June 19, 2015

Fiddlers under the same roof

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.


Pablo Varela said...

Now I´m downloading the file for listen carefully those performances, a big challenge for me, because I`m a "symphonic man", only a little part of my record collection is devoted to chamber music, but "Dissonance" is one of my favorite Mozart works.
But before I want to say a few words about what you said about orchestral technique in Europe after the war, and how the American orchestras impecable intonation was spread over the whole world.
Yes, I agree that the instrument technique and ensamble coordination would be rather imperfect in the old times, but there is a greatness in the way they make music that is so difficult to find today, when Cortot plays the Kinderszenen is very difficult to me to just stay with some wrong note or rythmic failure that could happend, the music sourranded me, and make me feel the conection with Schumann. Also Schnabel, he wasn´t exactly what we should cold a virtuoso, but he perform Beethoven Third PC like only a few can do it.
While I was re-washing Schubert "Unfinished" by Furtwangler recorded in Paris with de BPO, I notice something never took my attention, lot of early entrances, specially the horns, that creates an appoggiatura feeling, you know, like a 1/32 tie note before the bar; but the performance was incredibly moving, very deep touching heart.
I don´t know, I feel like in the last 30 years we have great technicians with lot of care in his music making, trying to be historical informated, to have the right edition, the best aproach to the score but only a few have something personal to said about the music.
It was just a little (long) reflexion about how I feel music today.

Boom said...


I love the music making of the old-school conductors and instrumentalists as much as you do - especially their way with the orchestral music of Mozart.

I think, though, that the paucity of musicians who have something deeply personal (and interesting and moving) to say about the music they play is common to every age. In the days of Furtwangler, Walter, and Toscanini (to mention just some), there were countless time beaters whose music making was just as routine and impersonal as that of today's time beaters. Talent of high caliber has always been a rare commodity...

klemen golner said...

Hi Boom,
I listened the recordings you posted.
In my opinion the first one is from Engilsh, second is French and third is German
Greetings from Slovenija,

Pablo Varela said...

As I said, I'm not exactly a chamber music specialist and only a few ideas about national schools so I apologize you in advace if you think I'm deaf or full of preconcepts about music, both things can be true.

I´m sure that "A" recording was made by a british SQ, don´t ask me exactly why, but I hear a huge distinct between legato and single notes, the cello part, specially at the beginnig of the first movement is so... irritating, playing like a continuo player, makes me feel the very opening bars like a dotting rythm, signing cadential points (IV-V-I motif) like capital moments like in baroque music, but this is Mozart, he's not ending every 8 or 16 bars. Cello aside, the hole playing is quite dry and not specially imaginative or charming, very "how is supposed to be played on Mozart times", far from what I think Mozart have in mind.

I imagine the "B SQ" as french, so seductive playing, beautiful legato, although the single notes were well signed when the were needed, but is specially remarkable the way the music was performed, I hear/feel waves of sounds that comes to you and softly disappear and some kind of rubato that makes me remember Benjamin Zander when he talks about "one bottom playing", this is not specific french but something say to me that they are from Debussy's country, I have a very lovely time hearing this recording.

The "C SQ" is quite an enigma for me, just say that I like their playing, not wonderfull but enjoyable, specially the final movement, they run a lot in the first movement, but is coherent with the idea they have about this work, full of anxiety and drama, unlike the "B" SQ, they don´t present the music in terms of beauty, but in terms of more deeply feelings, maybe the only of the 3 that works about it. I notice a certain of things that makes me doubt, one is the fact that they have omitted repetitions (could happend on 1950s german playing school, but today?, could be french players more close to not to repit double bars?), second, maybe just an illussion, I notice some light bowing or week tone on both violins and I don´t think the german playing in terms of "week tone". (Not full bowing also appears on "B" SQ, but clearly accidental, some not good fingering that produce accidental harmonics insted of the proper note). In short, the dramatic exposition of the music and the solid construction of the musical discurss make me think that they are germans.
Forgive me for my poor and short of words english, I hope you and your visitors can understand what I said.
Best regards

Boom said...

Klemen and Pablo,

Many thanks for your comments!

Please email me and I will give you the info on performers. (My email address is at the top of the blog's main page.)