This week brought strong reactions to two recordings of the music of Beethoven.
After a spring and summer in which the music of LvB didn’t figure nearly as prominently as usual, Beethoven is back on the menu at Vftp, and being served in generous portions. The coming weeks bring performances of the two symphonies, the Violin Concerto, Coriolan and several performances of the E flat Major String Trio. I’ve even started work on a cycle of all of Beethoven’s works for Cello and Piano for next year.
With this in mind, I put on a recording of the Eroica (on the schedule for early November) this weekend. It was Eugen Jochum’s recording with the London Symphony Orchestra, just re-released in an EMI “Icon” series box set. I came across the performance this summer when I wrote the notes for the set (which is very good and should be required listening for all conductors), and was keen to spend some time with it without the time pressures I’d had back in June.
It’s the kind of performance we sometimes call “old school:” a large orchestra, playing on modern instruments, using vibrato and generally sticking to tempi somewhat slower than LvB’s metronome markings. All true and fair as far as it goes, but such a description really doesn’t go nearly far enough. Some people like, even prefer old school Beethoven, some people like “HIP” Beethoven. I like good Beethoven. This summer, I heard an old school Beethoven cycle that really didn’t go at all beyond the description I’ve just given- big band, vibrato, modern instruments, moderate tempi. The only evidence of a point of view in that cycle was in the omission of exposition repeats. Many loved it, I suppose because they’re so discouraged by HIP performances that this formulaic series of run-throughs provided a bit of comfort in departing from an orthodoxy they’ve become disillusioned with. I found it all quite shallow and one dimensional, defined more by what it wasn’t (HIP) than what it was (omitting exposition repeats?).
Not so with Jochum, who probably would have been offended to be called old school, because for him music was about learning and discovering, not trying to imitate something you heard a better artist do forty years ago. I’d liked his Eroica very much when I heard it in June, but was even more impressed this time. Yes, it’s not blazingly fast, but that’s partly an impression shaped by the way he rolls into the beginning of the symphony with an appealingly expansive grandeur. By the time we reach the heart of the movement, he’s flowing along at a good clip, and throughout the symphony, whatever the tempo, the performance oozes rhythmic life. Cross rhythms come to the fore with a real “life or death” sense of import, and motor rhythms and ostinatos buzz with intensity. Every bar, dare I say just about every note, seems to have a sense of purpose, a clearly expressed point of view, commitment, energy and engagement. I’d take one bar of Jochum’s mixture of iron-clad commitment and self-effacing directness over all four movements of that would-be old school Eroica I heard a few months back.
It wasn’t lost on me, of course, that just as Jochum completely wiped the floor with that other old school conductor (if only I could remember who it was…), his performance also succeeded beyond all possible expectation at doing what period bands are supposed to excel in- bringing out detail, clarifying counterpoint and putting across clearly etched characterization. It had all of the good qualities of an old school, big band performance (a burnished warm, beautiful sound, flexibility and a singing line) without falling into any of the usual traps (muddy, wallowing textures, lack of rhythmic bite, self-conscious fussing about or lack of clarity and variety of articulation).
The next day, I was running some errands with the radio on and heard the most gahdaffel performance of the Schubert Unfinished Symphony I think I’ve ever heard. It was obviously a big-time modern orchestra (I turned it off right after the last note, as I didn’t want to know who was responsible for it- please don’t tell me), but they were playing with the ever-more-popular-but-almost-always-unsatisfying twang of a modern orchestra trying to imitate a period band, playing on steel strings without vibrato. The violins in those aching, agonized pianissimo soli passages in the second movement sounded like the musical embodiment of a migraine. And the phrasing was so arbitrary and bizarre- no sense of what the harmonies are, or what notes lead where. It was as if someone had meticulously gone through the entire symphony and tried to come up with the most wacko phrasing humanly possible.
After Jochum’s Eroica masterclass, I might have been beginning to think that the whole HIP movement needed a blog post smackdown. Really- who does that to Schubert? And who really thinks that all those steel e-strings sound like anything other than a torture device when played with such icy sterility? And seriously, who are we kidding- no matter how much you beat the musicality out of your modern string players’ left hands, are you really going to get your veteran principal sarrusophone player to back off that mile-wide wobble he’s had since the 1980’s?
