A couple of extra thoughts I had about that last post while digging my poor car out from a block of frozen show:
1) The Gould reverse-engineered recreation is a great example of a solution to a problem that isn't a problem. At least for me, I've never felt regret about the audio quality of Gould's 1955 performance. And, as I've detailed at some length, I'm not that interested in hearing a computer-controlled piano recreate it live because Gould (no matter what philosophical objections he would surely have to my argument) wouldn't be there. The human engineering is what I'd actually want to be in the presence of. When I think of unneeded solutions, I always remember the pianist Nelita True saying once in a master class that some inventor had shown up at Interlochen with a metronome that could tick off the sort of 19 against 3 or 11 against 2 patterns one finds in Chopin. The absurdity is that those groups of 19 or 11 or 14 or whatever aren't intended to be measured in such a mathematical way. Thanks, but no thanks.
2) With respect to the opinions critics had of the Hatto recordings, Tommasini does in fact say that "context should theoretically not matter, especially in instrumental music." He goes on to admit to some of the exceptions that he's experienced, but it's the should that attracts my attention. Where did it come from? There's an implied moral component there; that a truly good, serious, objective listener can't let himself be affected by little things like biographical detail. I'd argue that it's impossible not to be affected, but how many reviewers delude themselves into thinking they remain objective? How much harm does this to do to good, honest thinking about music? Why shouldn't critics listen differently when they think a recording of a Beethoven sonata is performed by a woman who's also recorded all the sonatas of Beethoven, Mozart, Prokofiev, and much of the rest of the piano repertoire? That's interesting and relevant.
I like to play for classes three performances of the Haydn "Surprise" Symphony theme. The first is by the Vienna Philharmonic. The second is a video of my then 5-yr old daughter and three friends playing a simplified string quartet arrangement I made for them and that they'd spent one hour learning. The third is my computer playing that arrangement. Obviously, the Vienna Phil wins hands down on most levels, although the computer's version is probably the most pitch-perfect. The interest, of course, is in the little-string-quartet-that-could version. It's horrible on most levels, but the joy of music-making and the wonderful crunch of the surprise chord come through beautifully. They really communicate something of the meaning of this music. Even the tune itself (so lush and elegant in the VPO version), has a refreshing folksy ruggedness about it in the kids' take. If a bunch of adults self-consciously tried to emulate this, we'd be talking about a farce that wouldn't be very interesting. But, because of who the kids are, it's charming, musical, and meaningful. It even helps me hear the music in a new way. (Yes, it's even more meaningful when it's your own kid playing.) Context is huge.
[UPDATE: You can now hear and see (sort of ) the children playing here. I intentionally blurred the video to protect the innocent.]
Whoops, that reminds me of another thing I've been thinking about: how much we in the classical music world need to hear things in a new way. I just read this post in which a musicologist is waxing enthusiastically about the prospects of hearing and even playing Chopin's newly discovered piano. He's pretty honest about understanding that the ravages of time mean we won't learn all that much new from the instrument; but what the enthusiasm speaks to (in my opinion) is not so much a need to learn exactly what Chopin's music sounded like to him, although that's what every musicologist would say. What we really want is to be able to rediscover this music anew. Chopin's not going to be writing anything more for us, but perhaps we can learn something that lets us hear his music in a new way. In other words, we love the classics but we miss the fact that they're not new to us anymore. (The new music folks are jumping up and down saying, "we've got new stuff, we've got new stuff!" Aren't they cute?)
As much as the "performance practice" movement has done to help clear up our sense of history, I think what people have appreciated the most is the way it's let us hear old music in a new way. The first historically informed recordings of Handel's Messiah were such a breath of fresh air because we'd heard it the old way so many times. Now, I've seen that groups are giving authentic performances of Mozart's version of the Messiah, complete with added clarinets, etc. Time was, that would have seemed like something offensive to most musicologists, but now it's a chance to hear Messiah in yet another new way, and through Mozart's ears. Again, there's always the moral component; we need to have some good musicological reason to excuse these new versions (no one's interested in Michael Monroe's electropop version of Messiah) - and that's a good thing, generally speaking - but I still think the new experience is what's most important about these supposedly backwards-looking practices.