The Well-Tempered Music Guy

Simple thoughts by a simple listener on classical music

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Thoughts on Harnoncourt

I was so happy with how this went, and it was a great privilege to speak one-on-one with such a luminary of the music world. A few thoughts on the exchange:

First, I marvel, reviewing the transcript, at Harnoncourt's eloquence. He has a way with words that shines through his relative unfamiliarity with English. The "beautiful, fat marmalade" comment was very apt and probably the funniest moment in the interview, but what stood out for me was his characterization of spending time in libraries researching performance practice as a "good waste of time." He cleverly uses an oxymoron to express two ideas that are in tension with each other. On the one hand, his research helped freshen the music and make it transparent, but on the other, the most important aspect of performance is musical insight. Spending your vacation in a library is interesting and illuminating, but if you do not have your own vision of Bach's genius, communicable to today's audience, you are ultimately wasting your time.

On a different note, there were a couple points at which I could have questioned him further. For instance, he says that you can't just put together a bunch of great players and say you have a great orchestra, in response to my question about performing Mozart and Beethoven on modern instruments. But from what I understand, this is precisely what was done to create the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, a band he regularly conducts and the one with which he traversed Beethoven's orchestral works on record. I thought it would be a bit flippant, however, to raise this point, and I was not entirely sure about the COE's origins.

It also would have been interesting to explore more specifically what experience had taught him about the Bach passions. To explain why I didn't question about such specifics, I must note that his wife, Alice, had asked that I not grill him on Bach, since he was currently working on Mozart (or, apparently, Haydn). I thought asking him about specific interpretive decisions in his recent passion recordings would veer close to violating this request. Nevertheless, if I had been able to continue the interview, my next questions would have been about some of his more general decisions, such as the shift away from boy choirs.

Finally, I'd like to comment about a point we discussed, the trope of period performance being overly academic and unfeeling. Harnoncourt himself repeated the criticism, saying that "sometimes" the technical problems are addressed and nothing else.

Again, I felt an urge to ask: when has this happened? Who are you talking about? I think that if I had the privilege to discuss the issue with Trevor Pinnock, John Eliot Gardiner, Ton Koopman, Phillipe Herreweghe, Paul McCreesh, etc., etc., they would all respond in the same way as Harnoncourt. They are primarily concerned with making great music, of doing the best they can with Bach's music, not creating some kind of academic, historical document. Many adopt practices in some aspects of a performance that they know conflict with the original performance in Bach's day. But (for instance) Gardiner feels that a chorus of women just sounds better than a chorus of boys. And of the original-instrument conductors mentioned above, the newest ones on the scene, Herreweghe and McCreesh, are even better examples. Herreweghe tends to adopt slower speeds, a mellower tone and more legato phrasing than other such conductors (see, for example, his and Gardiner's versions of "et in terra pax" in the B Minor Mass). And McCreesh goes for sheer energy and excitement, in a more modern way (he refers to his recording of Handel's Messiah as a "Messiah for the 21st Century).

I think the issue of period performance being scholarly rather than musical has been rendered moot by the passage of time and the acceptance of the medium, and Harnoncourt and his critics are simply stuck in a debate that raged when the novel technical aspects of period performance still overwhelmed the musical insight. Towe's complaints, aired in his entertaining and illuminating interview, are completely valid. Bach playing that is harsh and overly staccato, and fails to connect the notes, is not only musically unconvincing, but also probably inauthentic (how could it be otherwise?). And some recordings are made, even today, that exhibit these faults; but many do not. My point here is not that Towe and company are wrong, but that they have largely been vindicated by the passage of time, as sensitive and intelligent musicians have come along and used original instruments only as a medium in which to play Bach in all his warmth and humanity, "authenticity" be damned.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jonathan, compliments on your blog!

I'm just posting to link this article indicating that the HIP wars do indeed continue, but I think your conclusions here hit the mark. As the saying goes, revolutions eventually succeed when all adherents of the old order die out, and that seems to be what's happening. This is not to say that soon there will be no performers who play Bach in a "traditional" way, of course, just that there will be ever fewer who flat-out refuse to accept period performance practices.

10:49 PM  
Anonymous Ray Wood said...

I am not a musician, nor well educated in music history, just someone who has enjoyed listening to classical music since I was very young.
Regarding period music. I have never heard a live performance on "original instruments", but whenever I have heard a broadcast or recording, the strings sound harsh and strident to my ear, to the point where I have come to avoid those broadcasts/recordings. The wind instruments sound fine (again, to my ear). I would like to hear a live performance sometime to see if I am missing something. Ray

3:37 PM  

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