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.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The problem with concerts

In 1923 Paul Valéry wrote an article entitled "Le problème des musées", in which he decried the move of artistic objects from places of worship to museums:
Je perçois tout à coup une vague clarté. Une réponse s’essaye en moi, se détache peu à peu de mes impressions, et demande à se prononcer. Peinture et Sculpture, me dit le démon de l’Explication, ce sont des enfants abandonnés. Leur mère est morte, leur mère Architecture.
I thought of these "abandoned children" when I listened to the latest Resound Beethoven disc, which attempts to re-settle Beethoven's works, ill-housed in alien modern concert halls, back to their mother's bosom: the very halls and theatres where they were first heard in old Vienna. Context is provided when we listen to a concert that's recorded in the very space in which it was first heard.

This latest twist on Historically Informed Performance is really only another approximation, since of course we'll never precisely bridge that two-century gap between the performance of the Consecration of the House Overture at the opening of the Josefstadt Theatre on 3 October 1822 and today. It's very rare that we come across a treasure in its very "find-spot", the term archaeologists use to refer to the place where an object is dug up. But the Josefstadt Theatre is still there, and still available as a concert and recording venue. To return to the world of museums, Philippe de Montebello re-states this problem:
On the matter of moving an altarpiece back into a church, this is no more than just a spacial re-integration, for the temporal element has been lost forever. We are not 15th- or 16th century Italians and cannot ever imagine what it was like to live in northern Italy in that period. *
But that, I believe, is overstating the case. Of course we can imagine what it was like to be those Italians, or those 19th century Viennese. That's why we call it imagination. If we're serious about wanting to hear music the way Beethoven's audiences heard it, every little bit helps. We're all museum-goers in the world, and we're dead in the water if we can't imagine the world of 1822, or the world of last Wednesday. When we listen to Stayin' Alive by the Bee Gees, can we ever imagine what it was like to dance to this music in Studio 54 in 1977?  Crank up your stereo, light up your disco ball, give it a twirl, and dance! There you go.

Back to this disc. It would be only an interesting, esoteric, minor experiment if it were not for the superb playing by the Orchester Wiener Akademie under Matin Haselbock. John Malkovich provides an amazing theatrical experience in the Egmont narration and melodramas. Here we're on more solid ground, for aren't we used to imagining the original character an actor plays even if it's centuries from its creation? I'm excited to think that I'm listening to something close to what the audience heard in the Josefstadt Theatre back then, even if Beethoven heard nothing. The impressive music production by Stephan Reh and sound engineering by Martin Rust provides a musical experience so different from what we usually hear when we listen to Beethoven. Sure it's a kind of museum experience, but we're in the hands of superb curators here.

* In Rendezvous With Art, with Martin Gayford, 2014, p. 50.

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