Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Little More Allegro This Time

In his book Saturday, Ian McEwan writes a main character who is a neurosurgeon, the detail about whom which is of (mild) interest to me at the moment is that he is described having several different recordings of Bach's Goldberg Variations available for him to listen to in his operating room, whether it is (and I don't have the book with me anymore, so I apologize for the lack of specifics here (it's at my parents house (which is where I found and read it in the first place (though, Dad, if you'd care to find the book and scan it for the pertinent section and post it up as a comment - the passage in question occurs, I'm pretty sure, during the first description of Henry (the main character)'s typical day-in-surgery)))) so-and-so's such-and-such recording, or someone else's different-in-some-way performance, and, of course, occasionally, the Glenn Gould (though the book, distressingly, doesn't specify which of the two Gould recordings the character would listen to).

This detail is pertinent because I'm at work, suddenly having decided to spend some lunch break moments to jot (blog (I guess my vacation away from blogging is ended)) this down (up (blogging goes up, I think)), because I have just begun to listen to the Hilliard Ensemble's recording of Guillaume de Machaut's Messe de Notre Dame.This is a piece that I really enjoy, and listen to quite a lot, but it's also a piece to which I have a specific-recording addiction.Specifically, the Ensemble Organum / Marcel Pérès recording on Harmoni Mundi. Which is incredibly different from the Hilliard's take at it,and apparently, if one pokes around the internet, is something of a contentious issue, in that the various scholarships on performance practice for Machaut sail in wildly varying directions. And,apparently, the recording I like is potentially pretty wack, despite it's awesomeness. The aesthetician in me doesn't worry about"authenticity" (should those be single (scare)quotes?) as such, but the historically minded part of me does feel the need to at least engage with the differences. Such that my immediate impulse is to accumulate the various recordings of this piece and then actually dig into the scholarship surrounding it. Simply not enough time to do all that on lunch break too, so this'll have to suffice for now.

But I also bring this up because of this review of the American Symphony Orchestra (my current employer)'s performance of a couple little ditties by Szymanowski. And my currently-employedness has nothing to do with my negative reaction to this review. Beyond just the fact that it reads like a tossed off blog post (not that there's anything wrong with tossing of blog posts(there is something wrong with publishing them in the Times, though)), I am saddened because Tomasini had an opportunity to engage with the same problem I am currently discussing here, namely, that he has become addicted to a specific recording of King Roger, and in this concert found a live performance which failed to live up to his recording-based expectations. I was at this performance too, and find his appraisal to be off-the-mark, and would guess that what Tomasini heard as confusion and/or muddledness was in fact simply a performance of a different interpretation than the one he was used to listening to.

It's difficult, though, to branch back out to various recordings once you fall in love with one, though. Or at least that's my experience(the other example that jumps into my mind at the moment is the fact that I nearly always listen to the Carlos Kleiber/Vienna recordings of Beethoven's 5th & 7th Symphonies and Brahms's 4th Symphony, despite the fact that I own several recordings of each of those pieces). I know what I'm doing as I do it, but seem to be comfortable staying recording-biased, I guess for no other reason than the pleasure that accompanies the recordings which I have thusly fetishized.

Which is what makes that detail about Henry in Saturday so interesting to me. Is having several recordings of the same piece available for various instances just an expansion of the same problem (if it is a problem) that I have, or a way of conquering recording chauvinisms? Or, in that it (having multiple recordings of the same piece on hand) can still result in a similar bias against live performances, does it still not address what I think happened to Tomasini with the ASO?


Anonymous Dad said...

It's almost a toss-away line in the book, at the bottom of p.257 of the Anchor Books paperback edition: "He has four recordings here, and selects not the showy unorthodoxies of Glenn Gould, but Angela Hewitt's wise and silky playing which includes all the repeats."

7/30/2008 8:20 PM  
Blogger nate said...

Disregarding the main point of the post for now:

1. That's some nice research-librarianing, Dad.

2. That's an awfully obscure Simpsons reference in the post title, Pete; I can't source it through Google even though I know it's in the 100th episode.

3. My usage of single vs. double quotes (when they're not nested, anyway) derives from C++ syntax, where single quotes indicate a character and double quotes indicate a string. e.g., The only word in this sentence that begins with a letter 'a' is "a".

For nested quotes that approach doesn't really work, so I follow standard usage and (unlike your parentheses habits) try not to nest too much.

7/30/2008 10:04 PM  
Blogger Jack said...

I've always viewed that mode of classical CD-listening as a trap to avoid, so that I don't end up buying a whole ton of recordings of the same piece.

Given that no performance of early music is really authentic, I think you have to start chalking things up to personal taste and let a hundred flowers bloom.

p.s. Quote marks are just quote marks: single quotes aren't ever necessary unless they're nested inside double quotes. And it's "Tommasini," two M's.

7/30/2008 10:31 PM  
Blogger Pete said...

Thanks for looking that up, Dad.

Excellent example sentence in point 3, Nate.

I guess my problem, re: the recording theing, is that I'm not liberal enough to go just with my own taste. I'm too worried about context and process to just enjoy something with out engaging with my enjoyment thereof. But I'm also not conservative enough to really care, in terms of letting historical/philosophical/hermeneutical (whatever) information influence my taste - that is, I'm not necessarily concerned if the information points away from the interpretation that I favor (since, generally speaking, what we (oh yeah, broadening here) favor and why, as such, is inaccessible to us).

But I think it is true that the multiple recordings thing is not a solution to the single recording vs. performance thing, though having never lived in a world without recordings, it's hard to say what is.

7/31/2008 9:37 AM  

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