Thursday, March 15, 2007

Going for the Sound

I wanted to raise one afterthought to yesterday's speculations about the rhetoric of musical performance. I realized that, in raising the issue of "speaking in a unique voice," I did not pursue that metaphor with respect to the sound of that voice. It may be a bit old-fashioned, particularly in the academic community of music theorists; but I have to keep reminding myself that music really is "all about the sound." I suppose the recording industry has a lot to do with forgetting this fundamental precept, not just because the sound of a recording can never measure up to the "live" experience but also because the sounds of those recordings are always, to some extent or another, manufactured (making "faithful reproduction" yet another of the great oxymorons of our language).

Fortunately, I have a neighbor who plays second violin in the San Francisco Opera Orchestra who does a lot to get my musical thinking back on track in our occasional conversations. Needless to say, her observations are highly personal, as when she tried to argue that the first Bruch violin concerto is really all about how the soloist pulls off that first sustained note. I am not yet sure where I come down on this argument, but I know that recovering from a fumbled first gesture is a formidable problem.

Applying this to yesterday's analysis, I would again begin by turning to the Artemis Quartet, since their entire evening was a matter of speaking in a revolutionary voice. However, with this as background what was important was that the "revolutionary sound" of Beethoven was not the "revolutionary sound" of Webern (which, in this case, was very much influenced by the sonorities of Verklärte Nacht) or even the "revolutionary sound" of the Schoenberg first quartet (whose "domain" marked a radical shift from that of Verklärte Nacht). Finding and delivering the right sound for each of these three, highly distinct, pieces demonstrates precisely what I was trying to get at in trying to make a case for "accountability to the music itself." In Biss' case I felt that his approach to the entire evening was actually built on going for a sound that embraced the entire program, and this was one of the reasons why his opening approach to Mozart only began to make sense in the context of his approach to Schumann.

This takes me back to my more recent impressions of Ingrid Fliter. Yesterday I charged her with the following accusation:

Fliter, however, played as if she had nothing rhetorical to say to the audience, which probably reflects that mind-set that is more directed at talking to competition judges, so to speak (but also reflects that she did not have very much, if anything, to say about either rationale or structural explanation).

To elaborate on this, I would say that she definitely had a sense of what it meant to go for the sound; but she was going for localized effects, rather than something for a specific composition or the entire program. She definitely had interesting approaches to touch and shading that displayed a command of playing the piano as a contrapuntal instrument. In other words she had the technique to make different voices speak in different ways, even (particularly?) when they were speaking at the same time. However, since it felt as if this technique was being applied to "special effects," my own impression was that those effects were intended more to impress competition judges than to reflect a rhetorical stance towards the music being played.

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