principles, well, one has to wonder what principles these might be. Roth could, for instance, have checked with the recordings of at least three conductors who actually knew Mahler, and two who actually conducted with him. Perhaps they might have some insight in the way the Fourth Symphony is supposed to sound and what true historical performance practice was. Check with Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, or Willem Mengelberg (who performed the Fourth for Mahler and got his direct approval and appreciation — and there is a recording to check.) Note: They all play with vibrato. Roth’s twin vices of arrogance and ignorance are astonishing.
But, of course, Roth isn’t really interested in the composer’s intent. The movement has given up all pretense that they are recreating the music the way it was first heard. (“We’re trying to show what the symphony would have sounded like when Beethoven first heard it.” “But Beethoven was deaf.”) Because the actual driving force behind the movement isn’t historical accuracy, but rock and roll, popular music, which privileges — as do the HIPP performers — rhythm, beat, and energy over harmony and melody. “Beat me, daddy, eight to the bar.”
Younger musicians have grown up with rock music, with heavy metal, with the drive of rhythm guitars (i.e., the continuo), and the pounding beat of drums. And as with rock music, there creeps into HIPP performances a kind of sameness — the mustard on the melon.
And so, Roth, like the other re-enactors, is interested in making the music sound like all the other HIPP performances — whether Handel, Berlioz or Bruckner. Thin strings, clipped rhythms, rushed tempi.
Modern conductors now too often have ideas where their ears are supposed to be. And so, instead of a performance of music, you get a lecture on how the music is “supposed” to be played.
It reminds me of film director Lars von Trier and his Dogme 95 film movement and its “vow of cinematic chastity,” where a filmmaker was required to adhere to a series of “dogmas:” required to shoot on location, not on a constructed set; to avoid using music unless it was being played onscreen as part of the story; to use no artificial lighting; to make no film not set in the present time, no costumes but what the actors bring with them … and a host of other rules restricting the “artifice” of moviemaking. It was a set of rules so puritanical that even von Trier had to give them up eventually.
The period re-enactors of classical music have their own manifesto: To avoid vibrato; to observe strictly the composers’ metronome markings (even when Beethoven specifically tells them not do to so); to phrase in short, often two- and three-note groups; to hit the rhythms by barline with a sledgehammer; to use small instrumental groups; to employ countertenors when possible (given castrati are no longer available); to employ valveless trumpets and horns; to use old instruments or recreations of old instruments, with fewer keys, and wooden flutes, or recorders. And please, no pianos allowed; harpsichords or vintage fortepianos only.
The result, too often, is music in a strait-jacket. We know that Beethoven complained harshly about the restrictions of instruments available in his day, and that future instruments would be better able to express his intentions. In essence, some of the peculiarities of Beethoven’s orchestration are because of the limitations of instruments in his time.
As Donald Francis Tovey once observed, “Scholarship itself is not obliged to insist on the restoration of conditions that ought never to have existed.”
Which brings me back to Gabrieli and the great brass players of the big American orchestras. This is music as a glory, as joyous, as sheer pleasure. Is it what Gabrieli would have heard in Venice in 1597? No, but I’m sure he would have loved it. It was meant to be music, not a treatise.
The current dogma forgets one important fact: The music doesn’t belong to Gabrieli; it belongs to us. The same with Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, or Mozart. They are dead and the music survives. And it is we who now own it. The sheet music is an artifact that needs musicianship to bring it to the ear and musicianship is now and always has been more important than scholarship.
Imagine if we insisted that Shakespeare be performed only outdoors, with boys dressed up in the women’s parts, and all declaiming their lines loudly enough to be heard in the back rows, and no breaks into acts and scenes. Interesting as an experiment, to understand the theater of Shakespeare’s day, but hardly an ideal way to do Hamlet. Could we now take seriously Romeo making love to a Juliet in drag?
You can now find Mozart, for instance, played by John Eliot Gardiner or Roy Goodman or Frans Brüggen and it zips along almost like a mechanical clock, fleet, crisp and rhythmic. All the notes are there, and the instructions in the score are obeyed. But something vital is missing. Something human.
And so, I turn to hear Mozart played with humanity and and emphasis on songfulness, not metronome markings and I hear Bruno Walter’s Mozart, or Pablo Casals’.
I used to have the complete Mozart symphonies played by Charles Mackerras, in period style, but I gave them away and got Karl Böhm and the Berlin Philharmonic. Böhm understood the style, the music, and what the music meant. There is nothing really wrong with Mackerras — he was a wonderful conductor — but his Mozart imitates the period-re-enactor esthetic and turns what should be warm melody into a patter-song. I have given up on historically-informed Mozart.
(I make a slight exception for the early symphonies performed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, but then Harnoncourt, aka “the Wild Man of Borneo” was sui generis — not really original instruments as much as the original Harnon-world. He was never afraid of bringing his Harnon-personality to the performance. Harnoncourt is always full of personality, albeit, sometimes you scratch your head.)
One of the seeming goals of period-re-enactors is to erase the musician from the music. They complain, for instance, that Leonard Bernstein’s Mozart is more Bernstein than Mozart. Well, of course — it is meant to be Mozart filtered through the sensibility of a performer. The notes on the page are neutral. The performance should not be. The musician puts the blood back into the notes. The score is only a skeleton.
I’m not making a case here particularly for Bernstein’s Mozart; he was never as trenchant in Mozart as he was, say in Haydn, where he was magnificent. But rather making a case for interpretation. The re-enactors say they don’t want their music “interpreted,” but merely played.
Someone once said that reading a cookbook doesn’t make you a good cook. Period-re-enactors want us to enjoy the raw ingredients — the mise en place — without the actual cooking. Really, more like eating a cookbook.
I don’t wish to proscribe historically-informed performance practice. After all, it revitalized Baroque and earlier music. But I should point out that we can’t actually know what the music sounded like back then. It is guesswork. The sources for period performance practice are not in agreement. Some 18th century writers tell string players not to use vibrato; others instruct the opposite. Which pedagogue do you believe (obviously, the one that makes your music sound more like rock and roll).
Further, the fact that some of the old teachers instruct their students not to use vibrato is actually evidence that they were bucking the system, that, in fact, most fiddlers back then really were using it and needed to be told to give it up.
Even if re-enactors can re-animate the forgotten Baroque composers, and make us understand Handel and Vivaldi in a newer, brighter way, musicianship is still more important than scholarship. I cannot stand the revisionism applied to Bach. The two- and three-note phrasing makes hash of Bach’s long line, and ignores the intricate play of harmonies in order to emphasize the forward drive — the relentless bang-bang-bang.
But most of all, I miss the personality of the performer in the re-enactors. When I listen to Bach by Gould or Tureck or Martha Argerich, I hear the music as the melded expression of both composer and performer — someone making sense of the notes. And that sense changes over time and place. It cannot be fixed in an imaginary historical moment. It is ours to parse out. Mozart has no say in it, and obviously, cannot.
And so, if we get Walter’s Mozart on one night, we get Harnoncourt’s on another. Or the warmth and humanity of Pablo Casals. (Bruno Walter’s Mozart Symphony No. 39 here). Each version is valid, but the music is waiting there for yet another. Of course, HIPP is an interpretation, too. John Eliot Gardiner brings his personality to the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. Unfortunately, it is the personality of an accountant.