Then, just a day later I again turned on the radio, this time to a performance of the Beethoven Missa solemnis.
When bombarded by a constant stream of performances that range from “competent by deeply perverse” to “polished if boring” to “pretty damn good” it’s easy to begin to forget there is another level to aspire to, and harder still to articulate what that level is (especially without resorting to hand gesticulations and profanity). However, sometimes you just know from two or three bars that you’re hearing something special.
This Missa solemnis was special, if far from technically perfect. A period orchestra and four wonderfully matched and engaged soloists alongside a fantastic chorus brought this most foreboding masterpiece to life so vividly I could hardly bring myself to get out of the car to pick up the kids.
HIP-sters stopped using the word “authentic” a few years back when it seemed to be getting in the way of racking up guest conducting engagements. It’s a pity. I’m all for authentic. I’m not sure anyone can ultimately say what is authentic, but I know what isn’t- a modern orchestra pretending to be playing on period instruments. You get string players having to constantly take it easy lest their instruments really kick into gear and start growling (vib or no vib) in exactly the way period string instruments don’t. Combine that with steel strings and you get a sound that’s edgy, cold, wet and always a little calculated. The trumpets are told to blow their brains out to imitate the sound of natural trumpets (at least some modern bands now use natural trumpets when playing dress-up). Yes, it may create a sound like that of a natural trumpet, but it’s about 40 db too loud, which really doesn’t work when your string section dare not play over mf, lest they be outed as playing on modern instruments. Ditto the timpanist, who ends up playing with wooden sticks on plastic heads to try to match (imitate) the clarity of old kettledrums, and ends up forced to play way too loudly as well. It all becomes so hard-edged that hearing a Beethoven symphony starts to feel like being hit in the head with a piece of formica or cuddling a plastic bag of broken glass. At least until you hear the principal sarrusophone player still warbling away like he’s playing a movie soundtrack. It’s about as authentic as a Kenosha, Wisconsin teenager who just watched his first episode of Monty Python doing an “English” accent.
On the other hand, with proper period instruments, gut strings, leather drum heads and natural trumpets, the players don’t have to imitate anything. They can cut loose, go for it, play their asses off and never worry that they’re suddenly going to sound like John Williams is in the building. If they really want to, they can even use a wee bit of vibrato. That’s authentic. Bluegrass is authentic- earthy, acoustic, real, honest, dirty and dangerous. Country is not authentic- plastic, processed, amplified calculated, commercial and cynical. That Schubert sounded about as authentic as a Billy Ray Cyrus stadium tour.
This Missa solemnis was pretty damn authentic (even if the violin solo went badly off the rails). HIP? Yes- lovely, flowing tempi, harder accents, slender sound, smaller band, but nothing held back. Quite the opposite- oozing with excitement, point of view, engagement and real dynamic range.
Our modern way of talking about performance would seem to tell us that Jochum and Hans-Christoph Rademann (the conductor of the Missa- never heard of him before, but I’ll keep my eyes peeled for future gigs) are about as far apart from each other in their approach as could be, but I think that’s completely wrong. To me, they’re both performing music in a way that is thoughtful, engaged, intense and, you heard it here, authentic. Likewise, that other Eroica and that mysteriously awful Schubert may have sounded different, but they’re really using the same, simplistic, formulaic, tired, imitative approach in which everything depends on which approach you pick- not in what you know, or what you show.
So, here’s three cheers for Eugen Jochum, Hans-Christoph Rademann and authenticity.
And here’s a plea to all my colleagues- remember, there’s no safety in hitching your wagon to the “right” approach. Forget the approach-based approach. Approaches are traps. Authenticity, honesty, intensity, attention to detail, humility, and lots of blood, sweat and tears- that’s the only path to truly great performances.
“I don’t think it matters too much if you use a large or a small choir, old or new instruments; what they must be is lively and dramatic. Expression is the heart of the matter.”