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Pedals, Portamentos, and Pianolas

January 20, 2009

The battle of the musicologists broke out on Friday afternoon in Stanford University's Campbell Recital Hall. Joseph Horowitz, noted author of several books on the history of classical music in America, played a 1932 recording of Leopold Stokowski conducting the slow movement of Beethoven's Fifth. Horowitz described the performance as transformed from "Beethoven's Andante" into "Stokowski's Adagio," not only for being played unusually slowly but also for added pedal points, distinctive string sonority, and other changes. He found the result very attractive.
Some listeners agreed. Others called Stokowski a charlatan and his interpretation inhuman or even nauseating. Charles Rosen, the much-honored musicologist-pianist and author of The Classical Style, disputed Horowitz's whole thesis that Stokowski was "a frustrated composer" in a century that liked its performers uncreatively literal. Rosen argued that tension between the composer's will and the performer's expression has always been part of music.

All this was part of Reactions to the Record II, a five-day symposium on the place of recording in our understanding of musical style. Its predecessor, two years ago, focused on what early recordings can teach us about long-abandoned performance style. To that rich topic, this year's symposium added the theme of applying those lessons to today's performance. Alongside research presentations and panel discussions, the symposium included seven concerts, five of which I was able to attend.
Walking the Talk
Some of the concerts tied directly in to particular presentations. On Thursday afternoon, soprano Rebecca Plack and her accompanist, Will Crutchfield, demonstrated how they'd studied an early recording of tenor Leo Slezak singing Schubert's song "Ungeduld" (from Die schöne Müllerin), attempting to pick up Slezak's rhythmically flexible manner. Plack tried speaking the lyrics over Crutchfield's piano to let the phrases flow naturally.

On Friday evening they performed this and several other Schubert and Mendelssohn songs in concert. It proved hard for them to free themselves from the received style in such well-known songs. Despite some notable ritardandos, Plack seemed at times almost trapped in the rhythm. Yet her voice was strong and expressive, and her enunciation exemplary. She could pronounce a long-drawn-out consonant cluster — like "Schlummre" (slumber), which figures prominently in Mendelssohn's Bei der Weige — and make it both clear and beautiful.

British violinist David Milsom was less successful on Thursday attempting to replicate the style of Brahms' favorite violinist, Joseph Joachim. He asked interesting questions in his presentation about when boringly old-fashioned practice becomes interestingly historical, and warned, "Tonight's concert will be in the best 19th-century tradition: hideously under-rehearsed." His performance of Brahms’s Violin Sonata in A Major, Op. 100, captured neither the spontaneity or the passion audible in Joachim’s recordings, and he didn’t have a secure hold on the pitch of his gut-stringed instrument. Nor did Milsom make more than a cursory attempt to replicate Joachim’s characteristic portamento slides.
Revelations at the Keyboard
The rest of Thursday's concert was better. Kumaran Arul, Stanford professor, co-host of the symposium, and Milsom's accompanist, gave a fantasia-like performance of Chopin's Piano Sonata in B Minor, Op. 58. Jonathan Summers, who is the British Library's curator of classical recordings as well as a pianist, gave a rattling one of Liszt's Vallée d'Obermann.

Better still was the other half of Friday's concert, after the song recital. With only a couple of shortcuts and false starts, Charles Rosen at age 81 played Brahms' Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel with a full complement of neo-Baroque grace and gruff Brahmsian humor. He rendered a Brahms intermezzo and a couple works of Chopin with equal charm.

Also good — though the quality wouldn't have surprised listeners in the habit of attending Stanford student performances — was the student midday concert on Thursday. Andrew Zhou played Copland's Piano Variations in a disciplined, sensitive manner that made this infamously dissonant work sound almost tuneful. John Provine played Mikhail Pletnev's imaginative arrangement of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, and joined Giancarlo Garcia (clarinet) and Stephanie Lai (cello) in the opening Allegro of Brahms' Clarinet Trio, Op. 114. Jonathan Yu (violin), Susie Choi (cello), and Hotaik Sung, piano, were affecting in the first movement of Brahms' B-Major Piano Trio, Op. 8, especially in presenting the main theme.

Keyboard improvisation is one old performance practice not much preserved on recordings, but the symposium took a stab at recreating it anyway. On Friday afternoon, audience members called out names of themes — mostly popular songs — that they hoped pianists William Cheng and Genadi Zagor knew, as each in turn prepared to play an improvised medley of the suggestions. Cheng's was mostly slow and gentle, in alternating styles of Chopin and Art Tatum. Zagor blew away the competition with his faster, more openly jazzy transformations, a bit Ivesian at times, concluding with shameless runs all over the keyboard.

Stanford's organist, Robert Huw Morgan — claiming to be out of practice — demurred from improvising himself, so his Wednesday evening concert in Memorial Church consisted of transcribed or reconstructed improvisations by French organist/composers Marcel Dupré and Charles Tournemire. I had not realized that such distinguished composers could create avowedly liturgical music that sounded — at least in Morgan's interpretation — as though they had been goofing off on movie theater organs.
Wringing the Most From Mechanical Fingers
Though I missed Rex Lawson's pianola concert on Saturday evening, the talks and demonstrations he and Denis Hall gave that afternoon were the most interesting part of the symposium. Unlike a full player piano, the pianola is not self-contained. Place it carefully in front of a normal grand piano, and the mechanical fingers sticking out of the back of the pianola will play the piano's keys.

Lawson and Hall vigorously swept away various myths about pianolas and piano rolls. They denounced — as strongly as their polite British manner would permit — a lot of "Great Pianists Play Again" recordings made by playing piano rolls on ill-adjusted instruments at crude, thumping, unvaried volume. They added that most piano rolls were not live recordings of actual pianists at all, but were punched mechanically as transcriptions of the scores.

What could possibly be the musical value of these? Lawson showed us, with a roll of Rachmaninov's W.R. Polka, what a real virtuoso pianola player can do. Adjusting dynamics by the strength of his foot pedaling and tempo with a lever in one hand, and controlling the piano's sustain pedal with a lever in the other, he turned this plain roll into an artistically creative performance of the piece.

There was much more to the discussion of performance tradition. The word "grandpupil" kept reappearing in several presentations about the handing down of performing practices from Chopin or Liszt or even Beethoven, while Charles Rosen remained skeptical as to whether any such interpretive connection could possibly be found after two or three generations.

Jonathan Bellman of the University of Northern Colorado raised the question of audience response as an element in performance practice. Like stand-up comedians, Bellman said, sensitive performers adjust their stage manner to their audience. But this is difficult in the cold silence of the recording studio. Many presenters worried over how best to transmit performance tradition: by practicing style and technique rather than individual works, by studying old recordings, or by trying variants out on audiences and seeing what works? Judging by the concerts at the symposium, it's very difficult for performers to break loose from the received styles of their own time.

And the argument over Stokowski? It was never settled, and the participants all went out to continue the discussion over dinner. Musicological wars may never end, but they can be civilized.

David Bratman is a librarian who lives with his lawfully wedded soprano and a wall full of symphony recordings.