Saturday, August 1, 2009

Dances without the Dance

It is often the case that the act of writing a negative review is followed by an extended period of soul-searching over why I was so negative. In the case of the opening concert of the 2009 Salzburg Festival with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, I suspect that my negative account had much to do with the first step being such a false one. In this case that first step was Anton Webern's orchestration of Franz Schubert's D. 820 collection of six German dances. I was familiar with this music in two ways. First, I knew the source material from having worked my way through the two volumes of the Wiener Urtext Edition of the Sämtliche Tänze für Klavier. However, I was also familiar with Webern's orchestration by virtue of the notorious Nuova Era CDs of pirated recordings of performances conducted by Sergiu Celibidache. The performance of the Webern took place in Milan on February 22, 1960, with Celibidache conducting the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano della RAI.

Before hearing this recording, my knowledge of Webern's orchestration technique had been limited to his treatment of the six-voice fugue in Johann Sebastian Bach's Musical Offering BWV 1079. This might be described as pointillist orchestration, since Webern often goes as far as to change instrumentation on a note-by-note basis. The result is, as they say, a piece of work. His approach to Schubert, on the other hand, is far less radical and much more workmanlike. He has an accurate sense of how the piano score breaks down into voices, and those voices are then allocated to suitable instrumentation. I listen to my Celibidache recording frequently, and I continue to enjoy the Schubert and the Webern in equal measure.

Indeed, I am so fond of this music that it had never occurred to me that it could be boring. Sadly, that is precisely what Harnoncourt did with it. Where Celibidache recognized that this was dance music and knew exactly how to make it dance (so to speak), Harnoncourt preferred to examine each note as if it were under a microscope. It was as if he was trying to perform it in the spirit of Webern's Bach orchestration, even if that approach was the furthest thing from Webern's mind. The result ended up confusing even the audience. As I wrote in my review, the audience did not even greet the conclusion of the set of dances with applause, holding back until the more "certain" ending of the next work on the program, Josef Strauss' "Frauenherz," which had some interesting eccentricities of its own by trying to synthesize a polka with a mazurka.

My first encounters with Harnoncourt were recordings of his "authentic" approaches to Baroque music. I still have and enjoy many of those recordings. However, I am beginning to wish that he had never ventured beyond his scholarly pursuits based primarily in the seventeenth century!

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