Sunday, March 25, 2012

A few more thoughts after the Sir Colin interview

The response to my interview with Sir Colin Davis has been fascinating to say the least. Those who have written/tweeted/blogged about it (special thanks to Boulezian and Unpredictable Inevitability) have been polarised, naturally, into those who agree with his words about the early music movement and those who don't. Though the latter have declared his words "insulting" and said they find his classical repertoire "boring" etc, there have,  to my surprise, been many more declaring themselves in full accord with him.

I have the impression his statements have been cathartic: many of us have been feeling this way for 30 years. But it needed a grand maestro to step up and speak out about some of the idiocies that have gone on in the name of "historical correctness" before anyone would take it on board.

Here's my own little journey. Back in the early to mid 1980s, as a student I found myself in places that now seem to me quite astonishing. By an odd series of coincidences I spent a lot of time in university holidays sitting, metaphorically, at the feet of people like Andras Schiff, Richard Goode, the Emerson Quartet and some experts on Schenkerian analysis in New York...

Then, come term-time, I was back in Cambridge being told that I was not allowed to play Bach on the modern piano - unless I would agree to play it with no dynamics, no pedal at all and a mode of expression only appropriate to a harpsichord. I promise this is not an exaggeration. That was rather a shock to the system, since - as you can well imagine - all I really wanted to do by then was to learn the Goldberg Variations.

Not that there was much chance to practise anything at all: so academic was the course that it involved a performance option only as one-seventh of one year of one's final degree, and the faculty seemed to believe - honest to goodness - that if you were going to play L'Ile Joyeux in your third year, there was no need for you to practise in the first two! All this accompanied by the immortal words "WE ARE NOT A CONSERVATOIRE". (Matched only by those of a London music college that I later attended for what turned out to be three weeks: "Well, we're not a university, you know - you can't just pick and choose..." Upon which, exit, pursued by a bear.)

The impression that lingered from that time was so negative, provincial, blinkered and anti-musical that it still rankles a quarter-century later. Today, though, I can recognise the good things I learned there too. These include a passion for Monteverdi (well, I already had that beforehand, but never mind); a familiarity with the Bach Cantatas that I would never otherwise have acquired; an inspirational course on German Romantic opera from Weber to Tannhauser (thank you, Prof Deathridge!); close-knit seminars on Gershwin and Schubert's Winterreise with Robin Holloway; and analysis with the late Derrick Puffett, the man who steered me - again by coincidence - towards Die tote Stadt.

Forgive the digression. In short, I found that the concentration on superficial details of instrument, articulation, lack of vibrato, etc, risked losing sight of the most important thing: the actual content of the music itself. There seemed an implicit assumption that nobody wrote music in order to express any form of emotion before about 1780. This is not to say that those superficial details of articulation, instrumentation et al are not important to some degree. They are. But they became an end in themselves - when they should have been only a beginning.

That was the 1980s for you: the era in which appearance became more important than substance. The era in which spin-doctoring, marketing and the hard-sell took over priority in place of quality content. The ingredients didn't matter, as long as you could sell it to the unsuspecting public. And all the government cutbacks at that time meant that it was far more practical - ie, cheaper - to use smaller ensembles so that you didn't have to pay so many musicians. If you could convince people that this was correct, so much the better. The giant performance of Handel's Messiah in Westminster Abbey that inspired Haydn to compose The Creation was quietly and conveniently ignored. Richard Taruskin has written much more eloquently than I can about how the HIP movement tells us more about our own time than it does about the 18th century.

But I don't believe that over time human nature has changed that much; music and its impact upon us hasn't changed that much either ("If music be the food of love, play on..." - Shakespeare); and if anyone doubts the importance of emotion in music, why don't they just listen to a bit of Monteverdi? Hear Orfeo's great aria 'Possente spirto', then try telling me its composer didn't write to express emotion and see if your ears don't turn red.

What counts most, ultimately, is authenticity of spirit. That means a full 360-degree understanding of the music's workings in terms emotional, spiritual, textual, historical, analytical, communicative, songful, expressive, harmonic, progressive, instrumental, linear, contrapuntal, technical, sonic, philosophical, inspirational and much, much more. It means acquiring the instrumental/vocal/conducting expertise to get this across without a struggle - which, as Sir Colin said, is where freedom really begins. Essentially it means fusing one's own powers as a musician with those of the composer, to empathise with a work and bring out the best in it, in a spirit that is faithful to its world.

