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8.8.10

Free Bach from the HIPsters (Part 1)














Our enjoyment from conductors and ensembles like Nikolaus Harnoncourt, René Jacobs, and Rinaldo Alessandrini, the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, and the Quatuor Mosaique shows us how much historicism has enriched our musical experiences.

But it has done so by effectively, severely curtailing them, by stigmatizing alternative approaches interpretations. How? Because historicism, as useful and as necessary a concept enabling restorative work it is, happens to go against the very grain of the music it purports to save: It kills off improvisatory interpretation. While it removes layers of accumulated bad habits called ‘tradition’, it assigns a new rigidity in how music is to be consumed which takes away the freedom—expected, anticipated, and encouraged—to add, adapt, and alter music to circumstance, ability, whim, and current fashion.

HIP restaurateurs have, in saving the original substance, unwittingly killed the spirit of early music. Akin to the Greek statues that became white marble perfections that have less in common with the (colorful) original than it does with our projections of presumed purity. I cannot tell how much an achingly earnest, painstakingly researched, historical instrument-using, pitch-adjusted small ensemble performance of a baroque work shares in common with the original. But perhaps it isn’t more than our belief how the Barberini Faun ought to look (just like the Roman copy: white marble) has in common with the (speculative) original, completely covered in ‘garish’ colors.

This is not the beginning of an article bashing historically informed performances or its practitioners. I love them. The interpretive laziness they’ve put an end to, alone! Thank goodness for the Bach cantatas of Philippe Herreweghe, the Mozart operas of René Jacobs, the Haydn Creation of McCreesh, Adrian Chandler’s Vivaldi, Marc Minkowski’s Handel, or John Elliot Gardiner’s Brahms. It is not their wonderful work that has done any damage per se, but the historicism behind it that makes us more receptive to the efforts of the aforementioned and less so to other, different concepts. The open range of genuinely contemporary (as opposed to eternal) emotions expressed through an old artwork is now only present in opera stagings. But dare anyone mess with the music; the perpetrators would have a pack of critics on their back.

Like a new species set free in an alien environment, historicism ceases to be enriching and begins to be stifling when there is a trend to de-diversify in the music world, when projects that might once have felt natural are now not undertaken. We still play Bach on the piano, of course, but where is the Matthew Passion with Christian Thielemann?*[1] The thought alone would seem absurd to some. But might he not also feel the urge to play this apex of Western musical achievement? (He does.) And in a way that his musical conscience would dictate him? I, for one, want to hear that, because I think we’d be the poorer for not having heard it.

Of course it would be radically different from Konrad Junghänel’s. It would have to be. But is it any less ‘valid’ for that? Historicism says yes, I say no. And yet we don’t have a Thielemann Matthew Passion, or Barenboim Monteverdi, or Handel with James Levine. And Simon Rattle’s Haydn gets mocked. An anti-Zeitgeist baroque or even classical project could count on ruthless criticism these days, and the dismissive attitude (even before any actual concert had taken place) could be bet large sums of money on. Even Haydn and Mozart are slowly disappearing from regular Philharmonic programs, which is why it is Dennis Russell Davies’ declared mission to ‘wrest [them] from the jaws of the period performers. (See also “Why Haydn Should Be Mandatory”.) As long as the historicist attitude is as prevalent as it is now, we are depriving ourselves of a constantly rejuvenated classical music scene where works are not only re-interpreted into the HIP, but all conceivable directions. It’d be an important first or second step after we have learned not to take classical music so darn seriously. (Right after we re-learn to clap after the first movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. But that’s a topic for a different day.)

Without comment, I would like to quote Gustav Mahler on the subject of Bach performance, as he put it to Natalie Bauer Lechner in 1901 (as quoted in Henri Louis de La Grange, Gustav Mahler – Vienna: The Years of Challenge):

Bach often reminds me of those stone effigies lying with folded hands on top of their tombs, and which always move me because they suggest the continuation of life beyond the limits of existence. They seem to be fervently desiring the survival of the soul, and to believe in it now more than they did during their lifetime. Bach, too, has something so petrified about him that only a small minority are capable of making him come alive. This is because of all those bad performances of his works in which nothing conjures up the great cantor playing to himself on the harpsichord. Instead of true Bach, his interpreters give the public nothing but a wretched skeleton. The chords that were intended to give this marvelous fullness of body are simply left out, as though Bach had provided a figured bass without rhyme or reason. And yet it must be played, and what a magnificent roar those rising and falling chords produce. This is how you should perform […] all the Cantatas, and you would be amazed at the sound they would produce…

[I would like to perform the Matthew Passion, enhancing the polyphony by placing an orchestra and a chorus on each side of the stage.] I would place a third chorus, to represent the congregation of the faithful, the people, somewhere else, and in addition, a boys’ choir as high up as possible, around the organ, so that their voices would seem to come from heaven. You would see what an effect it would have, sharing out questions and answers, instead of having it all run together higgledy-piggledy, as they usually do nowadays. But for that I would need a different hall from that of the Musikverein, perhaps a huge drill hall like the one… where I conducted Paulus with choruses from all the neighboring towns.


Almost more telling are excerpts from the reviews of 1901 Philharmonic concerts not conducted by Mahler—yet are all about Mahler, by negative analogy:
To be sure, [conductor Josef Helmesberger] does not present all of Beethoven, but neither does he try to present anything other or more than Beethoven. The audience would rather complete the picture in its imagination than have to remove extraneous elements from it. A portrait from which a few of the sitter’s features are missing will always seem a better likeness and more successful than even the cleverest of images or reproductions containing the slightest foreign element. I am both willing and able to hear more than is offered me with my inner ear, but I cannot, even with the utmost good will, cut out anything that I actually hear… An atmosphere of profound peace pervaded the hall, every personal element, in so far as it did not come from Beethoven, seemed to have been erased, and we all experienced perfect happiness, as though we had left our nerves behind in the cloakroom.




[1] Sergiu Celibidache, Thielemann’s predecessor with the Munich Philharmonic, still got to perform a Mass in B Minor; but its release on CD is a mere footnote in the Celibidache discography; a curiosity for the devoted Celi-collector.

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