Sunday, April 20, 2008

Culture: Static or dynamic?

In life, most things do change over time. Thanks to our modern technologies, we can e.g. compare how our language was spoken 50, 30 and 15 years ago, and can directly compare its evolutionary change over the years. One of the reasons is that humans have the habit of being a bit sloppy and that the human memory is heavily influenced by external factors. Up to the point, of discolouring a memory because of a constant re-thinking.

What happens often in music, is that one often is confronted with interpretation-differences. Most of the composers we perform today, are unfortunately no longer among us, in order to verify our view with them. Doing some research, can to a certain degree give further insight in the circumstances in which a composition was created, or - maybe through diaries or correspondence, how a certain passage should be viewed, nevertheless it leaves a considerable grey area.

For several decades, there is a growing trend of moving away from an overly romantic practice of the Post-War period of music performance, where we have re-shaped almost (even disfigured) music. A few individual musicians, started in the 1950s and early 1960s to re-think about how Baroque music (most probably) should sound like - nowadays a commonly accepted discipline in the prominent music education and on stage as well. After the baroque period, also classicism and romantic period were put under the magnifying glass. Often I am drawn into discussions of what is valid about it. Being quite convinced about the need to repair the damage done in the last 100 years to the baroque and classicist composers, I often think of the once rebellious standing of Frans Brüggen where - he somewhere in the 1960s - exclaimed "every note of Mozart played so far is a lie!"

Although, there are a few aspects of playing that cannot be reproduced in written music-materials. Even some literature (say, a treatise by Geminiani or Leopold Mozart's Violin School) are not 100% conclusive to everything. However, by making use of the proper hardware (instruments - original or replica - using materials with the same technical parameters/limitations) we can experience for 95% the most likely probability of the historic sound, even the (im)probability of certain tempi. Last week, whilst travelling with a colleague-friend, we discussed the same subject on Roger Norringtons recordings (which I have heard, but unfortunately not all of them). Especially the Brahms' German requiem and even Mahler's symphonies are something which keep my mind busy. A vibrato-less Mahler?

I totally agree that the practice until the 1970-1980 (and even followed today) has grown completely out of hand. Admittedly, at first as a young student, I was adamant too, but now, when I see/hear recorded of 1980 Händel concerts with clarinets(!!!) and vibratos so huge, that your LCD-TV screen fall off the wall, not to speak of Bach's St. Matthew Passion conducted by the famous Mengelberg in 1939.

Here we arrive at the cross-road of the discussion: Norrington's approach is that even up to Mahler, the orchestra sound was less coloured by use of constant vibrato, while the Amsterdam Concertgebouw's maestro Willem Mengelberg, who was a personal friend of Gustav Mahler, inviting him to his house, intensively working (together) on his music, writing letters, has made recordings of the Concertgebouw Orchestra with a heavy vibratos - albeit that the recordings are made long after Mahler's death. Would Mengelberg transform the orchestra sound so heavily ever since? It is possible - keeping in mind, that I myself do realise my own change of preformance preferences as I grew older (and hopefully wiser). Nevertheless, I am convinced that even in the baroque period the use of vibrato was common - be it far less than today's trend - and so was surely the the trend in Mahler's time. The scores itself show signs that when composers write e.g. molto espressivo or non vibrato it meant to stress in order to highlight it from the usual playing style within the piece. What is really meant is perhaps a long debate, but it indicates that vibrato was indeed common (again, to a lesser extent than today).

It disturbs me too, to see young players - but not only the young ones - already before putting down their bow on their strings, to heavily vibrate their hands. Their playing looks like 10 spoons of sugar in a cup of coffee, completely losing the flavour of coffee due to the excessive sugar input. It is a bad trend. In addition, people/musicians believing only perform acrobatics to show off their skills, losing more and more the feel for musicality (musicality has nothing to do with high speed and high notes). I call it Oistrakhisms, where people turn Vivaldi concertos into a Paganini-caprices, Bach as if a Wagnerian ouverture into obscenity. It's simply rude towards the composition.

Now you would perhaps say; but culture is dynamic and changes over time - meant is actually just public taste. Yes indeed. Fully agree! But what exactly is being static and what dynamic? It is a (professional) musician's responsibility to know the difference between taste and style . Taste should not be overruling style. That's what we did wrong in the past. Wouldn't that exactly be being static, to blindly follow one (limited) sample, and dynamic if you take time to reflect whether what you play is indeed right (critically compare) and move yourself to a higher level? We have a society, which is far more literate and well informed, than say 100 years ago. It can handle well-thought approaches and concepts. Exactly the opposite, would disqualify a musician from his professionality, making him almost perhaps a kind of populist charlatan. The audience deserves value. And style deserves respect to remain as intact as possible. Besides, ever wondered, why a is called a conservatoire?


1 comment:

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