Jets, Sharks, & Historical Performance Now

May 15, 2014

When sworn enemies shrug and say, “What was THAT about?” it’s worth noticing, especially when they add, “You know, you’re making some good points.”  Something like that may be happening in classical music performance.

Period instruments or modern - why not both? Violinist Rachel Barton Pine
Credit Andrew Eccles

Twenty years ago, some of us compared tussles about how to play Bach and Beethoven to gang wars over turf. A group of upstarts—let’s call them the Sharks—advocated the use of period instruments (gut-strung fiddles, valveless horns, wooden flutes, and the like) and what they believed to be historically informed performance, sometimes referred to with the acronym "HIP." Their opponents—let’s call them the Jets— stood firmly for modern instruments and playing styles.  It’s fun to write about, but back then it sometimes felt like what the New York Times called “fierce Manichean struggles of good versus evil.” For example, in 1991, the (modern-instrument) master violinist/ conductor Pinchas Zuckerman, then in his early forties, decried HIP as asinine STUFF . . . a complete and absolute farce . . . **** AWFUL.” He added, "Nobody wants to hear that stuff. I don't!" Twenty-two years later, Zuckerman has not given an inch - he still calls period instruments "an aberration...a fad" and says "this authentic stuff" is "pathetic" - and he practices what he preaches, as in a recent performance of Mozart:

Meanwhile, somebody has clearly wanted to hear this stuff: it has conquered the recording market, at least for 18th-century orchestral music. Six of Gramophones top-10 Mozart recommendations use period instruments, as do six of its top-10 Bach picks and eight of its top-10 Handel. Some of the "conquest" is nation-specific (Brits adopted HIP earlier than Americans, partly because the BBC provided a lot of gigs), some of it is repertory-limited (we're still more likely to hear Bach on a Steinway than a harpsichord, as I'll discuss in a future post),  but more of it seems to me generational. Musicians of the generation after Zuckerman are often equally comfortable in both parts of the turf, wearing the colors of neither gang. Or of both. Here are some examples from the ranks of leading violinists:

I could list more, like the Russian-born/UK-raised Alina Ibragimova, the Italian Giuliano Carmignola, and Min-Young Kim and Matilda Kaul, the violinists in the acclaimed modern-instrument Daedalus Quartetwho both have played in major period-instrument groups. (When the Daedalus played a live set in IPR's studios last fall, they focused on mid-20th-century music.) Anyway, my point, and I do have one: each of the above can bat lefty or righty, slamming homers with period as well as modern instruments, and each switch-hits regularly. Here, for example, is Gringolts playing Bach on a period violin; at the harpsichord is Japanese period-instrument giant Masaaki Suzuki:   

I could also list great violinists of this generation who seem to have no interest in HIP (such as Hilary Hahn and Gil Shaham, as far as I know); but my sense is that fewer and fewer musicians raise an eyebrow when Tony dates Maria. 

The most telling example of the new openness may be that most famous of orchestras, the Berlin Philharmonic. To my early-music friends in the 1980s, the Berliners sounded like the most entitled Jets around, precisely because of what they could provide peerlessly: seamless beauty. Their style had been cultivated for three decades by conductor Herbert von Karajan, who sought a flawless musical surface freed from the limitations of physicality. The results, whether you loved them or not, were historically unprecedented. But after Karajan retired in 1989, his successor Claudio Abbado and a new generation of Berlin Philharmonic players changed course; they recorded a Beethoven symphony cycle in 2000 that made extensive use of historical evidence. (In his post-Berlin retirement Abbado founded a period-instrument group.) In 2002, Abbado was succeeded in Berlin by Sir Simon Rattlewho has also been, since 1987, principal guest conductor of the period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. In recent years, Berlin Philharmonic guest conductors have included such HIP luminaries as William Christie, the American who revived French Baroque style, English period-instrument pioneers Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Sir Roger Norrington, and Trevor Pinnock (go ahead and knight the man!),  the Dutch keyboardist/conductor Ton Koopman, German HIP-pioneer Reinhard Goebel, French conductors Emmanuelle Haim and Marc Minkowski, Italian keyboardist /conductor Andrea Marcon, and the granddaddy of HIP, Austrian maestro Nikolaus Harnoncourt

But by no means has the Berlin Philharmonic gone all-in with the “Sharks." It also works frequently with such stalwart  “Jets" as the conductors Christian Thielemann and Daniel Barenboim, both of whom reject the HIP approach and are strongly influenced by the great Wagnerian Wilhelm Furtwangler, who was the Berlin's music director for the three decades before Karajan. Jets, Sharks?—who cares?—not the Berliners, apparently.

