May 25, 2015

From "Fuck no!" to "Hell yes!"...


The title of this post refers to what is arguably the most rewarding, if only too rare, response to a musical performance.  In my entire life I had only two listening experiences of this kind.

     One was with Otto Klemperer's 1962 live recording of Beethoven's "Eroica" with the Philadelphia Orchestra.  During the exposition I kept rolling my eyes, wondering how long it would take for my mind to descend into a stupor induced by the glacial tempo and heavy-footed phrasing of this geriatric performance.  By the end of the development section I was already convinced that I will never hear a more shattering interpretation of Beethoven's music.
     The other experience involved Sviatoslav Richter's 1972 live recording of Schubert's B-flat sonata D.960 from Prague.   At first I thought that watching paint dry may actually be a more attractive alternative to sitting through this catatonic performance.  By the end of the exposition repeat, however, I realized that my breathing, my heart rate, perhaps even my metabolism had slowed down to match the pulse of Richter's music making.  The accompanying vague feeling that events in the external world were unfolding at a fast-forward speed was about as close as I could ever hope to come to experiencing the relativistic time dilation effect.

Given that extant recordings of Beethoven's symphonies and Schubert's sonatas - including ancient broadcasts and amateur bootlegs - must number in the hundreds, the chance of having this kind of experience with a piece of contemporary music, whose recordings can be counted on the fingers of one hand, seems vanishingly small.  Which is why I felt lucky just to be reminded of such experiences when I recently heard my second live recording of Carter's Boston Concerto.  The performance took place in Glasgow on May 28, 2014, at one of two all-Carter concerts given by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.  (Just to think of it, in the land of haggis and bagpipes a major orchestra gives back-to-back all-Carter concerts, while in New York - Carter's home town - the Philharmonic's performances of Carter's works are as rare as vacant rent-controlled apartments on the Upper West Side.)
     Conducted by the 80-year old Diego Masson, long a familiar figure in the world of contemporary music, the performance took 20 minutes, four minutes (25%) longer than Oliver Knussen's fleet and sparkling performance recorded live by the BBC in 2008.  (The latter has been available on this blog for some time.)  At such a drastically slowed-down tempo, Carter's evocation of onrushing rain in the opening bars sounded more like the serene gurgling of a decorative waterfall at some Buddhist retreat.  Yet my initial shock wore off rather quickly because Masson's slow tempo brought out layers of exquisitely interwoven instrumental lines with clarity I could not get from the Knussen's performance even after multiple hearings.

I still can't say that I like Masson's conception of this work.  But then so what?  The thrill of being able to hear one of the most beautiful orchestral compositions of the 20th century in such radically different interpretations (not to mention the superb sound quality of BBC's 320 kbs m4a webcasts) is amply rewarding in itself.

1 comment:

Pablo Varela said...

I have to expressions for "wrong" tempo. "Oh shit, my granma could go much faster, and she´s dead" and "what the hell, why are you running, don´t you like the music?"