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Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford

Fading celebrity

Unless a performer is a composer too, the chances of becoming a luminary legend, admired and celebrated long after the mortal coil has wound its final orbit, are slim indeed. It could happen that your name might be attached to calorific sweet sauces, but what memorial is that! -- and there was only one Dame Nellie Melba.

What is often sad is the extreme distance between the living legend and the recorded memory, and it is recording that is responsible for both making and breaking the reputation. The great musical historian and traveller Charles Burney tells us something of how fine was the playing and singing of the late eighteenth century, but would we think so now if we had recordings of the flute playing of Frederick the Great, C P E Bach's keyboard performance or the singing of the great Farinelli? Would we still be moved a century later by the piano playing of Liszt or Clara Schumann? When, entering the era of recorded sound, we hear the performances of the great names of the nineteenth century, there is, beyond the academic and curiosity value of the experience, a sense of disappointment that the style is too loose or too abrasive, and the interpretations awkward, fragmented and unpolished, full of mannerisms no longer advocated in good performance practice.

The performer's day is over, yet the music survives -- and that longevity, it could well be argued, is the composer's reward. Yet how disproportionate are the material rewards to composers. In one of his recorded radio interviews Stravinsky was asked about his growing interest in conducting. 'But it is a better earning,' he said. 'How much Chopin earns, and how much Rubinstein earns playing Chopin?' Even the wealthy Stravinsky had a point, especially regarding so-called 'concert' composers. The price paid to a celebrity performer for one aria from an opera probably exceeds several hundred times what the composer received for writing the entire work. But unless the singer's name is turned into a raspberry purée, it is the aria that will live on.

Copyright © 30 December 2003 Patric Standford, Wakefield, UK

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From: David Sherr, USA

Not only is what he says indisputable, but it gives ample reason to reject 'period' performance - as if the sounds of the instruments weren't reason enough.

Standford writes, 'The great musical historian and traveller Charles Burney tells us something of how fine was the playing and singing of the late eighteenth century, but would we think so now if we had recordings of the flute playing of Frederick the Great, C P E Bach's keyboard performance or the singing of the great Farinelli?' My guess is that we would not.

No one ought seriously to suggest that music today is 'better' than the music of J S Bach. But that instruments and standards have improved is demonstrable. Just as athletes of successive generations have run faster and jumped higher, so has the inevitability of human competition resulted in the need for better instruments and higher performing standards. It is not likely that, having worked for years to add a key to the flute, J J Quantz then considered the instrument to be 'perfect.'

Of course no one should assume that because the musicians of the eighteenth century were limited by the primitive instruments of the period they were not artists who would be recognizable as such in any era. 'Play from the soul, not like a trained bird', said C P E Bach, who surely followed his own advice.

Compare recent recordings with those of the early years of the twentieth century. For me, the 1927 recording of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony by the Philadelphia Orchestra remains a highlight in the history of recorded music. Stokowski's conception and the infectiousness of his incredible energy infuse the performance with a spirit seldom encountered since, let alone in contemporaneous performances. The playing of the extraordinary principal players - Tabuteau, Kincaid, etc - gives ample evidence, despite the primitive recording techniques, of why they have been so influential. Yet around the edges, in fact entirely too close to the center, the playing is best described as ragged. The mighty Philadelphia Orchestra, The 'Fabulous Philadelphians' the most (and most justly) celebrated orchestra of its day, did not have enough fully competent musicians to fill out all the sections. In ensemble precision and intonation it could not meet the standards of even the relatively minor (at least in terms of recognition) orchestras of today. Would anyone argue seriously that instruments and performance techniques were once perfect and then fell victim to a 'dark age'? And if the greatest orchestra of 1927 was so flawed, what must the greatest orchestra of 1827 have sounded like? 1727?

In August, 1730 (close enough?), in a memorandum to the town council of Leipzig, J S Bach described his orchestra as 'Four Town Pipers, three professional fiddlers and one apprentice. Modesty forbids me to speak at all truthfully of their qualities and musical knowledge', he wrote. And J J Quantz, whose writings are much of the basis for the 'period' style, said, 'At many places people did not concern themselves about good taste at all, but remained attached to older ways. And, furthermore, there were various adversaries who, possessed of an absurd love for the old, believed they had sufficient grounds to reject everything as extravagances that departed from the old mode. It was not so long ago that they still defended the old style, their fervor as great as their grounds were weak.'

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