Friday, August 20, 2010

Make It Fake

I grew up loving the masters of the Baroque music. J.S. Bach was my favorite, of course, but I also studied and performed everything else I could get my hands on. This was in the 1950s and -60s and naturally many works were edited to suit the times. It hadn't been all that long from an era when Baroque was supposed to sound bombastic. Orchestral Bach often meant a Stokowski transcription; everyone was familiar with Disney's Fantasia. The big church in my home town had large Romantic organ, tuned to a pre-war A=435. It was pneumatic which meant that the organist was able to see what was happening in the church but the system also created a delay. I performed there with my friend the organist countless times and it was always an interesting experience as he had to play ahead of me. In a sense I was the accompanist as I had no choice but to follow him. We had to rehearse a lot as sight-reading would have been totally out of question. Much of our repertoire was from the Baroque era, but in our recitals we also played Negro Spirituals and quite a bit of Hebraic music. 

Years passed and all of a sudden it became clear that I wouldn't be allowed to perform old music again, as I supposedly played it all wrong. I had a beautiful vibrato and saw no reason why I couldn't or shouldn't use it in these works, especially in the slower movements. But the experts, who were popping up all over like mushrooms in a forest, claimed it was an absolute no-no. Baroque music had to be played and performed in an authentic manner. Naturally these experts couldn't quite agree with each other what authentic was, other than using no vibrato and lowering the pitch. In principal, I had nothing against this "new" way of playing but most of the people attracted to this fad were quite awful, mediocre at best. It was as if instead of becoming violists, they had decided to follow this newly discovered style. After all, it didn't require a vibrato or nimble fingers; as much as possible was played in the first position.

All the fun pieces edited by David or Auer, from Vitali's Chaconne to Corelli's La Folia, were off-limits, at least in concerts where a critic might be present. I had already been vilified for playing concertos by such composers as Wieniawski and Glazounov. I remember one review where the writer said that it was a pity I was wasting my talent on "Kreisler concertos". Many of the Vivaldi works I had learned were editions by Hungarian violinist Tivadar Nachéz, very popular at the time. My main mentor in Bach's solo sonatas and partitas was Ricardo Odnoposoff, himself a Carl Flesch student. I was using his teacher's edition, but I was told not to follow the 1920s fingerings although most of the interpretive markings made sense. This book comes with the original version printed underneath each line, so it is easy to see instantly where Flesch differs from the manuscript and understand why.

How was it that after 250+ years we all of a sudden knew for certain how Baroque music was intended to be like, and a bit later, Classical works? Having used gut strings and no shoulder rest, mandatory requirements in the Heifetz class, I knew how different a violin sounded when its volume wasn't boosted to the maximum. I especially loved the sweetness of gut E-strings, although they would always snap if one played aggressively. Yet at the same time violinists from the Soviet Union were all the rage and I knew that they used nothing but all-steel strings, to produce a loud and piercing tone. Talk about a paradox! Many chamber orchestras suffered greatly from not being "allowed" to play anything from Baroque's treasure chest. Some symphony orchestras had Baroque and Classical series: they would often feature guest conductors who opposed vibrato. It was easier said than done. Especially Russian-trained violinists didn't know how to comply, and often a concert would sound ridiculous with half the people playing straight tone and the other half vibrating madly. 

All the research I did on the topic made me less than sure that these new discoveries had solid foundations. Although some pianists would use a fortepiano for older music, no famous virtuoso would switch the shiny black Steinway grand with a smaller and intimate sounding piano. Yet we knew that Chopin's favorite instrument was a French Pleyel, with only two strings for each treble key, and that was the timbre the composer-pianist had in mind when he wrote his Nocturnes and other great works for the piano. Orchestras had become increasingly large in size; woodwind and brass players simply didn't know how to play softly as normally they were expected to carry over a gigantic string section. How did we know what Bach would have preferred? His organ works certainly were loud; those poor men who were pumping air in the midst of the pipes must have gone deaf. But Bach didn't have the use of thirty-something violins, only a small fraction of them. Across the English Channel, at the same time, Händel certainly was fond of loudness and generally had access to better musicians than his fellow German on the continent. Joachim, who popularized Bach's solo works, didn't use vibrato in them but this was true with his entire repertoire. Pablo Casals resurrected the cello suites and he played them from his heart. Many experts snicker today at his interpretations but they bring tears to my eyes. Bach, unlike many other Baroque composers, did not write wallpaper music; I always felt he was a Romantic far ahead of his time.

