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.


  1. PS I have noticed some other recordings of 'early music' where the artist(s) use the technical possibilities of overdubbing. A strange phenomenon in these waters, so it would seem to me. Richard Egarr did so on the canons based on the first eight notes of the bassline of the Goldberg-aria in his recording of the Goldberg variations. Bruno Cocset dubbed the cantus firmus played on his 'Bettera' viola-cello in his latest, Nun komm der Heiden Heiland'
    (chorales, trio's and the three sonatas for obbligato harpsichord and viola da gamba. The fact that this could never happen in real life, real time makes it a bit weird. Why not get a good colleague in? Ought to be more fun, too!

  2. I happened to be present at this recording. Patricia Kopatchinskaja originally asked the concertmaster to do the cadenza in duo, as she often does on stage. But he thought that this should be all her own recording. So she asked the sound-engineer and recorded the the cadenza with overdubbing instead of having lunch.

    As said above Patricia is mostly in contemporary music and is never shy to do surprising things. Why not take this with a grain of humour, especially if the result is as breathtaking as this cadenza???