Monday, May 7, 2007

Too good to be true?

I already mentioned that my recent class on The Rite of Spring reminded me of Edith Piaf, and that sent my mind here. From Stravinsky to the ridiculous in seconds flat. However, talking about the Stravinsky also reminded me of a fundamental tension in thinking about that work. Although it was created to evoke barbaric ritual, and although its premiere provoked a riot, it is now not just a happily settled musical masterwork; it is one of the ultimate orchestra/conductor showpieces. In other words, this scandalous depiction of low culture has become a signifier of success at the highest levels of culture. To pull this piece off (at least in today's terms) requires about a hundred meticulously trained anti-primitives. So, the question is, are we then left with something that really says anything about real primitivism?

Putting that question aside, it has me wondering if performances (and performances standards) can be too good. On one level, the answer is 'no,' but the question isn't so much a problem with spectacular technical achievement in its own right as it is how those achievements change the way we hear music. Since the classical world is, by definition, concerned with re-hearing repertoire over and over, it's only natural that the more we get to know certain masterworks, the more we'll notice whose performances stand out. There are established technical standards for works like the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto or The Rite of Spring that couldn't exist yet for brand-new music. Thus, especially for the connoisseur, the ability to enjoy a performance can become more and more about how that performance stacks up.

In my early days of record collecting, I had no problem buying mostly budget label LPs with no-name performers. In fact, I had some marvelous live experiences hearing the South Arkansas Symphony Orchestra debut various masterworks for me. This is not to put down those players (although the fact that I later became one of them doesn't improve my opinion of them), but I'm sure I'd hear them differently today. Still, my point isn't so much that "the more you know, the less you like," although that is a problem.

I'm just wondering if we underestimate the fact that some music has a certain appeal when it's not being immaculately transmitted. I thought of this first as I was telling my class about the riotous Stravinsky premiere while listening to an exquisitely controlled performance. Saint-Saƫns supposedly stormed out at the premiere on hearing how the bassoon was being misused, but on most recordings that solo sounds divine. Maybe our ears have adjusted, but I suspect that in a pre-rite world, a bassoonist wouldn't have sounded so polished up there. It's probably fair to say that this unbassoonistic solo has become a solo every bassoonist aspires to play beautifully - but not shockingly or disturbingly. It's now very bassoonistic.

I thought of this issue again a couple of days later when I heard two very intermediate cellists rehearsing the Vivaldi Concerto for 2 Cellos in G Minor with a junior orchestra. I love that piece and have accompanied other intermediate-level cellists playing it several times - and I think it sounds great that way! There's a wonderfully scruffy/scrubby quality to the writing that makes inelegant playing pay off; I think I may honestly enjoy that piece more that way than I do hearing it played by professionals. Of course, this partially has to do with my association; maybe if I'd heard it first played by pros, I'd think otherwise. I made this point before in a more extreme way with this example.

So what's my point? I don't know. I'm not arguing for us to drop technical standards. I was just listening to Gary Graffman tear his way through Balakirev's Islamey, and the virtuosity is absolutely thrilling. It's just one of those every-gain-has-a-loss situations. We teach The Rite of Spring as something scandalous, but it's really lost all sense of scandal; if the NY Philharmonic performed it today exactly as it was performed at its premiere, there might be a riot, but only because the playing would be heard as severely substandard.

One of the first Jeremy Denk posts that really attracted my attention was this one about Charles Ives. Denk is basically struggling with the issue of music that sounds too composed and civilized:

Just the other day I was playing through Tzigane with Josh, in a rehearsal, and it was all a great deal of fun, and Josh sounded fabulous of course, and I was annoyed that I didn't sound so fabulous in that annoying passage with the repeated notes ... but I was thinking "it's good, but it's no Charles Ives." Even the "dirty" gypsy notes in that piece sound clean, organized, shiny; everything is polished, glittering, sparkling, lush, perfectly voiced: sanitized? It smelt of PineSol, if PineSol were French. But not with Ives; he captures the Down & Dirty better than almost anyone. If he errs, he errs on the Dirty side; but his dirt is not vulgar, it is transcendental fertile earth with lots of terrific spiritual manure. Perhaps the hyper-cleanliness of Ravel is somewhat vulgar, in comparison with the honest, sprawling dirtiness of Ives? ... at least that's the way I feel. Bring on the hate mail!

The subject of one of the twenty books I may never write is the tension created when beautifully crafted artworks are about awful things. In the fascinating book, Why Does Tragedy Give Pleasure?, A. D. Nuttall talks about the problem of art that "glorifies the inglorious." (I'm not sure of the original source of that phrase, but I like it.) He quotes a C. S. Lewis article which, naturally, gets right to the point: "Can we wholly avoid the suspicion that tragedy . . . is our final attempt to see the world as the world is not?" ("Tragic Ends," Encounter, vol. xviii (Feb. 1962), p. 98). When a Shakespearean character gives a noble speech before dying, the problem may not just be that the situation is unreal; it's that the eloquence of the moment may cloud our vision with respect to the horror that's being depicted.

In the same way, composers and performers often find themselves straddling that line between communicating something rough and primitive (Beethoven's Pastoral peasants, for example) while being smooth and sophisticated. There are passages in Ives' Psalm 90, which I was listening to this weekend, that seem to defy any possibility of elegance. (e.g. "We are consumed by thine anger.") Even when they're right, they sound wrong. And maybe that's right.

1 comment:

Elaine Fine said...

Here's a dorky movie snippet that tries to dramatize the first reading of the bassoon solo at the beginning of the Rite of Spring.