Classical Music Buzz > on the record > "Historically Informed" Performa...
Recently I went on a spate of listening to recordings of Mozart piano concertos. For about 50 years I have not been able to get enough of them--they seem to me to be Mozart's "operas without words," the highest form of his non-vocal art. The recordings I chose to hear were mainly those I grew up with, and a few others accrued along the way--recordings by Rudolf Serkin, Edwin Fischer, Daniel Barenboim, Alfred Brendel, and Clifford Curzon, among others. In today's world of the "historically informed performance," all of these classics would probably be denigrated by many critics and scholars as inaccurate representations of how Mozart should really sound. (I continue to want to know which one of these critics or scholars has Mozart's area code. And could they share it with the rest of us?)

The HIP movement, as it has become known, is without question a valuable development in music performance practice. It is a great benefit for us to hear the music of Bach or Mozart or other pre-Romantic composers as they may have envisioned their music to sound. I stress "may have" because we do not, in fact, know--and therein lies the problem for me. I have a growing intolerance for those who insist that music must be played as we believe it was played two hundred years ago--those who proclaim that a richer, more romanticized version of Mozart is a crime against nature.

There are two reasons for my intolerance. One is that despite all the musicological research, we truly do not know, and can never know, how Mozart played the piano. But more important is the fact that we cannot create the original audience. Mozart's audiences never heard Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Shostakovich, or airplanes, car horns, recordings, or a whole bunch of other stuff, musical and otherwise. What was a normal instrumental sound for them is not a normal instrumental sound for today's audience.

What this purist streak has actually done is remove from the orchestral mainstream the music of Bach, Handel, and other Baroque composers (remember when Hamilton Harty's "old-fashioned" suite of Handel's Water Music was standard concert fare?), not to mention fun hybrids like Stokowski's brilliant Bach transcriptions. I can tell you from personal experience that important conductors, those you would like to think were immune from worrying about what critics would say, refused to perform Bach's "Brandenburg" concertos or his orchestral suites, not to mention the B Minor Mass, because they did not want to subject themselves to critical ridicule. (That's silly, I know--they should be worrying about that. But who said that performing musicians were the most secure beings in the world?) The point is they should never have been put in that position: it is simply not "wrong" to perform Bach through the ears of today, or even the 19th century. Anyone who has heard Klemperer's recording of the Saint Matthew Passion, or even Mengelberg's, should understand the beauties of those approaches. Different from "HIP?" Absolutely. Equally valid as a musical experience? Utterly!

The thing that the purists ignore is that composers of the 17th and 18th centuries did not think like they did. Mozart re-orchestrated Handel's Messiah to make it more suitable for the audience of his time. Bach constantly re-arranged his own music and the music of others. Wagner wrote arias for insertion into standard operas such as Norma. Mahler, who re-orchestrated Beethoven and Schumann symphonies, is today subject to those who want to determine the "critical edition" of his scores so that we reproduce them precisely the way he would have. I would imagine that these composers would be either amused or horrified at the "purist" trends in today's music world. Or possibly both.

8 years ago |
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