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Good Listening—And Bad

Such an approach inevitably misses the bigger picture as well. In his discussion of tempo in the music of Franz Schubert, for example, Pace cites David Montgomery and footnotes him five times on a single page without referencing the lively and illuminating 1997–1998 debate between Montgomery and fortepianists Robert Levin and Malcolm Bilson over the central issues of ornamentation and tempo flexibility in Schubert. Montgomery’s textual literalism, given a free pass by Pace, crumbles next to Levin and Bilson’s powerful arguments for a tradition in which tasteful ornamentation and freedom of tempo remained paramount. To read Ian Pace you would scarcely believe that differences among musicians exist.

You also get a sanitized view of history. Pace writes:

The most prominent piano teacher in 1820s Leipzig was Friedrich Wieck…. Wieck’s emphasis was upon a legato tone, a flexible wrist without use of the arm…. He strongly disliked overuse of either pedal, was disparaging of young virtuosi, and urged a reverential approach to the music of Beethoven, Mozart and Weber. His most prominent student was of course his daughter Clara….

While much of the above is true, missing is Wieck’s role—taking his cue from the Italian-turned-English entrepreneur Muzio Clementi—in establishing the template for the domineering, authoritarian teacher who exercised a manipulative control over his students, and who dominated piano instruction for over a century (and still in some quarters today).

Pace characterizes Wieck’s Klavier und Gesang (Piano and Song), published toward the end of his active teaching career, as an “important treatise,” but this piece of transparent self-promotion was clearly designed to recast Wieck as a kind, fatherly progressive. Even so, its preface ends: “And so go forth into the world, dear book! Teach the willing, warn the erring, vex the wicked, and punish the sinners.” He wasn’t kidding.

A surer guide is Wieck’s earlier Klavier Studien (Piano Studies), whose seventy-four lifeless exercises imposed on his students were guaranteed to extinguish the musical flame in all but the most gifted. Such were Clara Wieck and her eventual husband Robert Schumann, himself briefly a student of Wieck’s. Any reading of the easily available contemporary documents unmasks Wieck as the abhorrent emotional abuser he was from even before Clara’s birth. We can only marvel that after all his mean-spiritedness, libel, and slander the Schumanns ultimately found it in their hearts to forgive the man whose behavior so traumatized Clara that she barely spoke before she was five.

To compensate for the volume’s focus on details, six “Case Studies” explore complete works. While scarcely representative, at their best they bring the big picture and the supporting details together. John Haines examines a highly unusual “ballade” in four voices by the great fourteenth-century French composer Guillaume de Machaut. Reaching back 650 years with deceptive ease, Haines describes not only the sexagenarian Machaut composing his only dual-text ballade for his nineteen-year-old lover, but traces how twentieth-century scholars recreated Machaut in the image of a sentimental nineteenth-century Romanticism.

Jonathan Wainwright assesses Monteverdi’s opulent 1610 Vespers by means of more conventional categories (pitch, instruments, and voices, etc.). Colin Lawson examines the enigmatic performance history of Mozart’s three final symphonies, driving home Paul Hindemith’s contention that we can never hear them as Mozart’s contemporaries would have.

Robin Stowell’s portrait of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is as crowded as a Victorian drawing room (he lists thirty Isoldes born between 1857 and 1936) but brings together more historical performance data than has ever been assembled. William Mival’s case study of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gruppen provides a brisk account of this perpetually avant-garde work’s reception history: the original difficulties of coordinating three instrumental groups, each with its own conductor; the surprising number of past and current performances; the ease with which contemporary ensembles now deliver the work; and Stockhausen’s performance demands that require a live audience.

Yet references in all of these essays to actual stretches of music in actual performances are too few and far between. We long for more Berlioz moments of being “physically” involved. When they occur, as with the vivid account of Richard Strauss conducting the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde, we imbibe them with the relish of a desert survivor downing a cold Perrier.

Given the volume’s length, readers will be dismayed at glaring omissions. Scant attention is given to “reading,” i.e., interpreting scores from various periods. Malcolm Bilson’s highly informative and entertaining 2005 DVD, Knowing the Score, which addresses both basic and subtle performance conventions in solo keyboard music from C.P.E. Bach to Bartók and Prokofiev, escaped the editors’ dragnet. In 2010 Bilson followed up with a more extensive and equally provocative DVD entitled Performing the Score with violinist Elizabeth Field that, ironically, includes a delightful interview with Sir Nicholas Kenyon.

