August 13, 2015

The real "historically informed" performances

Music making doesn't get more "authentic" or "historically informed" than this: an orchestral work performed by conductors who knew the composer very well (and were responsible for commissioning the work in question) and by highly skilled musicians fully capable of meeting the composer's demands for instrumental craft.  And of course the instruments played are those the composer himself would expect to hear in a concert hall.  Compared to these credentials, it is hard to see how the allegedly 'historically informed' performances of works from the Baroque and Classical eras could be anything more than wishful thinking of delusional amateurs and egomaniacal charlatans [1] financed and promoted by record labels desperate to find new ways to sell recordings of already numbingly over-played and over-recorded music.

The work in question - Elliott Carter's Symphonia: sum fluxae pretium spei (1993 - 1996) - also happens to be one of the great symphonies of the century, a work whose harmonic richness, rhythmic ingenuity, and (in the outer movements) sunny playfulness offer a seemingly inexhaustible source of intellectual and emotional rewards.  The five live recordings below (all from directly captured high bitrate webcasts) offer remarkably diverse perspectives on the music and, as a result, a proof that the very notion of "authentic" or "historically informed" performances is simply meaningless.[2]   (The last two of these recordings had been available on my blog before, but the old links are now dead and I thought it would be well to make them available again.)

1. Daniel Barenboim and Staatskapelle Berlin (2008 Berlin).  Barenboim, who premiered the first movement of this symphony (Partita) in Chicago, is the only conductor I know who sees a pronounced romantic streak in Carter's music.  (He is right.)  A good example is the hushed episode for strings and English horn about 4 minutes into the first movement, which Barenboim infuses with the sensuality of Mahler's Adagietto.

2.  Oliver Knussen and the BBC Symphony Orchestra (1998 Manchester).  This is a BBC broadcast recording of the world premiere of the complete symphony. (Knussen's studio recording of this symphony for DG, very fine as it is, feels somewhat synthetic by comparison - most likely because the left channel volume is about 15% too high, which gives the orchestral textures a somewhat hollow feel in the middle of the work's registral space.)

3.  Ryan Wigglesworth and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (2014).  This very fine performance, less propulsive than Knussen's but more attentive to communicating each movement's structurally significant sections, comes from a 2014 all-Carter concert in Glasgow.

4.  Jaap van Zweden and Radio Filharmonisch Orkest (2007,  Concertgebouw).  Van Zweden is not known as an advocate of modernist music, but his high professionalism yields a very credible realization of Cater's monumental score.

5.  Emilio Pomarico and Deutsche Radio Philharmonie (2009 Berlin).  Perhaps it is a matter of recording balance (or somewhat compressed dynamic range), but Pomarico - who works regularly with such cutting edge bands as Ensemble Modern and Klangforum Wien - conducts the edgiest-sounding performance of this work, despite taking nearly 3 minutes longer to get through Adagio tenebroso movement.

To end on a rather melancholy note, not one of the above performances is by an American orchestra.  I suppose the American idea of patriotism does not go beyond waving a flag and stuffing oneself with hotdogs on the Fourth of July...
[1]  Not long ago I listened to a live broadcast of Christopher Hogwood conducting his 'period instrument' band Academy of Ancient Music in an all-Beethoven concert given in Utrecht in 1996.  The very opening of Beethoven's 2nd symphony - feeble, stuttering, and painfully out of tune - would have been enough to convince anyone that the reputation of this conductor was created and kept on life support in the editing rooms of recording studios.   Taken off this life support even for a single concert, it died a swift death within the first few bars of whatever composition was played first on the program.

[2]   The notion of performing a musical work "in the way the composer himself might have heard it" should have been recognized from the start as sheer lunacy by anyone familiar with undeniably authentic yet radically different performances of Mahler's symphonies by the composer's disciples Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer.      


laybl said...

Did I miss the links to the Carter recordings? In my dotage I hesitate to blame others.

You accurately portrayed Christopher Hogwash's with Wilde's thoughts on fox-hunting--"...It's the unbearable interpretations of the unforgivable..."

Rootie said...

Christopher Saw-wood? Its too bad, as there was so much musicological information accompanying his Mozart and Haydn recordings. I actually bought many of them just to read the booklets.

alfred venison said...

yes, tantalizing, so tantalizing. -a.v.

Colin Green said...

I was at the Manchester premiere, and it sounded wonderful. Carter was unable to make it due to ill-health and pre-concert talk was given by John Drummond. The Bridgewater Hall is a splendid acoustic, from anywhere in the hall. You can probably hear me clapping (it was not a large audience)!

I’ve not downloaded these performances yet, but I do have a recording of one by Barenboim in Berlin where he performs the movements in reverse order. I’ve absolutely no idea why, and I imagine that Carter was not best-pleased.