Sunday, January 31, 2010

Kopatchinskaja's Beethoven

Where does music stop being "early music"? There was a time when early music was music written before the era we call "baroque". But in time the term "early music" was more and more associated with historical performance practice. And as a result magazines and sites devoted to early music contain reviews of discs with 19th- and even 20th-century music, performed on period instruments.

As a reviewer of MusicWeb International I am given the opportunity to choose the discs I want to review. And I never choose recordings of music composed later than around 1800. If I would choose later music it certainly won't be Beethoven. I have some problems with his music: I listen to it now and then, but if I look on my shelves for music to listen to, I hardly ever take Beethoven.
But in my capacity as a reviewer for the German magazine Toccata/Alte Musik Aktuell I receive discs which the editors have selected. So I can't prevent getting some 19th century music to review. This explains how a new recording of Beethoven's Violin Concerto op. 61 landed on my desk.

I was wondering whether we really needed another recording of a solo concerto which has been recorded numerous times. Only a small number of these recordings are on period instruments but some of them are very good, like those by Thomas Zehetmair with Frans Br├╝ggen and Viktoria Mullova with John Eliot Gardiner, and therefore hardly need competition. But I was wrong: Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Philippe Herreweghe have something to offer which is different from what we already had.
I had never heard of Ms Kopatchinskaja, but I understand she is mostly performing contemporary music. This explains one aspect of her recording - more about that later.

First: apart from the violin concerto we get the two Romances. Nothing special here as many recordings offer the same combination. What is special, though, is that Ms Kopatchinskaja and Herreweghe have also recorded the fragment of a violin concerto in C, catalogued as WoO 5. To my knowledge this is the first recording on period instruments.

But then the Violin Concerto. In the booklet Robin Stowell pays much attention to the first performer of this concerto which dates from 1806. Beethoven had dedicated his concerto to this violinist, Franz Clement (1780 - 1842). "Reviews suggest that his elegant and graceful performing style differed from that of many of his contemporaries, particularly other violinists in Beethoven's circle such as Rodolphe Kreutzer, Pierre Rode, George Polgreen Bridgetower, and Ignaz Schuppanzigh. As the correspondent of the Allgemeine musicalische Zeitung observed (1805), its hallmarks were 'not the marked, bold, powerful playing, the gripping, striking Adagio, the power of bow and tone which characterise the Rode-Viotti School'. By contrast, Clement's playing had 'an indescribable delicacy, neatness and elegance, as extremely delightful tenderness and cleanness'...". It is these characteristics Patricia Kopatchinskaja tries to emulate, and as far as I can tell she is doing so quite succesfully. Her playing is indeed very elegant, with a light touch, but without getting boring as one would perhaps fear.

That is all fine and well. But the cadenzas are damaging this performance.
The booklet tells: "Kopatchinskaja also contributes her own arrangements of Beethoven's original cadenzas for the piano version; these have inevitably required some 'overdubbing' in order to realise the piano part on the violin". I don't understand this. Kopatchinskaja is not the first to look to the piano version for the cadenzas, but why would a violinist want to use all the parts? The effect is that we get cadenzas here which are not idiomatic for the violin. It is as if Beethoven had asked the pianist to play just the violin part with one hand.
Is this historical performance practice? I don't think so. Interpreters are supposed to do only what is historically plausible. Manipulating a recording in the studio is not what I consider historically plausible. Not because in Beethoven's days recording a performance was impossible, but because the cadenzas Kopatchinskaja plays can never be played on the concert platform, neither in Beethoven's days nor in our's.

The cadenzas also contain passages which were certainly unthinkable in the composer's time. This is where Kopachinskaja's experience in contemporary music comes to the fore as some of the passages in the cadenzas sound very modern to my ears. Again, this is far away from anything that can be called 'historically plausible'.
There is nothing wrong with originality and creativity in the performance of music of the past. But these qualities should always be embedded in a performance which reflects the aesthetics of the composer and his time.

