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Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford

Complete performances


It is not easy to assess the musicality of some celebrated performers when they indulge such indiscriminate notions as the performance of a complete cycle of a composer's output in a single distinct form. No self respecting pianist should find all 32 Beethoven sonatas worthy of equal attention. Some are very poor works.

The same must surely apply to conductors who decide to record the complete Haydn or Mozart symphonies, among which are many, often the earlier ones, with which the composers themselves would surely prefer us to be far more critically selective. Among that relatively brief and highly prolific classical period there were some 8,000 symphonies written, among which are many by the extraordinarily inventive C P E Bach, and there must be works by Boccherini, Dittersdorf, Brunetti, Vanhal, both older and younger Stamitz, Richter and Holzbauer, Filtz who was better than both of them, or Arne, Boyce and John Marsh in England and some like Gossec in France.

There are concertos and string quartets too that are as good to hear as the earliest Mozart and Haydn, but this seems not to diminish an energy and enthusiasm devoted to complete cycles of already over-performed masters which could be better donated to less familiar ground. This obsession reflects a fear of the unfamiliar, an inability to understand it. The finest recent achievement in recording all Bach's cantatas is the energy exerted by the same conductor and performers to commission and produce parallel performances of new cantatas to stand alongside Bach. Surely we only listen to old music to help us appreciate the new? Bach is always richly rewarding and a most profound inspiration in the creation of new work. Mozart at his best is a highly polished perfection (a discouragement to composers, if anything), but his best is only a small proportion of all he wrote. As with Haydn, there is much that is unimportant, and does not deserve an indiscriminate veneration.

Perhaps it is not possible for performers to be discerning when faced with the weight of historical bias. To be fair, few of them have studied the craft of composition and have to rely on history for an opinion. But it would be good to have them guided toward the immense adventure of the neglected repertoire instead of playing the entire unsorted legacy of our esteemed forefathers.


Copyright © 25 April 2002 Patric Standford, West Yorkshire, UK




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