A Beethoven for 2012
All of the great classical music masterpieces can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways. That's one of the things that make them great — their ability to not just withstand, but benefit from, an extremely wide variety of interpretive viewpoints. What a boring world it would be if we had to hear our favorite works done the same old way, time after time.
Yet it's also true that some works require less interpretive effort than others. For instance, the Springfield Symphony Orchestra's conductor, Kevin Rhodes, recently described Gustav Holst's "The Planets" (coming up on the SSO's May 14 concert) to me as a piece that kind of takes care of itself, and requires relatively little interpretive intervention to succeed in performance. In general the more expressive detail the composer marks in the score — tempo changes, crescendos and decrescendos, accents, articulations, etc. — the less leeway the performer supposedly should have. On the other hand, Gustav Mahler marked his scores to a fare-thee-well, yet no two performance of his symphonies sound the same. So like all other matters pertaining to the arts, one can generalize, but there's no absolute.
Then there's Beethoven's Violin Concerto. My goodness, can it be done a zillion different ways! Perhaps it has to do with the tempos of its outer movements, clearly marked by the timpani's first four notes in the first movement and by the violin's catchy rhythm in the third. The steadier a piece's tempo is supposed to be, the easier one can hear the tempo fluctuations added by the performers to make the music breathe, and to highlight key expressive moments. More subjectively, it could be the Concerto's lofty, Apollonian, expressively reserved quality. For whatever reason, Beethoven's Violin Concerto has long struck me as a musical tabula rasa, onto which performers can imprint their wildest interpretive ideas.
And they have been pretty wild. Just to single out two incredibly different renditions by musical immortals, compare the 1932 recording by violinist Joseph Szigeti and conductor Bruno Walter with the 1940 recording by violinist Jascha Heifetz and conductor Arturo Toscanini. First off, there were no two more different-sounding violinists than Szigeti, with his warm, husky, sometimes wobbly tone, and Heifetz, with his incredible purity of tone and laser-like perfection. The overall interpretations are just as different: freewheeling fantasy in the Szigeti/Walter, and taut, energetic drive in the Heifetz/Toscanini. You could say one performance makes the Concerto into a forerunner of Wagner, the other a forerunner of Verdi.
So where does that place the new performance coming up during the 11:00 Monday morning on WFCR? For me, it's placed well into the 21st century. In other words, it typifies a kind of modern music-making that, for better or worse, has become pretty common. Orchestral forces are small, articulation is crisp, overt liberties are few, excesses of expression are carefully avoided. While not part of the "historically informed" and "period instrument" movements, their influence is plainly audible. Throw in some unusual cadenzas (the showy unaccompanied parts of many concertos' outer movements), and you've got a Beethoven Violin Concerto for 2012. One for the ages? Let's let the ages decide that for themselves. They always do.