Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Performance Difference

The other morning I happened to hear a performance of Ludwig van Beethoven's Opus 2, Number 2 piano sonata on Symphony Hall, courtesy of my XM receiver, providing a healthy contrast to my preoccupation with the late sonatas in the course of my radiation therapy. Perhaps I had my medical procedures too much on my mind, but the performance I heard on the radio struck me as far to clinical for that initial exploratory phase of Beethoven's career; so I was curious as to who the pianist was, who seemed to be missing the point of the music. Much to my surprise, the pianist was András Schiff, leading me to reflect on why his recording, apparently in front of a concert hall audience, had been so different from his performance of this same sonata at Davies Symphony Hall in October of 2007.

One element of that difference had to do with musical context (as opposed to the physical context of the spatial setting). In the first concert of his cycle of the entire canon, Schiff performed the three Opus 2 sonatas as a group, not even leaving the stage between them. Playing this recording of the second of those three sonatas involved plucking it out of that context, and this could well have had an impact on how it was heard. Another factor may be Beethoven's initial experiments with the rhetorical impact of silence in these sonatas. The silence of a recording can be far more absolute than that of any performing space that includes an audience, just because of the properties of the recording technology; and while, as I had observed in writing about Schiff's Davies performance, audiences are not always comfortable with such "rhetorical silence," the rhetoric still loses its impact if the audience is "factored out" of the recording. Finally, there is the matter of historical context surrounding Beethoven's decision to dedicate the Opus 2 sonatas to Joseph Haydn. There is a conflict in Beethoven's personality between being a dutiful student and a defiant one, contentiously rejecting some of Haydn's advice. I may be reading too much into the performance situation (or not seeing it as clearly due to temporal distance); but I felt that Schiff brought a physical presence that captured some of that defiance while cloaking it with a bit of playfulness. This leaves me wishing that I could consult a video recording, rather than a strictly audio one.

I have left out any mention of studio work in reviewing these differences. Even if the "capture process" took place before a concert hall audience, I do not know the extent to which the recorded version was a product of subsequent editing. As I have tried to argue in the past, editing erodes, sometimes to the point of elimination, the temporal dimension of the performance itself, which is why, when I once claimed that studio recording "sucks the life of our of performance," I meant that phrase "literally as well as metaphorically." Thus, by virtue of being, at best, a "document" of a performance, a recording can prepare us to listen to a performance; but it cannot qualify, itself, as a performance. Where Schiff's Beethoven cycle is concerned, it may be that I shall attach more value to the "mere words" my "text documents" of his performances in San Francisco than I shall to any of his recordings.

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