I'm afraid this recording is another example of representatives of the historical performance practice compromising the very foundations of its existence.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The dumbing down of a classical channel

A kind of uproar among lovers of classical music in the Netherlands has broken out. The reason is the rescheduling of the programmes of the classical channel of public radio, Radio 4. One aspect in particular has caused the anger of serious music listeners. The early morning show, with various classical music and news from the music scene, presented by someone who within the last years has developed into the most celebrated presenter of classical music, has been cancelled.

Instead we get a show with lighter classical pieces and political news, presented by someone who has made a career as a host of sports programmes. The debate in the forum of Radio 4 went out of hand, at least in the eyes of the editorial staff. Comments by listeners were considered inappropriate and insulting, and they pulled the plug.
This, of course, only stirred up the anger, as the staff was accused of arrogance and being unwilling to accept criticism.

The reasoning behind the rescheduling is the attempt to increase the audience, and in particular to attract young people. The early morning show was considered too difficult and the presenter too 'elitist'. As a columnist in a newspaper put it: his only fault is that he can pronounce the word 'counterpoint'.

The manager of the channel believes that people will be attracted to Radio 4 when they get the daily news in alternation with more 'easy-listening' classical music. No serious music lover believes this is going to happen. What causes most anger is the impression that the people who are in charge don't take classical music really seriously. Why, it is asked, should everything be simple and easy, and why should everything be adjusted to what young people are supposed to like?

The opponents consider the rescheduling as just another stage in the dumbing down of the classical channel. It is, as some say, dumb enough as it is.
O tempora, o mores, as the Romans said.

Monday, January 25, 2010


A considerable number of releases with classical music are reissues. Some of these have even be reissued before, for instance when the vinyl was replaced by the CD. But some recordings are reissued for the first time.
I like especially recordings from the late 1960s and the 1970s, during the early and still strongly experimental years of the historical performance practice. Many of them I have purchased during those years but as I ddn't have them on CD I haven't heard them for ages.

It is interesting to listen to them so many years later. I am always curious to know if I like them just as much as I liked them when I first heard them. Sometimes so many better performances have been released since that their value is only historical, documenting a stage in the development of the performance practice of early music. But in other cases they still make great listening.

The reissue of a recording of orchestral overtures by Telemann, with the Concentus musicus Wien under Nikolaus Harnoncourt, is a very good example. Some of these overtures are quite well-known and have been recorded more recently. Technically some of these recordings may be better in that the skills to handle the period instruments have greatly advanced. But at the same time I often observe a loss in the amount of expression as well as a habit of making compromises in the application of what is known about how music was performed in the baroque era.

The way Harnoncourt realises the effects Telemann has incorporated in his music is still unsurpassed. In comparison with his highly evocative and often even provoking interpretations more recent recordings are not seldom bland and superficial.
When I listen to a new recording of well-known repertoire, by Johann Sebastian Bach for instance, I regularly turn to older recordings, from the 1970s and 1980s. Quite often the older recordings are better as far as the interpretation is concerned. Take Bach's sonatas for keyboard and violin. In recent years I listened to a handful of new recordings, and in most cases I was severely disappointed about the way they were performed. Turning then to one of the very first recordings of these sonatas on period instruments, by Gustav Leonhardt and Sigiswald Kuijken, I concluded that their interpretations are unsurpassed since.

There is so much more knowledge about historical performance practices, and the mastery of period instruments has vastly improved. But that hasn't necessarily led to more convincing interpretations. If performances of more than 30 years ago are still top of the bill, that should give food for thought.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Musical Clock

If you read this you have probably found my weblog through my website, musica Dei donum. That site is mainly devoted to reviews of CDs and live performances. I was planning to add news and views regularly, but as you follow the corresponding link on my site you will find only two articles from long ago. For some reason it didn't work that way. So I am reserving that part of my page for longer articles which may appear from time to time.
For shorter messages with news and comments a weblog seems more appropriate, and I hope to write messages on a regular basis - which explains the title.
The subjects can be everything regarding (classical) music, and in particular early music. I could also write about things which are more indirectly related to music.
Right now I don't exactly know what the range of subjects is going to be, but hopefully the messages will be of some interest to you.
Reactions are welcome, as long as they comply with the rules of decency.