Bad Manners

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

We were just sitting there, listening to music. My friend Bernard the Cellist had come to town and I couldn’t help showing off my system. Someone suggested we hear some Mozart. Like the Requiem, perhaps?

So I pulled out an old SACD of a live performance from Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Vienna 2003. First we heard my favorite part of the recording, the opening measures and the trumpets’ entrance:

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I’ve shared this bit with Copper readers before. Isn’t it a killer? In an instant, the limping strings and mournful winds are drenched in terror. By emphasizing the contrast, Harnoncourt really sells it.

Unfortunately Bernard and I went on listening, and only too soon we heard this:

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At which point Bernard turned to me and intoned fatal words: “Precious. It’s merely precious.”

He did not mean this in a good way. Worse, I knew immediately what he did mean. I had forgotten just how eccentric, even fussy the performance became once it got past that thrilling brass entrance. I’d forgotten, because long ago its eccentricity led me to shelve it and never listen beyond track 1 again. What had possessed me to play it for Bernard?

I mean, this is a guy who can rail for ten minutes at any conductor who dares to change Beethoven’s implicit bowing directions for the famous motive from the Fifth.

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“It’s bowed up-down-up-down. It’s always up-down-up-down! It’s that way in the first movement! All the way through, dammit! And the scherzo! And the finale! Up-down-up-down! Up-down-up-down!” Bernard is not big on whimsy, or “personality,” or “interpretation.” If it’s not up-down-up-down, it’s precious.

This issue tends to infect classical music more than other genres. No one has ever accused Elton John or Katy Perry of giving a mannered, eccentric, or precious performance. Wretched excess is arguably what they do best. And, since they are the creators of their own performing personas, they can be just as mannered, eccentric, or precious as they want to be. You don’t get to say which one of Elvis’s sequin-studded jump suits was, like, too over-the-top.

But if you perform Mozart, watch out. You’re supposed to honor the composer’s intentions, be faithful to the score. You and Chopin or Stravinsky or whoever are expected to execute a version of the Vulcan Mind Meld, to respect John Lennon’s dictum: “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.” Those folks who bought tickets to hear you play? Ha! They actually want you to channel a dead guy. Don’t get carried away.

This is a relatively recent value. Before the advent of Arturo Toscanini (1867–1957), classical artists were allowed to be just as crazy-subjective as Lady Gaga. Okay, maybe not “just as,” but. Toscanini’s contemporary Leopold Stokowski could really put on the dog, and before him Ignace Paderewski could do the Locomotion, and way before them there was Nicolò Paganini, reputed to have sold his soul to the devil. Classical music owns a long history of crazy-subjective musicians.

Toscanini helped change all that. He promised to deliver nothing but the notes, just as Beethoven or Brahms had meant them to be delivered: absolute fidelity to the composer. (I almost slipped and wrote “absolute sound.” My, my.) Arturo T and the NBC Symphony built a reputation on that narrow definition of integrity. The emerging middle-class audience for classical music lapped it up. It fit their notion of value for money, of secure investment in a stable commodity. None of that flashy, unpredictable merchandise for us! Don’t get precious with my Dvořák!

Here in the 21st century, we have apparently become broader-minded. It’s partly due to Harnoncourt. David Allen’s recent essay in the New York Times draws certain parallels between his career and that of Pierre Boulez—like Toscanini, an advocate for literalism—but Allen misses the boat in one important respect: their attitudes toward personal interpretation differed radically. For Boulez, no interpretation was the best interpretation. Increasingly during his long career as a conductor, he blanched out every drop of emotionality from any work he performed, forcing audiences to focus on the music’s architecture, its pitches, rhythms, and textures, while divorcing it from the human psychologies that had arranged them. In contrast, Harnoncourt couldn’t let a measure go by without applying more spin than the material could reasonably support. Results were undeniably personal, yet alienating in almost equal degrees: mannered tempos and tempo changes; hysterical dynamic contrasts; fussy articulations where none seemed necessary.

Where should the line be drawn? How do we know when we’ve left Planet Goldilocks and entered the realm of Tim Burton?

All I can do here is offer a case history or two. In the end, it’s your call.

Let’s begin with the Korngold Violin Concerto. After putting the score aside for several years, noted film composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold completed this work in 1945; it was premiered by Jascha Heifetz, also resident in Los Angeles, who recorded it with conductor Alfred Wallenstein and the L. A. Philharmonic two years later. Here are its opening measures:

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Many critics still think of Heifetz/Wallenstein as the definitive recorded performance. But here’s another that came out just this year, featuring violinist Vilde Frang and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony conducted by James Gaffigan. Same passage:

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Obviously a better recording, and both conductor and soloist brought out some nice things that weren’t as apparent in the premiere performance. Here’s one more reading, from Anne-Sophie Mutter and the London SO conducted by André Previn (Mutter’s husband at the time), no stranger to film music himself. You would expect their collaboration to produce something special, which it did. Same passage:

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What’d you think? Which interpretation did you find most satisfying? Which could you live with longest? Could you slap a label like “underdone” or “overdone” on any of them? Does any particular facet of any interpretation seem mannered?

One of those two performances won a Gramophone Award. Some reviewers heaped scorn upon the other one because they heard excessive schmaltz. Which was which, do you think?

Let’s end with what I hope is a less ambiguous example of mannered performance. Here pianist Zhu Xiao-Mei performs some of the C-Minor Fugue from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier II:

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And here is Glenn Gould offering his interpretation:

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There you go. One pianist balances structural clarity with as much music as possible, while the other turns it into a strained classroom exercise in which the listener is more or less told what to hear.

That second interpretation? I do think it’s precious.

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