Playing music: The lost freedom

  • 16 November 2005
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Listening to live music performances is a habit long gone. Robert Philip's new book tells us what we are missing. By Charles Rosen

Before 1900 in Europe and America, it was at home that music was most often experienced, by family members who played some instrument or sang, and by, willingly or unwillingly, the rest of the family and friends. (In Western society, while the majority of professional musicians may have been male, most music was made by women, who were generally expected to learn to cook, sew and play the piano.)

More exceptionally, music could be heard in some public places: the concert hall, opera house or church.

By the 21st century, all this has changed. Both private and public music are being displaced by recordings. Few people make music themselves at home anymore.

Because of more cramped living space, it is now inconvenient to house a piano, a once indispensable piece of furniture for any household with even modest pretensions to culture and the instrument that for more than a century was the mainstay of classical music.

Outside the big cities, live public music is disappearing as well. Most of the smaller towns that used to have a classical concert series have lost that. Even live symphony and opera broadcasts have been largely eliminated.

At home today, we play CDs. Radio stations play records and CDs. And often ballet companies and theatrical productions play records in place of hiring musicians.

Robert Philip's Performing Music in the Age of Recording is a brilliant analysis of how this has affected performance style. His main thesis is that recording has directed performance style into a search for greater precision and perfection, with a consequent loss of spontaneity and warmth.

Various expressive devices once common in the early 20th century have been almost outlawed.

However, there are other forces at work in this change of approach to musical style that are independent of recording.

For example, a well-known story tells of Arturo Toscanini's visit to Giuseppe Verdi to prepare the first performance of the 'Stabat Mater'. The young conductor asked the aged composer for permission to make a slight ritardando (slowing down) at one point.

"You have to make a ritardando there," replied Verdi.

"But you didn't write one," said Toscanini, and Verdi remarked, "Can you imagine what most conductors would do if I wrote one?"

It is obvious that the freedom of tempo so valued by Philip was both necessary and often disastrously abused.

The pianistic device of playing the left hand on the beat and the right hand just afterward, which Philip calls dislocation, originally derived, from an opera singer's slight hesitation in producing an important and expressive note – as if he or she were momentarily overcome by emotion. It gave the melody note greater sonority and cantabile (or singing) quality, and thus was important for performances given in large public halls. Dislocation also varies the texture by making it more lively.

When the use of it was unremitting, however, in music from Bach to Debussy, it could become self-defeating, imposing expressive style on every passage in every work. Worse, it was an easy and cheap way of sounding expressive, a cuisine of emotion, as if one could smear sentiment thoughtlessly over everything like goose fat without regard for the intrinsic differences of individual phrases.

One of the most fascinating sections of Philip's book is his discussion of how early 20th century composers recorded their works or supervised their performances by other musicians. Philip understands that there is no single answer to the question whether the composers really approved of performances that were sometimes wildly at variance from the text, or whether they were settling for the best they could get, or whether, indeed, they had changed their minds about the works – as so often happens.

The recordings of Bela Bartok are a special case. He was not only a major composer who helped to revolutionise musical style but also a great pianist. Philip, accurate as ever, writes that "his playing sounds surprisingly 'Romantic' in its freedoms," and contrasts Bartok's playing of his own music with that of modern pianists who play it "with a more percussive edge, and treat his rhythms and tempos more strictly, than Bartok did himself."

It is certainly true that Bartok's own performances of his compositions have a relaxed grace that was lost in the work of the younger pianists who took up his music. The fact is, Bartok was both a composer who helped to revolutionise the music of the early 20th century and a traditional pianist in an old-fashioned style. With radical changes of style, it takes more than a decade for performing musicians to catch up and find an adequate way of rendering the new. We can trace this process in recordings of Stravinsky's music, in which what first sounded awkward and unconvincing was later performed with greater ease and more warmth. The trick, as always, is to find a form of expression in performance that is adequate to the new.

Stravinsky's horror when he heard Koussevitzky's direction of his Symphonics of Wind Instruments, for example, was caused by the conductor's imposition of the clichés of romantic performance. It provoked the composer's absurd claim for decades that his music was not expressive in his effort to avoid the peril of irrelevant expression.

The discrepancies between Bartok's text and his playing are not simply explained: First, he expected his music to be performed freely and with the grace and warmth that characterised his own playing; second, his own training as a pianist did not always allow him to cope fully with the originality of his conceptions as a composer. The pianists who followed him were more accurate but lacked the grace he brought to his music.

More recent pianists, however, Andras Schiff in particular, have both recovered much of Bartok's graceful quality and retained the greater fidelity to the text. Do we want to hear what Bartok played or what he wrote? Both, if possible, and at the same time.

Some years ago, before performing Elliott Carter's piano concerto, I played a few passages for the composer, and asked him if they were fast enough. "They sound almost too fast," he replied. "I've reduced your metronome marks by 20 percent throughout," I remarked.

In the performances I had heard, the passages most difficult to play or hear had been slowed, while the easier ones were played up to the tempo indicated, and the result was to homogenise the textures and eliminate the contrasts. It is important to keep the relationship of different tempi in Carter's work, but the general tempo of the entire piece may be varied by the interpreters.

Composers may often badly estimate what would be an effective tempo, but the inner proportions of each work are integral to its conception, to its logic. Composers expect their music to be interpreted with the kind of freedom that makes sense of it, not pedantically or with the freedom that comes from the routine imposition of an earlier style.

The changes in musical performance registered by Philip were part of a larger movement in all the arts, in the paring away of the cliches of romantic excess. Listening to a recording of Sarah Bernhardt intoning Racine makes one laugh today. Nevertheless, as in music, the turn to a less mannered style of performance, a more informal way of speaking the verse, has resulted in a loss of poetry.

The purpose of recording changed radically during the 20th century. At first, on 78 rpm records, there was time only for short pieces, mostly encore pieces. More ambitious projects were then started involving sets of records: 32 Beethoven sonatas played by Artur Schnabel, the first act of 'Die Walkure' with Lotte Lehmann, conducted by Bruno Walter.

When all the Beethoven quartets and all the Haydn symphonies were put on records, it was no longer a performance that was being recorded, but a body of music. The emphasis had shifted. Performance is properly ephemeral; musical works endure.

When a recording is intended to be a renewable image of the music rather than the capture of an individual performance, then even eccentric details become less desirable.

But if a record is to be an adequate representation of the music, to be heard not once, but many times over, some of this loss is inevitable and even right.

On the other hand, the concert, imperfect as it may be, has compensations that no record can bring: a competent live performance of the introduction to the last movement of Mozart's G minor string quintet brings tears to my eyes. I have never wept at a record.

There are, however, enough recordings where precision and a sober lack of mannerism reach a state of grace. Among them are Schnabel's recording of Mozart's Rondo in A minor, Kreisler's performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto, Solomon's Prelude and Fugue in A minor by Bach arranged by Liszt, Frieda Leider's Immolation scene from 'Gotterdammerung,' Rosa Ponselle and Giovanni Martinelli in the last scene of 'Aida', Toscanini's performance of Debussy's 'Iberia'. Everyone can make his own list.

Philip's book is part of an ongoing movement. Young Italian pianists, patriotically inspired by old recordings of Ferrucio Busoni, are enthusiastically applying the old devices of dislocation and arpeggiation with some benefit to romantic music (and some comic effect in Bach and Beethoven).

Perhaps the best thing about Philip's book is the way it makes us appreciate the heritage that recording has given us, and forces us to recognise the limitations of our taste by an understanding of what has gone out of fashion. He allows us to estimate how much we have lost in our rejections.

© The New York Review of Books