Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Antiquarian Fantasies and the New Sound of Beethoven

I'm just about to receive the box set of Beethoven symphonies and concertos with the London Classical Players conducted by Sir Roger Norrington and I realize that Richard Taruskin must be right about the historically informed performance being so popular with audiences now NOT because it is actually historically informed, but more because the crisp, rhythmically taut, transparent sounds are what WE prefer. In other words, the popularity of HIP performances is not really due to an antiquarian fantasy, but more to the tastes of the 20th and 21st century audiences (and players).

I also have Nicolaus Harnoncourt doing the Schubert symphonies and I enjoy that in a way that I don't quite enjoy similar performances by Herbert von Karajan and others of his generation. I find them too thick and too rhythmically soggy. So I am looking forward to Norrington et al delivering a "new sound" for Beethoven that I am probably going to like a lot and it will be one that is not too much like the kinds of performances of fifty years ago, nor, likely, much like the performances of two hundred years ago either when new orchestral works were lucky to get ONE rehearsal and standards of tuning and precision of ensemble were a far cry from what they are today.

I have heard one of the Norrington Beethoven symphonies before, years ago, but I don't recall which at this point. Now I am listening to the whole box, Symphony No. 4 at the moment. The performances are a delight. What is especially outstanding are the winds, brass and kettledrums. For the latter we have a crisp thud instead of the boom of the modern instrument. The winds and brass are more nasal with a bit of a bite instead of the smooth mellifluousness of the modern winds and brass. And much as the marketing advertises the antiquarian aspect, it is really the modern sensibility that informs the performance: taut, crisp, transparent and oh so defined. Sure, this is likely related to how the music might have been played in the 18th century, not that we have any way of really knowing, but what it mostly is, is the 20th century's reaction to the thick, rubatoed blanket of 19th century performance practice.

Here is the Norrington performance of the Symphony No. 4 by Beethoven:

UPDATE: One of the shocking things that Richard Taruskin proposed in his paper on "The Presence of the Past..." was that the 20th century taste for crisp, clean textures and rhythmic regularity originated with, among others, Stravinsky. So when we listen to an "historically informed" Baroque performance we are hearing something that may be played on original instruments by folks that have read some treatises on early music performance practice, but the performance itself is not nearly as "historic" as we might believe. What it really is, is a performance informed by modern tastes--as it should be given that the listeners are modern. All this stuff about "original" and "authentic" is mostly marketing. I just recalled seeing on the Salzburg Festival programs a concert on August 11 that I wanted to attend, but didn't get to. The conductor, Sir Roger Norrington, with the Salzburg Camerata. The program? Mozart, Haydn and Stravinsky!

Click to enlarge


Steven said...

I was rather annoyed to discover, as you probably already know, that when one hears of someone playing an original stradivarius, they are doing no such thing. They apparently raise the action, make modifications to support the increased tension -- in other words the instrument is not much like the violin that would have come from Stradivari's workshop. It all feels like marketing, as you say...

That the HIP movement is more in reaction to 19th century performance practise than a discovery of early practise is a very interesting observation. I suspect this is why I also like HIP performances. To the extent I'm a musical reactionary, it is against the Romantics not the Moderns. I remember being taught in secondary school music classes that each musical era is a reaction against the one before. Looking back, am sceptical that this was merely a theory meant to attract rebellious teenagers, but there is some truth in it...

I rather like 'antiquarian fantasies' as a general term actually. I suspect I am rather prone to them, and explains my fondness for Walter Scott, an antiquarian fantasist if there ever was one. Though I must confess when I first saw the title I was hoping you were referring to Renaissance fantasies (Milano et al.), and was very curious how you would link them Beethoven.

Bryan Townsend said...

My antiquarian fantasies run more to Leonin and Perotin!

Marc said...

That the HIP movement is more in reaction to 19th century performance practise than a discovery of early practise is a very interesting observation.

An entirely plausible hypothese, sure; unfortunately never having read the books written by the pro-HIP business am not certain how they defend it i.e. my knowledge has come in bits and pieces. Maybe the 'books' are chiefly program notes?

There was a Slipped Disc post last week etc in which a commenter brought up Rosemary... I cannot now recall her name, Brown (yes, the Guardian obituary is here): she did HIP to the extreme by communicating with the gentlemen composers directly.

Bryan Townsend said...

I tend to forget that a lot of the story behind the Early Music Movement is behind the scenes. As a young performer in the 1970s I was very much aware of the trend toward historically aware performance practice. The book to read was Robert Donington, The Interpretation of Early Music. There was another book by him I also had, but I forget the title. There were other weightier tomes by, I believe, Friedrich Neumann. Also, there was a journal of up to date research: Early Music. And hundreds of photo reproductions of historical treatises. One of the most important was by Fran├žois Couperin on the art of keyboard playing. Mattheson wrote an important treatise on string playing and there were ones on the flute and the lute. There were also a thousand doctoral dissertations. So, lots of reference materials.