Sunday, 23 August 2015

Cracks and flows

The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, famous for his intense interpretations and notorious for his willful distortions of the score. was not interested in Stravinsky's music. But Stravinsky was very impressed by Gould's playing. In the sixties Stravinsky had heard Gould performing the last three Beethoven sonatas, opus 109, 110 and 111, on a concert in the USA, after which he had sent Gould a letter, saying that he had never come to grips with these pieces, but that Gould's performance had been a revelation.

Now, that is very interesting. Namely, I have a recording of these pieces, as played by Gould, and they demonstrate Gould's capacity to infuse a great expressive intensity into his rendering, but also they are erratic, a bit casual and improvisatory, as if invented at the spot. The logical narrative under the surface hardly gets time to naturally unfold, and the monumentality which is also part of the music, does not get much chance to be experienced. Gould plays the music as bits placed one after the other, where the immediate expressive effect is all.

No wonder that Stravinsky suddenly felt that the music made sense, because his own music had developed over the years into precise this sort of montage-structures: short bits of music which derive their effect from their immediate impact, like a kaleidoscope of small bits forming a whole together, but not organically interrelated within the flow of time.

 This is Gould tackling opus 109:

I think Richard Goode's interpretation is much better, giving room to both the music's improvisatory, immediate expression and natural flow, and its underlying monumentality:

So, it seems that Stravinsky's understanding was also somewhat a misunderstanding. He recognized a bit of Stravinsky in Beethoven.

And yet, no other pianist equals Gould's expressive intensity in these pieces, however cavalier his vision of them. That's  why I occasionally return to Gould's recording, in spite of the irritating flaws, while acknowledging that the Goode version is so much closer to the music, as can be seen from the score. Goode is simply much more convincing.... and I play his version more often.

The great pianist Arthur Schnabel once said: 'Great music is music that is better that it can be played', meaning that every performance brings-out certain aspects of the music on the expense of other aspects, and all of them cannot be performed in the same time, but they are all there embodied in the score. In his (very short!) booklet 'Aspects of Wagner', Bryan Magee compares recordings of Brahms' symphonies as performed by Toscanini and Walter. 'Under Toscanini they are played with an almost demonic ferocity and drive, and are deeply disturbing. Under Walter they have a glowing, autumnal relaxation and warmth, and are deeply consoling. Neither conductor transgresses the letter of the scores, nor their spirit. Yet the sum of what they bring out in their performances could not possibly be combined in a single performance.' Of course, the personality of the performer is part of the rendering, the performer brings the score to life, fills it with his/her own life experience. But this could only happen if the performer does recognize his/her own life experiences in the score. So, there is indeed something of Stravinsky's montage technique in these very personal works, but I think it only forms a minor element.

The Beethoven idiom in his late period is a synthesis of very different material, centrifugal forces battling with centripetal ones, forcibly bent into a harmonious whole, where the seams and cracks are occasionally audible, but form part of the musical vision. These types of cracks became more drastic in the music of the last century, under the pressures of the world's realities, and Stravinsky has not escaped them, but worked on his mosaics as best as he could. And some of them are works that equal Beethoven's.

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