MM 5: Mostly Wrong Yet Mostly Right

United StatesUnited States MM 5: Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Kristian Bezuidenhout (Fortepiano), Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, Pablo Heras-Casado (conductor), Starr Theater, Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York , 9.8.2012 (SSM)

Schubert: Symphony No. 3 in D major (1815)
Schumann: Introduction and Allegro appassionato (“Concertstück”) (1849)
Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4 in A major (“Italian”) (1833)

What is one to make of musicians who have staked their careers on the tenets of the “Historically Informed Performance” (HIP) movement but have recently been performing music in a style that is unquestionably historically incorrect? Kristian Bezuidenhout plays a reproduction of a late-date fortepiano (ca.1820) which must be one of the last ever made commercially, and was most certainly by Schumann’s time as quaint as a Pleyel harpsichord (instrument of choice for Wanda Landowska) would be to a modern day pianist. It is as inconceivable to believe that Schumann’s or Mendelssohn’s orchestras played with instruments in the style of the 18th century as it is to believe that Stokowski’s approach to Bach reflected an historically correct style.

The Freiburg Baroque Orchestra has been around for 25 years as a model HIP group. At the time of its founding, the HIP movement was accepted as a valid approach to music before the 1830s. Music by Monteverdi, Purcell, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert may have used the bowing, phrasing and pitch of instruments of their generation and before, but by the second quarter of the 19th century this style would have been considered antiquated. Scarlatti had access to the early Christofori fortepianos in the 1720s. It would be a short view of the history of the piano to think 100 years later fortepianos were still a dominant force in keyboards.

Yet if there is no historical justification for this kind of interpretation, there are valid artistic ones.Both the Schubert and Mendelssohn symphonies were played with a freshness that gave new life to the works. In some ways it was like turning the treble up on an amplifier: music once covered by the heavier patina of modern day instruments came to the forefront. This could be heard in the first movement of the Schubert symphony where the wind instruments shimmer and shine. As different as the strings in a Baroque orchestra sound from today’s strings, the winds and brass had a more unique timbre. Valveless brass, wooden flutes, oboes with a choice of coloring (oboe d’amore, da caccia) create a wholly different sound-world.

As much as the instruments made a difference, so did the players. Like their predecessors at this Festival, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, they are virtuosi in their own right and have no official conductor. Not to disparage Maestro Heras-Casado, but I suspect they were capable of doing a fine job without him.

The Schumann piece is unusual and infrequently performed. Attempting it on the fortepiano was a greater challenge than even Kristian Bezuidenhout was capable of overcoming. This was a favorite of Sviatoslav Richter, and his many performances succeeded through his use of powerhouse techniques that left no room for competition on a piano let alone on a fortepiano. As would be expected, even the gentlest orchestral moments drowned out the soloist, and during the many dramatic moments all one heard were tinklings. Balance is critical at all times, particularly between a soloist and an orchestra. When the soloist’s very instrument cannot produce a dynamic loud enough to be heard over the orchestra then the composer’s intent has been betrayed.

Stan Metzger

Note: In my review of the Mostly Mozart concert on August 5th, I wrote about the annoying ubiquity of the piped-in bird calls. I am happy to say that the bird songs are now played only as the audience initially enters the concert hall. (August 21st)

Note to above: I chirped too soon.  The birds were back but at least they were caged. None got into the men’s rooms and they seem to have been chased away from the Rose Theater. (August 23rd)