One other point: Berlin Philharmonic players have formed various chamber groups, and one of them, the Berlin Baroque Soloistsoften uses period instruments. As they illustrates, both the instruments and the "information" behind historically informed performance are widely available now - the historical treatises, for example, can easily be found on the internet - and many rank-and-file musicians are as expert as the pioneering conductors and specialists claimed to be.  And while the Berlin Philharmonic typically uses modern string instruments, the main contribution of the post-turf-war rapprochement does not involve instruments so much as ideas, practices, and attitudes. I’ll explore some of these ideas and their merits or flaws in future posts, and will include some Iowa musicians and their views on them. For now, I'll just say that this diffusion of knowledge is a game-changer. We used to assumed that Norrington, when he advocated fast metronome marks and opposed vibrato, or Harnoncourt, when he spoke about a lost "rhetorical" style of playing, must have known what they were talking about - they sounded so confident! In fact, scholars still differ about all three issues (vibrato, metronome marks, and "rhetorical" articulation), as I plan to discuss in a future post. But such disagreements are typical; what's new is that many mainstream players and conductors are familiar with the sometimes contradictory primary evidence.

The diffusion of knowledge means, among other things, that we have even less reason to fear that HIP will require everyone to play each piece in one single "correct" or "authentic" style. Not only are Jets as welcome as Sharks; more than that, history reveals that composers might not have expected or wished for one specific performance style from all interpreters. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than, as it happens, West Side Story. Leonard Bernstein wrote the show for Broadway, and premiered it in 1957 with Broadway singers. But the work "blurred the line" between Broadway and opera "as never before," says David Patrick Stearns, and when Bernstein re-recorded it in 1984, he wanted operatic voices. Dame Kiri te Kanawa sang Maria (I can't imagine it being done better), and Jose Carreras, one of the Three Tenors, sang Tony (does his accent sound Iberian to you?). If Bernstein himself hadn’t been in charge, critics could claim that the casting violated the composer’s intentions; but Bernstein said that Carreras was a "fresh element" and made the song "Maria" seem new again. (But will Carreras get just the right take of "Maria"? Watch the video below from 1:o3-1:11 - it's gripping drama!) Of course, the singers had the composer himself in charge, which we conspicuously don't have in the case of Bach or Beethoven, but they had another source of insight as well: they had grown up loving the film and the original cast recording. Those examples surely helped them get into the New York state of mind and the Broadway idioms; if so, it would in some ways makes them an idealized case of mainstream performers learning from period specialists. I mean "idealized" as in "not reality," for nothing like that can happen in performing Bach or Beethoven (although old recordings may have something to tell us about style in Verdi, Brahms, Bartok, and Mahler) - but my point is less exacting: good things can happen when musicians learn from specialist colleagues in other camps. But see what you think: below is a documentary about the making of that 1984 recording.

The great pianist Artur Schnabel quipped that he wanted to perform music that was greater than it could ever be performed, and West Side Story illustrates something about that kind of music. Because West Side Story is both Broadway AND opera, no one performance can do full justice to all of its elements - even when the composer conducts it. Similarly, as Eric Grunin points out, the first movement of Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony is both massive and intense - thus, Furtwangler's slow (Berlin Philhamonic) performance and Gardiner's fast (period instrument) one give special insights into it. We can say the same about period and modern violins in Bach and Mozart. Pinchas and Rachel/ Isabelle/ Viktoria/ Ilya - I'm glad to be able to listen to them all.