Sunday, July 27, 2008

Music Performance Theory

The last few weeks of my music course have covered the history of music performance, first by instrument group, then orchestras, and most recently 20th century recordings. The topics by instrument were fairly basic, especially that on strings, which I know a little bit about - where was the mention of synthetic strings - we don't all use gut strings - which makes me wonder about the other instrument groups.....

But the recordings of the 20th century have been fascinating, especially very early recordings by Joachim (late for him), Kreisler, early quartets and orchestras. The styles of playing have changed a lot during the 20th century, particularly in relation to rubato (which some describe as flexibility of tempo, though usually it refers to slowing down), portamento (audible slides on string instruments), vibrato, and rhythm. On rubato and rhythm in particular people were very flexible in the early parts of the century, to such a degree that they might now be criticised for not playing the piece as it is written. But then again, people from Mozart pere to Joachim suggested that rubato by the soloist is a good and stylish idea, especially when held against an accompaniment or bass line that is strictly on the beat. Mozart senior to Joachim - that covers almost a century-and-a-half! It would certainly make a very exciting performance, but would these days orchestras accompany a soloist using rubato very strictly - or would they not try to follow him? As it happens, I have often commented on concerts where performances were a bit dull, because they just played the pieces note by note - but this idea 'melody vs accompaniment' is very interesting! It would also need much imagination, and nerves of steel by the performer! But much like portamento, it is probably seen as old-fashioned.

Kreisler, Heifetz and others working in the first half of the last century were very liberal in their use of all performance options; while Joachim was still sparing with vibrato, Kreisler and Heifetz did it all over the place. Combine that with the portamento, rhythmic freedom and the rubato and you had personality oozing out of the performances. Which is probably why it might have been easier to identify interpreters by sound than it is nowadays. If a modern player used this approach I fear they might be laughed out of the concert hall - it's old-fashioned.

But then there are the interesting composer-conducted performances by Elgar, Stravinsky and others - where the composers are also quite liberal with their approaches, in the case of Elgar often using hair-raising tempi (in orchestras, not always as skilled as they are today, which must have clung to the edge of their seats); and still using portamento and other styles of that period. Sometimes, in the case of long-lived composers such as Stravinsky, the performance style of the same piece changed where performances where several decades apart. So, which is the 'right' way of performing this music? (Never mind pieces written by earlier composers.....).

Talking of performance, I was annoyed at the relatively low marks I got for an edition of a four-bar section of a Dowland lute song in my last assignment. Every note was in the right place! Some of it I can put down to trouble with words being shown differently, and maybe I have not commented on every single editorial change I made. But my tutor tells me I should have put in performance instructions, eg 'f', 'p' etc, since these are 'required in a modern edition'. I take issue with this. Apart from the thought that how much can you put into four bars, I really think that very modern editions of such old music would not have performance instructions. In fact I stated this, quoting Simon Rowland-Jones' much-praised edition of the Bach cello suites for viola as my support. Not good enough, it seems. The next edition is of a Handel choir from Messiah - rather more than 4 bars - I'll need to think of something for that.