We are almost anal in trying to replicate the sound and style of Baroque and Classical music, although even the best efforts are no closer to the truth than, let's say, a film describing the life of Louis XIV of France. We can build new instruments resembling old ones, the latter having been converted to modern needs. It is said that Stradivari would not recognize any of his instruments today, due to the differently angled longer necks, silver- and aluminum-wound strings, chin rests and most importantly, the shiny hard new varnish that makes the instruments glitter like they came from a furniture store. The new-old instruments equipped with gut strings most likely sound more like the ones from the great makers once did, but we really don't have much to compare them to. Tuning to a lower pitch seems to be mandatory although we know that the frequency of an A varied widely in both directions. We can be quite certain that vibrato was not used as frequently as today but it did exist, of course.

However, no one seems to pay attention to the only historic style we certainly know about, the early recordings. Violinists dismiss the artistry of Fritz Kreisler as "old-fashioned", even in his own compositions, simply stating that one can't play like that today. I look at it differently: "cannot" becomes "is not able". Developing a required skill to produce such exquisite tone and vibrato varying both in speed and width, not to mention shifting using glissandi unique to each performer, is all a lost art form. Kreisler was said to be the first one to use continuous vibrato. That probably was not the case as others such as Eugene Ysaÿe experimented with the style before him, the vibrato being faster and tighter, almost sewing-machine-like. Kreisler had other contemporaries who adopted his principles, starting with the great French Jaques Thibaud and Leopold Auer's first truly successful student Mischa Elman.

In other art forms we have a visual record, be it architecture, painting or literature. Part of an artist's training is (or was) studying the history of famous painters, their styles and technics very carefully. They were expected to know each master's special tricks and paint replicas of their canvases. I can remember going to art museums long time ago and see young people at work. Reproduction of paintings on paper did not do justice, so sitting in front of the actual artwork was required. Most authors of books are well versed in literature and composers have analyzed great masters' compositions carefully, or at least they should have. Performing musicians, on the other hand, often have little or no historical knowledge of the styles of the last 110 years, although much of it has been recorded and later transferred to digital form. Yes, in spite of all the filtering and magic the older recordings still hiss and pop and the high notes are almost impossible to hear. But the essence of the style and the very soul of musicianship are present underneath the surface noise.

Building a replica on a Roman villa will resemble the original in every detail. Yet most new buildings are truly modern as our demands for space have changed greatly. We have contemporary museums, yet the art in them is old. Nobody is demanding that such structures should look as old as the paintings. Granted, the Getty Villa is a gorgeous setting for it statues, but most art museums don't look like that. Yet we are aware that the building in Malibu is a fake, a rather modern copy.

Where do we stop with imitating the past? Do we dress up in period clothing, both performers and listeners? Do we not bathe for weeks before a concert and cover body odor with perfume? Powdered wigs are a given, again both with the artists and their audience. Candles would be lovely for illumination but what would the fire officials say? Should we allow violinists to gyrate furiously, as often seen, or do we stick to the proper behavior where only the hands move?

Yes, today I play Baroque differently from decades ago. Same is true with my Mozart and Beethoven.  I admire the true masters of the "authentic" style, even if it isn't genuine, as it presents new palette of colors and makes it possible to hear inner voices, so often covered under blaring "music for the deaf". Learning is a lifelong process. One doesn't have to agree with something in order to admire and appreciate it. I don't attempt to copy something I've heard: it is still my very own interpretation.