Thursday, January 22, 2009

Day 2: Reactions to the Record II

After that first day, we went from about 8:45 a.m. to 10 p.m. for three days; exhausting and exhilarating all at once. Here's what happened, more or less, on Day 2.

Jonathan Bellman, one of the proprietors of Dial "M" for Musicology, led off, with a discussion of improvisation in 19th century music, primarily in that of Liszt and Chopin. I'm happy to report that he started his talk with what sounded like three paragraphs of explanatory material and careful qualifiers, making it clear that knows very well the pitfalls of such research. When I mentioned this to my partner the public health researcher, she said "Oh, he had a limitations section; that's important for the validity of any study." He provided plenty of musical examples, and the short version of his talk might be that improvisations fall into roughly two categories: flashy, flying-fingers additions, and additions that fit seamlessly with the underlying style of the piece. He played some gorgeous examples by the Polish pianist Raoul Koczalski; hold that name for future reference. He also had practical suggestions about how modern pianists could go about developing a stylistic vocabulary to apply to improvisations on 19th century music.

Following Jonathan came English violinist and musicologist David Milsom, who was equipped with recordings of Joseph Joachim, Arnold Rosé , and other violinists trained in what's usually called the German school. This was the lecture session of what amounted to a lecture-demo on Joachim's style and what we might gain from examining it and trying to play like the great violinist. Interspersed with this were many quotations from the pedagogue Carl Flesch about different schools of violin playing, again, with appropriate cautions and qualifications.

Here I have to admit to a personal failing: while I like nearly every old recording I've ever heard, across a range of styles, I've now heard excerpts from Joachim's recordings at both Reactions to the Record symposia, and I don't get his style at all. I hear a bloodless tone, bowing with no guts, and uncertain intonation. Maybe it was his age, maybe it was the recording technology, maybe I'm just not ever going to like such a nearly-no-vibrato playing style. (Though see my forth coming report on Allen Evans's talk at R2RII.)

The morning sessions closed with a long discussion by Robert Philip, author of the marvelous Performing Music in the Age of Recording, on recorded performances of Brahms's Third. His main thesis was that performances of this piece have become slower, heavier, less dynamic, more massive as the century progressed, and he played a number of fascinating excerpts to support this, including Bruno Walter's famous and propulsive 1960s performance, a surprisingly similar Walter recording from 1936 with the VPO, and Clemens Krauss's 1930 VPO recording. (Both of these recordings were made while Arnold Rosé was the concertmaster of the VPO, a position he had held since 1881 - meaning he played in the premier of the Brahms Third in 1883.)

Later examples, some made with chamber orchestra, included Charles Mackerras, Paavo Jarvi, Claudio Abbado, and others. He discussed the evidence for performing Brahms's orchestral music with a chamber orchestra and concluded that what Brahms really cared about was how carefully an orchestra was prepared, not its size - but also that good balances are extremely hard to achieve in a chamber orchestra recording without help at the production level.

After lunch came the first midday concert, featuring student performers in Brahms, Copland, and Tchaikovsky. For me, the standout performances were the Brahms Op. 8 piano trio, in which Hotaik Sung played the piano part with melting tone and sweeping command, and Andrew Zhou's crackling and dramatic acount of the Copland Piano Variations.


The concert was followed by David Breckbill, who spoke on use of diction as a primary expressive feature in German singing around the turn of the last century. His examples included Schumann-Heink's great1930 rendition of Waltraute's narration, from Goetterdaemmerung and lieder recordings by Franz von Krauss. Here another confession: however clear Herr von Krauss's diction and intentions, and however much I like some freedom in performance, I could not stomach the fact that he was making up the rhythms and never seemed to be with the piano.

Reactions to the Record tends to focus on instrumental music; the last full afternoon session brought pianist/conductor/scholar/writer Will Crutchfield and soprano/musicologist Rebecca Plack giving a lecture/demo on their work in trying to adopt an older style of lieder singing. Crutchfield presented a bunch of recorded examples of early 20th c. recordings, which showed considerably more flexibility in tempo, rubato, and other expressive features than a typical post-war lieder singer would have allowed. While these early singers on record were using some of the same devices as in David Breckbill's talk, none were so extreme (or wayward) as Herr von Krauss, not even the famous Leo Slezak performance of Schubert's "Ungeduld," which was also a star of Reactions to the Record I.

Plack and Crutchfield then demonstrated how they'd attempted to get back to the older style. Plack talked her way through "Ungeduld," over Crutchfield's piano, to better follow the shape and rhythm of the words. She then sang the piece. After a couple of repetitions, she said, it started to feel more natural.

Milsom, Plack, and Crutchfield, with some questioning by Kumaran Arul, then had a short panel discussion about pedagogical problems in historical performance. What I remember best is that Milsom and Plack, who both teach children, report that youngsters have no difficulty in singing or playing in the older styles.

The evening concert was lengthy and interesting. Milsom and Arul played the Brahms Violin Sonata in A Major, Op. 100, a grand and glorious work. There were problems: the nine-foot Steinway grand was open full stick, despite the comparatively quiet and non-penetrating tone of Milsom's gut-strung violin, and the balances were not good. I remain unconvinced by the Joachim-style approach, but perhaps with more familiarity? Pianist Jonathan Summers, who presented his own talk later in the symposium, performed Liszt's "Vallee d'Obermann," from the Annees de Pelerinage and his own arrangement of the Flower Song from Bizet's Carmen. Best of all was Arul's performance of the Chopin B minor Piano Sonata.

1 comment:

rootlesscosmo said...

Did you notice anything distinctive about tempi, dynamics, or rubato in the Brahms Sonata? I've got two recordings, Mutter/Weissenberg and Szeryng/Rubinstein; S/R's tempi are consistently slower but their style is less floridly Romantic, and of the two versions, that's the one I prefer. I wonder which is closer to Joachim's, or if it's an apples-oranges-rutabagas kind of comparison; in the end you play the piece the way it makes sense to you, but informed sense is better than uninformed, probably.