Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Yes, but it's not this year's shiver...

Gerhard Richter Confrontation 1 (German 1988)

I was pleased to see the lion, Edward Elgar, made news this morning. Amid a controversy no less. To me the late British composer has always been unjustly pinned under the mantle of his own most famous work, the ubiquitous graduation march, "Pomp and Circumstance". There's much to love in his work, and his patently British air. In a recent listen to his Cello Concerto I found myself thinking silver thoughts of thoughtful, recessively romantic actor, Trevor Howard in David Lean's 1945 masterpiece, Brief Encounter. That air seems to know neither sweat nor panic. Celia Johnson runs for the stairs, there's no shortness of breath, no hysterics. Only Rachmaninov.

The flap, since I brought it up, concerns vibrato, a resonant effect prized in today's performances--and, because of spatial and technological conditions of times past, a recent improvement to the presentation of musical performance. As it happened, a conductor named Roger Norrington, a self-appointed restorationist, decided for an upcoming performance of "Pomp and Circumstance" to (maybe!!!!) go back to the old non-vibrato sound that would've been of the element in Elgar's time. The idea was to hear the music as it originally sounded.

To be honest I didn't really have much of a strong opinion on the subject at first, though the argument itself fascinated me instantly. One commentor on The New York Times website decried Norrington's decision as "Taliban-like", while another exclaimed "YUCK" at the very thought of a cello subjected to such vulgar and antiquated treatment. I'm from the School of Put the Mono Version on Disc 1 and the Stereo Version on Disc 2 and You Decide. It's a rock music sensibility, and I have to say, it fosters a less combative discussion.

Or are classical music people always storming around just looking for a fight?

Many of the folks whose responses I read this afternoon came across as musicians themselves. That may be the problem right there; I absolutely never cared what they thought. For one thing the body resonance with their instruments grants them altogether different listening experiences. Not to say they don't own home stereos, or go out to the symphonies on their days off. But as lay people, we the listening set thrive on this kind of contrastive formulation. It is precisely how we come to understand a work of art. What's more it's common for a first impression to be a negative one, and still produce with further, varied exposures, a warm composite concept of the work. Hear the uneasy peace in Leonard Bernstein's introduction to his collaborative performance of Brahms' D Minor Concerto, with pianist, Glenn Gould. That he felt compelled to give prefatory notes at all revealed Bernstein's misgivings. However his subsequent performance fell in with Gould's concept of the Concerto; he bitched a little, then rolled up his sleeves and did his job.

The idea of ridiculing, or worse still occluding, a point of artistic juxtaposition (or at least any one not causing bodily harm or emotional trauma) sounds both foolishly short-sighted and even a little elitist. Added to which there is a pettiness in expecting the comfort of a fulfilled expectation from a musical experience. Many people who responded did so as though the fire of good sense itself had been snuffed out on Elgar's annual vintage.

What fails to resonate in Norrington's chilly Elgar--should he go that route, might yet be made up in performances of years to come, or in the warmth of an unexpected controversy, which requires we wait no longer.

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