Tag Archives: Mahler

Cutting it: definitive recordings ?

A post on music blog Classical Iconoclast entitled ‘Mahler for Morons’ posed the question a while back – is there such a thing as a definitive recording of a Mahler symphony ? This set me thinking: can there ever be a definite recording of any classical piece ?

Vinyl demand

Scholarship and performance practice are ever-changing, and what seemed appropriate sixty or seventy years ago may no longer be seen as such.

Composers who conduct their own works, like Stravinsky or Britten, might be thought to create an authoritative recording by virtue of the fact that they are realising their own compositions. Stravinsky made several recordings, but each is different from the other: even composers, it seems, change their minds about their own pieces.

The portamento-riddled orchestral recordings at the start of the twentieth century now seem dreadful; tastes in the expressive nature of orchestral playing have changed.  Even the instruments of the orchestra evolve; the change from gut- to steel-strung instruments offering broader possibilities. Tempi have become faster; the funereal Furtwangler has been replaced by the white-knuckle ride of Gardiner or Norrington.

Voices change too, singing styles fall in and out of favour – the thick, fruity tones of Joan Sutherland, the ethereal purity of Emma Kirkby or the light-footed coloratura of Cecilia Bartoli all moving in and out of favour.

The drive for authenticity or an historically-informed approach sees the forces used in Renaissance and Baroque music especially being condensed; one-to-a-part choruses in the Bach Passion settings or Tallis masses, single-player performances of Baroque concerti. The drive for historically-informed performance has reached its tendrils even into early twentieth-century works by Elgar – it’s a monster that looms ever closer on the tail of contemporary music.

It seems unlikely, then, that there can ever be a definitve edition or an authoritative recording of a classical work; as scholarship moves forward, as performance practice changes and attitudes towards playing styles evolve, realisations of pieces also change.

Perhaps, though, that’s a good thing.

Suffering the Clap: how should audiences behave ?

Call me what you will, but I believe there’s an inherent snobbery about how concert audiences are expected to behave.

In the sacred cathedral that has become the Modern Concert Hall, audience members are expected to adopt an almost religious state of silent obeisance before The Music: they must enter the hall with trepidation and awe, with veneration in their hearts, and are expected to listen in a state almost bordering on ecstasy. Not until the end are they permitted to move a muscle, at which point they are then permitted to clap politely – nay,enthusiastically (although not too much of course) – and, if at a jazz gig or a promenade-type concert, they are occasionally allowed to whoop.

Now don’t get me wrong: I understand that listening to music is a deeply personal experience, and I can get as annoyed as anyone by inconsiderate or rude behaviour from someone in the same audience as myself. But if someone has been so moved by a piece that they feel the need to express this, why shouldn’t they ? I have a fantastic live recording of a performance of Walton’s First Symphony by the National Orchestra of Wales at the Albert Hall; for anyone who doesn’t know this piece, the first movement is of such epic proportions (it’s about fifteen minutes long) that it seems like a whole work in itself. It has pounding rhythms, stirring melodies, and a relentless energy that drives the music to a tremendous climax in a fierce final gesture, punctuated by timpani. In the recording, a smattering of enthusiastic applause breaks out spontaneously at the movement’s conclusion amongst some of the audience who just can’t help themselves: the music is so rousing, it just demands a response.

Yet the Apostles of the Sacred Mysteries of the Concert Hall frown upon those who don’t know any better than to actually clap between individual movements, rather than waiting until the piece is finished.  The slight rustling of a programme attracts fierce stares.

But perhaps it’s a cultural thing: after all, the etiquette of modern concert audiences is relatively recent. Until the end of the nineteenth century, audience behaviour was completely different; people went to be seen as much as to see the concert: it was a social occasion at which they talked, ate, and drank during a performance. Modern rules were laid down, according to Alex Ross in The Rest Is Noise, by the composer-conductor Gustav Mahler, who instilled in audiences the ideas of complete, attentive silence and no applause until the end of a piece.

And some semblance of the old culture still survives: Italian opera-goers give standing ovations (or vehement boos) after a particular singer has given a great (or disastrous) rendition of an aria. In the middle of an opera. It’s an accepted, even expected, part of the performance experience. Conductors will pause at the end of arias where they know this will happen, even if the music is supposed to carry straight on. The audience are expected to voice their reaction during a piece.

As long as their response isn’t disruptive, I don’t mind if someone is so moved by their experience that they applaud between movements. People go to concerts to be moved, to be emotionally engaged.

How do you think audiences should behave ?