Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Singing the Songs Without Words

The first volume in Ronald Brautigam's series of Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words for BIS was highly praised for the singing quality of Brautigam's playing, and I'm happy to say there's more beautiful singing, more beautiful playing, on the second disc, to be released June 24, 2016. While we wait for the new album to come to Spotify, here's a track from the first disc which gives one an idea of the sound of the replica of the 1830 Pleyel fortepiano, and the singing quality Brautigam coaxes from it.

In John Eliot Gardiner's Music in the Castle of Heaven, the great conductor talks about the early experiments in playing Baroque music in a style that scholars felt was a good approximation of what Monteverdi or Bach might have known.
Then suddenly we hit a brick wall. The fault was neither theirs nor mine, but that of the instruments we were using – the same as everyone else had been using for the past hundred and fifty years. However stylishly we played them, there was no disguising that they had been designed or adapted with a totally different sonority in mind, one closely associated with a late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century (and therefore anachronistic) style of expression. With their wire or metal-covered strings they were simply too powerful – and yet to scale things down and hold back was the very opposite of what this music, with its burgeoning, expressive range, calls for. 
If this is true for the music of the Baroque, how much more important is it for a Romantic composer like Mendelssohn.  It's true that control is an important part of the pianist's art, but scaling down and holding back the power and range of a Steinway grand piano surely goes against the grain. E.T.A. Hoffmann was there at the invention of Romanticism in music, which he describes in his 1813 essay "Beethoven's Instrumental Music":
Only with this pain of love, hope, joy—which consumes but does not destroy, which would burst asunder our breasts with a mightily impassioned chord—we live on, enchanted seers of the ghostly world!
When the pianist plays a "mightily impassioned chord" by Mendelssohn, and there is much passion in this music, he's holding back on a Steinway, but letting go on a Pleyel. The common perception that Historically Informed Performance is careful and cerebral and timid is all wrong; the best HIP artists are physically engaged in, viscerally linked to, impassioned about the music. That's certainly the case with Brautigam and his Mendelssohn. This music was not written to play in front of hundreds or thousands; rather it is intimate music, written in and for the restrained, classical Biedermeier rooms of the comfortable German middle class. But it is not limited in emotional range; it is truly Romantic. When things get stormy, we hear the storm the way Mendelssohn heard it in his head, and played it for his sister Fanny. In quieter moments, like the first song from Book 6, there's a natural sound, an authenticity, that escapes any pianist on a modern piano. This piece couldn't be more beautifully played than in Daniel Barenboim's classic 1974 set. It's polished to a bright shine, but it's missing a whole level of regret and loss that comes out in Brautigam's performance. The whole emotional range is here, but sounding as it might have in Mendelssohn's parlour. The lover of Mendelssohn, or of fine piano playing, should not miss out on Brautigam's Songs, now complete on two discs.

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