I just listened to 30 different recordings of Schumann's 'Spring' Symphony for a piece in the April issue of BBC Music Magazine. My favourite? [drumroll]: John Eliot Gardiner with his Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique. This choice took me almost by surprise. But after listening to Bernstein, who made the slow movement sound like Mahler, Solti, who made the opening sound like Wagner, and Karajan, who just sounded like Karajan all the way through, here was a performance that sounded like - well, Schumann. (Buy the magazine to read more...)

I may be a HIP sceptic still. There is no doubt, sadly, that the movement has sometimes advanced the wrong people for the wrong reasons; it has promulgated approaches that may be radical, but that are often misleading, mistranslated or misinterpreted into going against the very grain of what it purports to do (see Sir Colin on Geminiani, or just read Leopold Mozart, to see how the words on 18th-century violin playing have been distorted for dubious ends).

It may have shaken away the Karajan-ness of Karajan, who (let's face it) was disliked for more than his music-making... But it has had the unfortunate side-effect of ghettoising the works of Bach, Haydn and Mozart so that few mainstream conductors dare touch them without applying supposedly "correct" mannerisms of phrasing, articulation and so forth - which often are not all that correct, especially when applied simply because they're a sound that's expected, rather than a concept that is properly thought through. Nothing is more dangerous than a little knowledge. I despair of ever hearing my favourite Mozart symphonies being played with any real gumption again, or without drums that sound like cornflakes packets, or without wince-worthy vibrato-less string tone - it's possible to make a good sound with no vibrato, of course, but frequently it doesn't happen. I am deeply unhappy about this: it's like being thrown into exile.

Thank almighty God that the odious phrase "authentic" was jettisoned after Rosalyn Tureck and her friends proved in the mid 1990s that there was no such thing anywhere, in any field. Still, there's also something inherently patronising in the term "Historically Informed" since it implicitly pre-supposes that everybody else is not. This is not true. The many great pianists who play Bach on the modern Steinway, Bosendorfer or Fazioli are perfectly well informed, often more so than their counterparts - they just choose to play on an instrument that can actually be heard in Alice Tully Hall. I'd defy any early music specialist to be better informed about Bach than, for instance, Angela Hewitt.

And soon I am going to Lucerne to hear Andras Schiff conduct the B minor Mass and I can't wait, because his performance of the St Matthew Passion with the Philharmonia a decade or more ago was the most inspiring, exciting performance I've yet heard of this work, shining out in technicolour with all its inner conviction, passion and spirituality.

I've often felt that too many supposedly "correct" performances are based simply on an orchestra turning off its vibrato and stringing up with gut. Bingo: two strokes and you're HIP.  On the other hand, hearing the OAE with Sir Simon Rattle doing Fidelio at Glyndebourne was simply magnificent. Besides, HIP orchestral musicians are often far better informed about the music they play, more passionately committed to their task in hand and generally more intelligent, upbeat and contributive than certain other strata of the profession who sometimes veer towards "Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die..." (Tennyson).

When HIP works, well played and deeply understood, it is fabulous. I would like to be the first to applaud JEG for his Schumann and his amazing Bach Cantatas series, which I'm potty about (I've also heard him screw up a couple of romantic operas over the years, but there is no reason why every conductor should be equally good in all repertoire, is there?). Ditto for Norrington: I'm a hundred per cent with Sir Colin on that total lack of vibrato - yowch! - and remember with sorrow an absolute carwreck of a Dvorak Cello Concerto at the RFH... Yet I've attended performances in which he's conducted Haydn's The Creation, Mozart's The Magic Flute (a Prom about 25 years ago), Schubert's Ninth and the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique - all of them thrilling, vivid and loving.

As for harpsichords, the playing of Andreas Staier has been a revelation. Just listen to the warmth, generosity and nobility of this:

Now, Staier plays equally wonderfully on a harpsichord, a fortepiano or a modern piano. And there's the rub. If the musicianship is good enough, the instrument stops mattering. Great musicianship transcends its medium. But if that great musicianship is not present, no amount of superficial "correctness" can ever replace it. So where does that leave HIP?

I'm sure there's a lesson in there somewhere. If there's a rapprochement taking place, if we are all starting to pull together rather than against one another, that is laudable. Chamber music playing is now being taught in Oxford (I don't know about Cambridge), while the music colleges today offer proper degrees, not just diplomas (or will do as long as they can continue to exist under the present government). Andras Schiff has recorded on early pianos and sometimes conducts from a harpsichord.

Alina Ibragimova plays solo Bach and more with inspired musicianship, great tone, yet no vibrato.

But the Emperor's New Clothes, even if they're looking a bit faded, are still being worn nonetheless. If Sir Colin's words can help to pull away the last remaining veils of illusion and refocus us on what really matters - the deep substance of the authentic musical spirit - then I'm happy to have been a channel through which he was able to do so.