In the last three decades or so music critics have frequently complained (or at least noted) that the arrival of the jet age and the fall of the Iron Curtain have pretty much erased the distinctly national characteristics of music making. Musicians and ensembles around the world, we are told, tend to make music in much the same "international" way regardless of whether they hail from Moscow, Prague, Paris, or New York.
To me the empirical basis of such claims remains elusive. Recordings of orchestral music from an earlier era suggest that styles of music making depend almost entirely on conductors. Conductors who were trained within the same geographical borders (e.g., Klemperer, Walter, Furtwangler, Strauss, Karajan) and worked with the same orchestras (e.g., the Vienna or the Berlin Philharmonic) interpreted the same compositions in ways which differed from one another so much as to make the idea of a 'national style of music making' vacuous at best. And when some of these conductors moved to other countries (e.g., Klemperer to London, Walter to New York) their ways of music making crossed the borders along with them. The only empirically meaningful difference between performances of, say, a Mozart symphony conducted by Bruno Walter in New York, Vienna, and Paris in the 1950s is that the standards of execution maintained by the French orchestra were abominably low, those of the Vienna orchestra barely adequate, and those of the New York orchestra were at the highest level.
If I'm right, then what is likely to have taken place over the last half century is not the disappearance of the so-called national styles of music making, but simply the world-wide acceptance of uniformly high American standards of execution and instrumental craft - the standards set by such tyrannical conductors as Szell, Reiner, Stokowski, and Toscanini, and by superstar instrumentalists like Heifetz, and Horowitz. Once these standards had spread around the world via recordings, broadcasts, and tours, it became next to impossible to sell vague metaphysical or poetic justifications for the sloppy ensemble and poor intonation routinely produced by European orchestras under Furtwangler or Knappertsbusch, or for the torrents of wrong notes heard from such old-timers as Schnabel, Cortot and Rubinstein.
But then I might be wrong. Recently I came across three superbly engineered and impeccably played live broadcast recordings of Mozart's beloved "Dissonance" string quartet (K.465), performed by well-established string quartets from England, France, and Germany. All three performances took place in the same concert hall within the last four years. The performances were so strikingly different from one another that I sent these recordings, without any data identifying the performers, to a friend who listens to a lot of chamber music. I asked her if she could identify the national origins of any of the three quartets (I did tell her which countries were involved) and she nailed the French quartet right away! I suspect she also could make a good guess about the remaining two quartets, but she refused to stick her neck out on the basis of (what she thinks is) less than compelling evidence.
Still, one correct identification, made so quickly and so confidently, was enough to leave me with a nagging suspicion that my view concerning the largely illusory nature of national characteristics in music making may be wrong after all. So I decided to offer these three recordings (with performers identified only as "A", "B", and "C") on my blog to see if the combined intuitions and musical erudition of the blog readers would either vindicate my view or prove it wrong.