Sunday, January 3, 2010

Preparing a Webern Performance

One of the consequences of my hearing the San Francisco Symphony perform the music of Anton Webern last month was my realization that my listening experience with this music is still rather weak. During my student days, the focus was pretty much confined to only two compositions, the Opus 5 string quartet pieces and the six orchestra pieces of Opus 6. Columbia had, of course, recorded the "complete works" (at least as far as opus number were concerned); but this was one of Robert Craft's projects, which, like most of his projects from that time, did not make for particularly informative listening. Columbia would later issue a "Release 2.0" under the direction of Pierre Boulez; but it was not much of an improvement. The one thing that made the second package interesting was the decision to include a scratchy recording of Webern himself conducting his 1931 orchestration of the six German dances by Franz Schubert, D. 820; but that did not say much for the performances of his original compositions. When I wrote about the Symphony concert last month, I set it in the context of this sorry situation for those interested in getting to know Webern's music:

… the third quarter of the twentieth century became dominated by a highly academic (and often mathematical) approach to the syntax of musical scores, much to the disadvantage of matters of "logic" and "rhetoric" (if we are to use the medieval trivium as a baseline). It took another quarter century of dry and tedious (not to mention tendentious) performances and recordings before another generation would emerge and recognize that Webern had composed music, rather than mere syntactic structures; and we as serious listeners are now in a position to appreciate that awakening.

The primary case in point at the Symphony concert was Webern's Opus 21 symphony. It is worth reviewing what I had to say in the wake of its performance:

The merits of Webern's musical intuitions for such previously disregarded factors as rhetoric were clearly evident last night at Davies Symphony Hall in the San Francisco Symphony performance of his Opus 21 symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas. This is a work of extraordinary detail in which every note signifies less through any sense of melodic line or harmonic accompaniment but rather through relations of temporal proximity that disregard boundaries between instruments. Under a microscope this is musical pointillism (whose reductio ad absurdum emerged in Webern's 1935 orchestration of the six-voice fugue from the Musikalisches Opfer of Johann Sebastian Bach, BWV 1079, Number 5). However, Thomas pulled back from the individual moments of those "points" themselves, delivering the symphony with the same sense of musical flow we would expect of any other symphony.

I would not be surprised if it took considerable effort to achieve that sense of flow. Among other things, it involves a heightened awareness by each musician of all other musicians, since that flow is not confined to traditional sectional boundaries. Nevertheless, the results of that effort were clearly to the benefit of those still trying to find their way through the experiences of listening to Webern. The one disadvantage is that such effort may have detracted from the preparation of the rest of the program.

In retrospect I would say that it was not just the rest of the program that suffered. By giving highest priority to that sense of flow, it appeared that the Symphony was left without sufficient rehearsal time to deal with another major problem, that of intonation. This turned out to be a performance in which the strings were never quite in tune with each other, and the problem is entirely understandable. Homing in on the right pitch tends to be a matter of relating that pitch to what one is hearing, if not through a unison relation then from one almost as easily achieved through a perfect fifth or possibly a major third. However, since the twelve-tone approach treats all intervals as equal, all pitches tend to lock into those on an equal-tempered piano. Take away the piano, and you take away the most reliable reference source. Adjusting to equally tempered pitches in the absence of a piano is most likely as difficult as finding the flow across the "point sources" of those pitches.

As is almost always the case, there is only so much you can do in rehearsing for a concert. From my own listener's point of view, the sense of flow mattered more than the sense of pitch. There is considerable literature in the psychology of audition concerning how "forgiving" the ear can be with pitch problems. The sense of flow, on the other hand, is a "macro-level" problem that impacts the entire experience, rather than individual moments in that experience. I thus support the way things turned out with the Symphony, but it leaves me wondering what it would take for them to turn out better.

One answer lies in the recording studio. Deutsche Grammophon gave Boulez a second crack at a complete works project, and the results were released as part of their Boulez 2000 series. My guess is that Boulez had a lot more to say about how these recordings were prepared and had much better relations with the performers. Where the symphony was concerned, the performers were members of the Berliner Philharmoniker; and the precision of their sense of pitch is awesome. (Needless to say, it did not interfere with the overall flow of Webern's rhetoric.) This could well have involved doing preparatory work in getting used to playing equally tempered pitches, or it may just have been a matter of better listeners in a better defined chain of command through which pitch is established. Another possibility is that, as our appreciation of Webern continues to grow, conservatory education will become more attentive to the fact that different approaches to music require different strategies for establishing pitch. Thus, we shall eventually have orchestras that do not try to find their Webern pitches the way they find their Mozart pitches and are equally comfortable with as many strategies as their repertoire requires.

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