Tuesday afternoon at 1:00, WFCR will present Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, featuring conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (ORR), recorded at a concert performance in Carnegie Hall and issued on a new CD. To hear Gardiner and NPR's Robert Siegel tell it in a report on yesterday's All Things Considered , this new rendition finally puts the lie to some comforting old notions about not just Beethoven's Fifth, but about the entire issue of performing old classical music on old or "original" instruments. From the summary of the report on the NPR music blog Deceptive Cadence:
All Things Considered's Robert Siegel says that he was particularly struck by Gardiner's new recording, since he has for many years associated original instruments with — "Vegetarianism?" Gardiner interjects playfully.
"Well, kind of a softer, not quite so robust sound," Siegel responds.
"That's a misunderstanding," Gardiner says, "not on your part, but on the way that so often these instruments are played in a bland, precious way. And it's the opposite. To me, they're much more visceral, much more emphatic, and kind of much more human, in a way, than the much more sophisticated mechanisms of modern orchestras."
Well, thank you, Sir John! And here we were on WFCR, shamefully broadcasting over the years all those "bland, precious" original instrument performances conducted by the likes of Christopher Hogwood, Roger Norrington, Bruno Weil, Giovanni Antonini, Jos van Immerseel and Monica Huggett, just to mention those currently available on CD. We may add recordings by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Claudio Abbado, Philippe Herreweghe, David Zinman and the late Sir Charles Mackerras, who each brought an historically-informed perspective to modern-instrument orchestras. Then there's Sir John's own earlier recording of the Fifth with the ORR, which I guess failed to do the trick of setting everyone straight when issued in 1993.
Now, which one of these earlier recordings exemplify the blandness and preciousness that Sir John has thankfully wiped out? He doesn't say, of course, because he can't. Nor would I criticize any of the above renditions for their blandness, whatever other faults they may display. The bland, precious recordings Gardiner is comparing himself to don't exist, and were only invented as straw men that he could knock down to make himself the hero, thereby also permitting him to peddle the snake oil of his performances as uniquely human. I've listened to all of the recordings cited above, not to mention other classic renditions by Toscanini, Furtwängler, Walter, Szell, Carlos Kleiber, Bernstein and Solti, just to pick out some favorites. Darned if I can hear how Sir John's Fifth, good as it is , has more humanity than any of these other ones.
Straw men and snake oil. They've been an unfortunate part of the "historically informed performance" (HIP) movement from the start, and haven't quite gone away. Spurious claims to have trumped all earlier performances have been advanced to justify some pretty scruffy sounds along over the years, though the overall performance level of HIP bands has greatly improved. And now that we're into the third generation of the HIP movement, and its practitioners have revealed just about every facet of historical correctness we're ever going to discover, it may be time to drop the self-congratulatory attitude and just let your music say your piece. Which, credit where due, Sir John and the ORR do rather expertly and eloquently once they stop talking and get around to playing, as you can hear Tuesday afternoon.
By the way, the AllThings Considered report also has some interesting observations on Beethoven and Romanticism from Matthew Guerrieri, author of a new book called "The First Four Notes." Beethoven as a precursor to our modern singer-songwriters? A neat thought, more about which in a future blog entry.