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Play It This Way, Period!

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
11/12/2000 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Coriolan Overture, Symphony # 8, Violin Concerto
Joshua Bell (violin)
Camerata Academica Salzburg
Sir Roger Norrington (conductor)

One would have had to have been living on Mars for the past ten years not to have been affected by the period instrument movement, an attempt to bring some level of “authenticity” to modern performances of the classics. The practitioners of this philosophy employ original instruments in ensembles approximating the actual size of the bands that would have premiered these masterworks (usually considerably smaller than their modern equivalents). Sir Roger Norrington is one of the leaders of this vanguard but is not totally bound to its severest doctrines. As a participant in this season’s experimentation with the Orchestra of St. Luke's, Norrington is presenting works of the 18th and 19th centuries with smaller forces performing on modern instruments. Love it or hate it, the period movement has challenged some of the most basic conceptions of the modern listener and provoked much thought among those who care about what the old masters really wanted to convey with their musical offerings. Sometimes the radically old instrumentation produces a new balance of power in the orchestra, as, for example, in Beethoven the hard timpani sticks establish a louder and firmer beat than their modern equivalents, making many of the symphonies more dependent on the rhythm and sounding correspondingly modern as a result. Often the original instrumentation sounds odd to 21st century ears. The calls that end the first movement of the Beethoven 7th are devilishly difficult to play on a modern horn, even with the help of pistons and double valves. On the natural horn they are virtually impossible. But further examination of the listening habits of the time reveals that the audience did not always expect or crave “proper” intonation, preferring instead that the sounds that they experienced revealed a blending of the actual and the artificial (this is particularly revealing as a postulate in the program versus absolute argument that haunts Beethoven’s 6th). Leopold Mozart composed a concerto for hunting horns and orchestra wherein the soloists purposefully play discordantly, their dissonant blending evocative of the sounds of the pursuit of the fox (strangely foreshadowing the later experiments of Charles Ives). No longer can a modern listener assume with surety that our endless repetition of the same few dozen classic works in the same tried and true manner would at all please their original creators.

With all this as a caveat, these new ancient performances still need to be judged on their merits and, at the end of the day, on whether they move an audience emotionally and are not just an interesting expression of an arcane theory. In opera, the period style consciously diminishes the emotional content of the singing itself (an aesthetic truly foreign in modern Western music and more reminiscent of Carnatic forms of South Asia) and a case can be made that a similar desensitizing occurs in instrumental music transformed in this distillate way. It was thus especially interesting to hear how Norrington is feeling these days as he presented an all Beethoven program with the Camerata Academica Salzburg this afternoon at Lincoln Center. This chamber orchestra uses modern instruments but has a very small population. So what type of sound could they produce?

Actually, a very thin one. The strings were nowhere near full-bodied enough to convey the bloody brutality of the overture, the winds sloppy and the brass positively dreadful. If you appreciate mime, than perhaps you would have enjoyed the podium manner of Norrington. He is not actually a conductor at all but a cheerleader. The ensemble is small enough so that it doesn’t really need a timebeater, so he performed instead a series of charades during the symphony designed, it would seem, to let the audience know what emotions to feel at any given moment, the players being wholly wrapped up in desperately trying to play all of the right notes. Norrington’s behavior can best be described as puckishness if you like this sort of thing, buffoonery if you don’t. The bus to the airport must have been outside with the motor running, for the tempi were all ridiculously rapid and the leader excised all of the repeats. I know that this is a technique of the early music movement, but this was ludicrous and far beyond the nimbleness of the forces at hand.

A case can certainly be made for dispensing with the Violin Concerto as quickly as possible, but Maestro surprised by choosing a rather standard tempo. To his credit, he curbed his St. Vitus’ dance so as not to upstage the soloist (thus begging the question as to whether these shenanigans were really necessary in the first half of the program: does he respect his own musicians so much less than he obviously does Mr. Bell?). Oddly, this former prodigy does not possess a strong technique. He plays many wrong notes, flattens countless others and releases some too early. His tone is quite unremarkable. And yet his musicianship is strong. Mr. Bell wrote his own cadenzas for this performance and they were very well thought out. He also exhibited a marvel of cogent phrasing in elongating the melodic line of the main theme of the third movement, thus breathing some life into the old chestnut. His obvious love of the music and his personal conception seemed to have inspired the band to play a little more tightly and the second part of the afternoon was much more musical than the first. If Sir Roger really wants to make a strong case for the early music movement, he jolly well better prepare his knights a little more thoroughly. Otherwise the battle will be lost.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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