Sunday, January 16, 2011

Strong Opinions about Brahms

Yuja Wang seems to have been much on my mind lately.  I suppose it all started when one of the “enthusiasts” who had felt so strongly (in a negative way) about the piece I wrote about Soyeon Lee’s Naumburg recital decided to cite Janos Gereben’s review for San Francisco Classical Voice as a stick to beat on my head.  I rather enjoyed reading this piece (without having to sort out points of agreement and disagreement);  but I found myself taking issue with the number of times Wang’s name appeared.  There is, of course, no escaping the fact that we listen to every pianist in the context of past listening experiences of other pianists (not to mention the broader collective of all performing and recording musicians).  (This is not the first time I have cited Abraham Lincoln’s observation that we cannot escape history to make a point about music.)  On the other hand I have to confess that my only familiarity with the solo piano version of Maurice Ravel’s “La Valse” came from Wang’s Transformation CD, having missed her performance at her recital debut with San Francisco Performances in February of 2008.

My review of that CD, however, led down a more interesting (and far less contentious) path.  The central offering on that CD (as well as the longest in duration) came from the set of 28 variations that Johannes Brahms had composed on the final caprice of Niccolò Paganini's 24 Caprices.  The reason why my language in that previous sentence was elliptical was because Wang did not record all of those variations;  and the liner notes by Michael Church claimed that the order of these variations “has always been a matter of debate,” a debate going all the way back to Clara Schumann.  For my part I decided to cite a more recent source:

On the other hand Kelly Dean Hansen, who has been developing an extensive Web site of Brahms Listening Guides with meticulous and stimulating analyses sees a well-defined overall structural architecture in the version that Brahms published (Opus 35), beginning with the relationship between the two books and descending into the structure of each variation.  Whom do you want to believe?

My citation was rewarded with a comment from Hansen, which declared flat out that “there really is no justification for Wang's butchery of the Paganini Variations” and then concluded:

Performers like Wang need to stop acting as if they know more than the composer.

What interested me is that, once we clear away the invective, this still comes down to whom you wish to respect as your source.  Hansen’s accusation that Wang was drawing upon her own judgment is a bit off the mark, since she was apparently following an approach that Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (a pianist who was never afraid of controversy) had taken and had been documented in an old Melodram recording of a recital he had given in Warsaw in 1955.  My own conclusion was that she was entitled to cast her lot with Michelangeli, probably knowing full well that there would be those like Hansen who would attack her for doing so.

In the context of my own travails, the lesson seems to be that the very nature of music is going to engender a diversity of listening experiences, most of which are likely to entail strong opinions strongly held (in my favorite distortion of the words of futurist Paul Saffo).  If either the diversity or the strength of those opinions is lacking, that tends to be a sign that the listening experience did not merit much attention in the first place.  It goes back to my precept that one should write on the basis of what, in “Plato’s Pharmacy,” Jacques Derrida calls “living memory” (as opposed to memories “entombed” in artifacts such as written texts).  If one then becomes embroiled in differences of opinion, one can at least fall back on the conviction that one’s position is an honest reflection of one’s “personal knowledge.”  This does not protect one from sound arguments for refutation;  but it means that any such refutation will, itself, become part of that “personal knowledge,” rather than simply an excuse for picking a fight.


Kelly Dean Hansen said...

Interesting points, Stephen, and I appreciate your consideration of my points, despite the "invective." If anything, my opinion of Wang is even less now. I found her facebook page and sent her a missive essentially telling her what I thought of her Paganini "artistic" decision. Her response was typical of performers when confronted with criticism:

"Thanks for the feedback, would love to hear you play it sometime."

This strikes me as hubris as well. "Well, if you can't play it, then you have no right to criticize the way I do it. Neener Neener."

I'm all for interpretive license, but there must be boundaries. Certain things in the score are open to interpretation. Others are not. What Michaelangeli and Wang have done is to take a dubious practice of Clara Schumann and use it as an excuse to monkey around with the score as published, which is utterly unambiguous. If a set of variations has an extended finale, it's pretty obvious how the composer meant it to be performed. The two-book structure is also unambiguous. So where did Michaelangeli and Wang find the ambiguity for this particular interpretive license? The answer is that it isn't there.

Would we listen to Beethoven's Seventh Symphony with the Allegretto performed twice or three times just because that happened to be done in some early performances?

What about the extremely common practice (which I loathe) of regularly performing the "Grosse Fuge" as the finale of the Op. 130 quartet out of some self-righteous sense of respect for the composer's "original" intentions? Beethoven replaced it as the finale for a reason. He certainly wasn't one who, especially as the acknowledged greatest musical mind of his day, would make such a change just because a publisher told him to. In order for him to agree to write a new finale, he MUST have at least somewhat seen the point that the fugue was too overwhelming to the first five movements. The result was a finale that transforms an unwieldy, overly lengthy quartet into the most exalted divertimento ever written. But try to tell that to all the self-righteous quartets who insist on performing the fugue as the finale. The practice has become so pervasive and so standard that performances of Op. 130 with its proper finale are few and far between, and the last completed movement Beethoven ever wrote is hardly ever played. Something about this is wrong. The Grosse Fuge was published as a separate piece, Op. 133, with the composer's blessing, yet we think we are respecting his wishes by reversing his decision. In contrast, I would say that performing Op. 130 with the Grosse Fuge is not "respecting" Beethoven's wishes, but ignoring them.

As you can tell, I am a musician who ALWAYS respects the composer far more than the performer, and when the performer wishes to insert too much of his or her own "interpretation" into aspects of the composition which are unambiguous, that person will draw my "invective."

Thanks again for the respectful observations.

Stephen Smoliar said...

I enjoyed reading Hansen's comment and value many of the assertions it makes. However, while the original topic had been Brahms, I was most taken by the issue of the proper performance of Beethoven's Opus 130 quartet. One reason is that reflects a particular concern I have over a general tendency to confuse "Beethoven the monument" with the more realistic (if less romantic) notion of Beethoven as a "composer at work." Hansen's approach falls solidly in the composer-at-work camp; and for me that trumps any number of decisions that seem to deny pragmatics in favor of some isolated scholarly "insight" (scare quotes intended)!