Magazine article Musical Times

The Play's the Thing

Magazine article Musical Times

The Play's the Thing

Article excerpt


PETER PHILLIPS ponders the relationship between performance practice and a vast recorded legacy

A century of recorded music: listening to musical history Timothy Day Yale UP (New Haven & London, 2000); x, 306pp; 20. ISBN 0 300 08442 0.

The arrival of broadcasting and recording was always likely to deal a death-blow to the idea of a single tradition, because by definition they allowed a bewildering variety of styles, idioms, performances and traditions to co-exist simultaneously. The realisation that this would make a radical difference to our ideas of the repertory, as well as to composition, was surprisingly slow to dawn.

THESS WORDS ARE NOT, in fact, from Timothy Day's new book, but from a lecture which Nicholas Kenyon gave to the Royal Philharmonic Society in February 2001. They show that Day is not the only person to have noticed that close listening to a century's worth of recording must tell us new things about the performing tradition in Western music-making, but he is supremely well-placed to tell the story. As curator of Western Art Music at the Sound Archive of the British Library he has at his finger-tips as much evidence as anyone could want to show what has really happened.

There can be no subject more important or more potentially explosive than this, for it shows that many of the comfortable truths long taken for granted only very partially existed. At the same time it poses the most fundamental questions about what matters in a performance of a piece of music. To take an example at random, which gives an insight into just how muddled current thinking can be: we don't like the kind of excessive vibrato which distorts the tuning of an orchestra's playing or of a singer's singing; at the same time we rather approve of authenticity against the dictates of the relentlessly monolithic German orchestral tradition. We assume, however, that Elgar was firmly rooted in that Germanic tradition, which, in his lifetime, we assume involved the use of considerable vibrato. It should follow that we would invoke the name of authenticity in our performances of Elgar's music by copying what he did on his recordings. In fact we don't, because rather than actually listen to what Elgar did we simply assume that we won't like it, not least because of the vibrato. This is fair enough in one way - we want to bring music from the past alive for audiences today, though we do it while sounding off about how Bach and Palestrina should be performed, everyone with his own theory, in the most prescriptive way The irony of this, as Day chronicles, is that orchestras in Elgar's time didn't play with much vibrato at all, they played with excessive portamenti. Consistent vibrato was invented by Fritz Kreisler well into the twentieth century. Our view of the past is ignorant; and appealing to it to justify our way with music-making today can lead to hopeless inconsistencies.

Day's account is full of posers like this. Few people nowadays would wish to imitate Arthur Nikisch's epoch-making performance of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, recorded in November 1913 (even though it is apparently a keystone of the twentieth-century Germanic tradition), because of the fluctuations of tempo which characterise it. Although Nikisch starts the first movement with a tempo which sounds normal to modern ears, he slows down more than twenty metronome marks to introduce the second subject. Apparently this was commonplace: one of Wagner's violinists reported that he standardly prefaced `the return of a theme [...] by an exaggerated ritardando', reducing speeds `fully onethird immediately on the entry of a cantabile phrase'. Perhaps this is not so surprising, but the idea that performing traditions have been handed straight down immutably from generation to generation with gospel authority can be exploded by the most cursory application to these recordings. Even the Mahler/Vienna Philharmonic/ Bruno Walter/Klemperer-to-the-present-day progression holds no water at all when it comes to performing styles anyone is prepared to imitate now. …

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