Style and Range

I’m having an early Beethoven year so far- two runs of Beethoven 1 with the SMP last month, now Beethoven 2 in Pendleton, with the 4th to follow in a few weeks at the Helix Ensemble.

There hasn’t been a whole lot of time to revisit recordings of these pieces- I’ve mostly been working at the piano when not at the desk, but I have been struck in the recordings I’ve listened to at just how disastrous the results of some “old school” recordings of the First are.

Soggy, heavy, flabby. Ick….

Listening to some of these performances, where a Bruckner sound is being used in a near-Haydn context is like watching a 400 pound NFL lineman trying to compete in the swimsuit competition of Miss Petite USA. As my sister says- “not the body for it.” In this sense, we all owe the HIP gang a huge debt in these pieces. Not because they showed us how we should be doing Beethoven 1 (Ferenc Friscay made the definitive, buns of steel Beethoven 1 many years ago, available as part of DG’s retrospective box set), but because, through their advocacy, they’ve largely rendered unacceptable forever the Beethoven as Bruckner” approach.

I got my first HIP LvB set when I was learning the 9th, and I remember thinking that the performance of that symphony just wasn’t competitive with many others. Not enough range of color, not enough flexibility, not enough power, not dramatic enough. Later, though, I listened in absolute delight to the 1st, 8th and 2nd symphonies. I’ve had similarly disappointing experiences with the Finale of the 5th over the years- it’s a music that needs grandeur which some period performers (not all!) shy away from as if embaressed. My dissatisfaction with those recordings is not because the performers in question didn’t know what they were doing (the standards were always high), but simply because the range of Beethoven’s stylistic range and evolution is so huge that any single group of performers will always be hard pressed to match it. Sooner or later, your own ticks and preferences reveal themselves to the listener. The 9th really does live in a different universe to the 1st, but the 1st doesn’t live in Haydn’s world and the 9th doesn’t live in Brahms’s.

In fact, we had originally considered pairing the 9th and 2nd symphonies on this concert, which would have been interesting. I always think of the D minor outburst in the introduction of the 1st mvt of the 2nd as being a suddenly glimpse of worlds to come in the 1st mvt of the 9th . Could we have captured anything close to the range of sounds and colors those two works need in one concert?

How about the range of sounds needed in a single work?

Musical styles impose their own laws of physics and behavior- cause and effect relationships between tonic and dominant chords in Mozart are different than in Beethoven. In one style, phrases lead forward, in another, they release from. 

However, in a piece like the Mozart Requiem, which is Baroque, even Handelian in one movement and Verdian in the next, and only “Mozartian” in the Hostias (a heartbreakingly simple glimpse into his world in a piece that is otherwise austerely universal-fascinating that he would conceive his most personal piece in such an abstract and ancient style), the laws of musical physics change constantly. What goes up comes down in one movement, but what goes up turns left in another. Somehow, the conductor has got to be true to all these changing laws and mixing styles while at the same time, keeping the incredible sense of unity Mozart has built into the piece.

You see, while the Recordare and the Sanctus could easily be by Bach (in fact, the Recordare is based on a Sinfonia by WF Bach, one of Mozart’s heroes) and Beethoven respectively, the Osanna fugue which ends the Sanctus is based on the same intervals as the Recordare theme. In fact, there is no movement in the piece (including those “by” Sussmayr) that isn’t full of thematic connections to the first. The Lacrimosa starts with the same harmonic progression as the Introit and ends with a quotation of the Requiem theme. The “Quam olim Abrahae” fugue is based on the “Et lux perpetua” theme of the Itroitus. Even the Recordare theme is a variation of the Requiem theme, rising a tri-tone instead of a second trom the leading tone. 

How do we balance unity with range? I think most performances falter because at some extreme of style and emotion they’re not able to match the breadth of Mozart’s vision- they might be too elegant in the Confutatis or too ponderous in the Hostias.

Maybe I’m too young to answer this question (I was going to end the blog with the question!), but I’ll try.

I think, at the end of the day, you have to learn absolutely everything you possibly can about style, and then you have to disenthrall yourself from it. You have to totally let go of your own ideas about Mozart, Handel and everything else and look to the score, and be absolutely true to what you find, not to what you bring. At the end of the day, its about listening, not about conducting, not about deciding.

Listening without prejudice and being true to what you hear. Letting go of those prejudices is the hardest part.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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4 comments on “Style and Range”

  1. A.C. Douglas

    “I think, at the end of the day, you have to learn absolutely everything you possibly can about style, and then you have to disenthrall yourself from it. You have to totally let go of your own ideas about Mozart, Handel and everything else and look to the score, and be absolutely true to what you find, not to what you bring. At the end of the day, its about listening, not about conducting, not about deciding.”


    If I understand your above correctly (and if I haven’t, you can safely disregard the rest of this), then you’re the first working conductor of my cyber acquaintance who essentially agrees with my take on this business of “proper” style.

    Over the years, I’ve had an uncountable number of knock-down, drag-out online forum fights with working professional conductors who took quite nasty exception to my declaration that with any piece of music whatsoever, one does NOT approach it in performance by being true to the composer, and/or being true to the performance style of the period in which it was written as determined by musicological research, and/or by being true to the perceived style of the composer. Instead, one must *listen* to the music itself as represented in the score, and be true to what the music itself there tells us it wants to be.

    You can’t begin to imagine the intensity of the howls of outrage and the derision hurled at me for that statement, in response to which I used to have the greatest sport provoking things further by boldly and with perfectly straight face declaring that the definitive recorded version of the opening chorus of Bach’s _Matthäus-Passion_ was done by Klemperer on his classic EMI recording of the work as that reading is a reading that most truly captures what the music itself tells us it wants to be, the fruits of HIP research to the contrary be damned.


  2. A.C. Douglas

    Oh, forgot to note that your, “…WF Bach, one of Mozart’s heroes…” cites the wrong Bach (I won’t quibble with your “heroes” although that term puts the matter way too strongly). That should be JC, not WF Bach whom Mozart greatly admired (M has nothing to say about WF to my knowledge).


  3. Elaine Fine

    Thanks for putting up the W.F. Bach Sinfonia link! When Mozart and Haydn went over to the Baron’s house to get their weekly ration of Bach, W.F. was indeed one of the Bachs in the collection, and I have noticed occasional W.F. Bach influences elsewhere in Mozart’s work. This Requiem connection proves what I have always suspected. We don’t really know, however, what was by W.F. and what wasn’t. I believe he published some of his father’s music under his own name (as well as some of his under his father’s name).

  4. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Style and Range part II- the value of all that research

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