The transformation, as outlined by Bilson, of the enormously varied fortepiano into today’s monolithic Steinway-type forms one of the central narratives of nineteenth-century music; you would never know it from the Cambridge volume. Indeed, given the inclusion of a music CD in everything from Charles Rosen’s The Romantic Generation to a volume on the performance of early Brahms, why would a massive book on performance itself—especially with its roster of distinguished performers—not include such a disk?

Only passing mention is given to performance directions (tempo and expressive indications, phrase markings) that, with the seventeenth-century Italian formation of the modern string band, began to creep in ever greater specificity into scores. From Corelli to Cage there is a fascinating story here, but the uneven and watery references are sprinkled so unpredictably throughout the volume that no reader will be able to find a thread.

More than one essay acknowledges the importance of recordings, but, as I have indicated, only Crutchfield actually exploits their riches, and he limits himself largely to Italian repertoire. Stephen Cottrell provides a solid account of the impact of recording, including the gradual “internationalization” of performance styles, but in maddeningly general terms. There are no references to early Beethoven or Wagner performances, or to a dozen recordings made between 1902 and 1930 of the once-ubiquitous Chopin Waltz in C-sharp Minor, Op. 64, No. 2, or to the first recording of the complete Beethoven sonata cycle by Artur Schnabel. Readers looking for serious discussions of living, breathing performances are left largely to fend for themselves.

Influential performers such as Schnabel appear and disappear randomly without mention of their seminal contributions. The brilliant, idiosyncratic Canadian Glenn Gould is cited three times; two make the same reference to his retiring from the concert stage at age thirty-one, and the other mentions his preference for the original version of Paul Hindemith’s song cycle Das Marienleben. We hear nothing about Gould’s two extraordinary recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, in which the piano was regulated to produce in his hands a thrilling kind of steely clarity—not to mention his influential essay “The Prospects of Recording” (1966), which predicted by more than two decades many of the conventions we now take for granted in digital recording and editing.

Richard Hudson’s important Stolen Time: The History of Tempo Rubato (1994) is buried in the sixty-page “Select [!] Bibliography” but receives not a single mention in any of the abbreviated discussions of rubato. The lack of a clear and useful organization might have been redeemed partially by a comprehensive and accurate index. Sadly, the inconsistencies of the main text are only amplified by an index that is sloppy and woefully incomplete. For example, “piano” has no entry (nor does any other instrument, for that matter). “Verdi,” cited half a dozen times in the index, appears on at least fourteen other pages.

The final chapter, “The Future?,” points up perhaps most glaringly the volume’s vulnerabilities. The text is astonishingly naive. As evidence of the current popularity of classical music we read that “more than five billion people viewed [Lang Lang’s] performance in Beijing’s opening ceremony for the 2008 Olympic Games.” The best estimates of viewership averaged around 2.5 billion (the Wikipedia source for the “more than five billion” is a pre-opening promo piece), very few of whom would have tuned in specifically to watch Lang Lang. But who’s counting? If you watched either the BBC or the NBC feed, Lang Lang’s tentative, fifty-three-second, almost inaudible “performance” (he shares the bench with an adorable six-year old) is entirely dubbed (apparently director Zhang Yimou was taking no chances).

In a runup concert to the opening, Lang Lang was permitted to play five minutes from the inextinguishable Yellow River Concerto; in the three years since his performance was posted to YouTube it has received just over eight thousand views. As evidence that “a new era in music is dawning,” the editors cite an article more than twenty-five years old by Tod Machover—whose hyperinstruments and Opera of the Future are light years removed from the preoccupations in this book.

Who is the audience for this volume? Performers will become lost trying to find answers to basic questions. Most serious scholars will find the treatment of their fields of expertise too shallow to be useful. The music student and the hungry amateur will be too often dulled by passive and overly descriptive prose. There remains the shrinking market to which university presses cling: university and public libraries, many of which may choke on the hefty price. While this will not be the last venture on the important subject of musical performance, it is regrettable to see all the energy and conscientious effort that went into the first fail to harness fully either the potential of its talented contributors or the promise of its subject.

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