Does yesterday's music come too easily to today's supervirtuosos?
New York — IS the remarkable technical accomplishment of today's performers -- solo and orchestral -- somehow interfering with the communication of the composer's particular vision? This question is an important facet of the current issue that is most discussed in the music world, that of performance practice (otherwise translated as fidelity to the composer's intentions).
There are many other questions this issue invites. What did the composer really hear? Would Bach have liked today's newest B"osendorfer piano? Would Mozart be happy hearing his symphonies performed by an orchestra equipped with metal strings (rather than gut), valved brass, and other modern instruments? Can a performance by one of today's supervirtuosos, of a concerto written for an earlier, less refined standard of virtuosity, really ``tell'' us what the composer had in mind?
A few seasons ago, after raving about a stupendous performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall, I was taken to task -- albeit in a friendly way -- by a musician. He suggested I ``fell for'' a performance that had as its goal, in his view, mere prettiness instead of a gruff aspect of the Mahlerian struggle that could come only from technical limitations.
I recalled this discussion while sitting in Carnegie Hall last week, reveling in a magnificent account of Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto by Itzhak Perlman and the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Seiji Ozawa, its music director.
Perlman's playing was so effortless, one could easily fixate on that aural experience and go home satisfied. And yet, his performance was about so much more than sonic upholstery: He dug down through the stuffing to the frame of this moody, difficult work, which makes few obvious concessions to virtuosity and facile tune-crafting.
With Ozawa's appropriately muted accompaniments, Perlman explored the moods in hushed hues. The quieter he played, the more expressive he became. Yet, at those moments when the violin must dominate, his tone soared out with thrilling richness.
The occasional shifts to the sardonic found Perlman more than willing to let the tone become edgy, even harsh, to make the musical point. His ability to keep the tension alive throughout the long, challenging cadenza that bridges the final two movements was the sign of the master musician we don't always hear in Perlman these days.
But did Shostakovich really expect the violinist's struggles with this demanding score to add a gritty astringency that Perlman did not have to worry about?
In my view, composers heard something absolute, which they instinctively knew future generations would strive to realize. The current arguments for stylistic fidelity are certainly worthy of consideration, but when taken too literally, they stultify and limit the making of music. Musical progress is about transcending the standards of the past generations. It is about progressive insights into the monuments -- greater and lesser -- of musical history and making them speak to each new generation of musi c lovers.
The mania for fidelity to period performance practice, be it 18th century or 20th, is not without its positive aspect. It is instructive, indeed often revelatory, to hear Bach or Mozart played on original instruments. Any pianist who has no idea what Beethoven heard on his keyboards has a feebler appreciation of the composer's vision than one who has. (That sound may even help the performer solve some interpretive points along the way.) Portamento in Mahler or Strauss gives an added insinuative smoothn ess to many melodic lines.
Was Karajan's Mahler Ninth too pretty? Was Perlman's Shostakovich too effortless?
Some might think so.
I heard in both performances a liberation from the tyranny of technical worries that enabled the performers to soar to greater communicative heights than I have ever heard elsewhere in either piece.
As the opposite side of the issue, I would cite, in the instance of the Mahler Ninth, the Israel Philharmonic hampering Leonard Bernstein at every turn of his recent Carnegie Hall performance, because of its technical imperfections. Bernstein triumphed in spite of his orchestra, Karajan because of it.
Neither reading was about mere prettiness, but Karajan was better able to get the nuance of his views across because of the unprecedented technical capabilities of the ensemble.
Clearly, then, today's polished virtuosity can liberate and illuminate, but only when used as a means to a musical, rather than exhibitionistic, end.