Friday, April 11, 2008

It's All in the Way You Play It

By Mitchell

It’s been a quiet week here at the blog, what with vacations, illness, work, busy schedules. So how about we end it with some music?

In my obit of Charlton Heston, I linked to Terry Teachout’s story about the memorial service for William F. Buckley Jr. Discussing the music that Buckley had chosen for the service (tip: always choose your funeral music yourself. Catholics who’ve been to bad funeral masses will understand what I mean), Terry mentioned the music used during communion, the Adagio in G Minor by Albinoni (which we now know was written by Remo Giazotto). He doesn’t think much of it – in fact, he called it “a preposterously operatic piece of spurious yard goods.”

I, on the other hand, rise to defend it. Someone once facetiously called it “the happiest piece of music ever written,” but don’t let that turn you off from it. True, it is what you might call a moody piece, but if you can’t appreciate that at a funeral, where can you? Anyway, I like it, and I don't apologize for it. So in searching for a clip to present to you in order to build my case, I came across these two. And in listening to them, it brought to mind a much more extensive conversation, one that becomes the true thrust of this piece.

It dates back to a comment I made at our sister blog Stella Boralis back in November of 2006. At the time we were discussing the orchestral masses that are a standard at St. Agnes church in St. Paul, and I offered the following opinion regarding the way in which that music was conducted by their director, Dr. Robert Petersen:

My concern is that Dr. Peterson mistakes "deliberate" for "solumn," with the result that the music's effect is becoming less and less representative of what the composer had in mind.

Take, for example, the Mozart and Haydn masses which are a principal part of the repetorie. There are a lot of people who don't think they like Mozart or Haydn - they think them too sentimental, too cloying. At least they think this until they hear the music performed as it was written - with a faster, almost joyful tempo. This is typical Hayden, typical Mozart, and it is also what is often missing from St. Agnes since Dr. Peterson assumed direction of the Chorale. You don't have to be a musicologist, or even a classical music buff, to detect the shortcomings in this approach to liturgical music. The slower tempo not only distorts the sound of the music, making it much more difficult for both singers and musicians to keep a steady line while performing, it also, I think, dilutes the liturgical impact of the music.

I made some other comments as well, but I think you can take from this that I was not particularly impressed with the way the music was being performed. Now, this can be a difficult concept to explain, which is what makes the two versions of the Albinoni (or Giazitto, if you prefer) so ideal for demonstration.

Our first version features Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. It runs approximately ten minutes. Take a listen.

Now here's the second version, by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (performing, as always, without conductor). It lasts just a shade over seven minutes:

Do the differences leap out at you? For starters, Karajan's version lasts about three minutes more than that of the Orpheus, a substantial diffrerence in relatively brief piece. And Karajan is working with the Berlin Philharmonic rather than a much smaller chamber group, so his sound is going to be bigger and more lush. But what does this mean?

Karajan was unquestionably one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century, but he had the reputation for frequently producing a sound that was "calculatedly polished." In the words of critic Harvey Sachs, "Karajan seemed to have opted instead for an all-purpose, highly refined, lacquered, calculatedly voluptuous sound." A review by the Penguin Guide to Compact Discs of Karajan conducting a Haydn piece underscores the point. “It goes without saying that the quality of the orchestral playing is superb. However, these are heavy-handed accounts, closer to Imperial Berlin than to Paris ... the Minuets are very slow indeed ... These performances are too charmless and wanting in grace to be whole-heartedly recommended."

Listen again to each piece, particularly one section. It starts around 7:50 on the Karajan version. Did you notice this originally when listening to the two performances. Notice how deliberate this. Lush, rich, yes - but very, very slow.

This same section comes around six minutes into the Orpheus rendition. See how tightly orchestrated it is in this performance? The tightness creates an atmospheric tension that, I think, adds to its effectiveness. It stabs you, stings the heart, rather than the soothing balm that comes from Karajan.

So ask yourself what Karajan's pacing added to the performance. Did it make it more solumn, more imposing, more stately? Or did it simply make it slower and less effective in its emotional impact? I suppose in part it depends on why you come to this music: do you want the music to be sentimental and emotional, or are you looking to be challenged, even attacked, by the composer?

There probably isn't any truly correct answer to this question unless you're able to look at the original intent of the composer. The Orpheus version, based on what I've heard over the years, seems to be the most typical way this is performed; Karajan's deliberate rendition is more of an anamoly. Does this mean that the faster tempo is closer to the mind of the composer, whoever it was? Truth be told, I actually like the heaviness of Karajan's version the more I listen to it. But I still don't think it's as effective - it is more cloying, more manipulative, less honest.

And so I stick by my original comments regarding the importance of tempo. Just as bigger is not necessarily better, slower is not necessarily more stately, nor more solumn. The conductor Benjamin Zander once said that Beethoven wrote music that was meant to attack the audience, but that most contemporary conductors no longer presented him that way. In a sense, the lion had been turned into a pussycat. Beethoven, with that great mane of hair, would not have appreciated that. I don't think most composers would. And it's something that the conductor needs to keep in mind, whether you're in a concert hall in Berlin or the choir loft of a church.

It's also something to keep in mind, and to listen for, when you're sitting in the audience (or the congregation, if you will). Let classical music come to you, and attack you. By being an active listener, by interacting with the music, you also let it enter you. And if you let it, it will change your life.

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