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some nitpicking, hair-splitting classical music stuff - The Villages

Date: 2008-08-30 23:31
Subject: some nitpicking, hair-splitting classical music stuff
Security: Public
Location:the utility room in the sky
Music:wallis bird
This week marked the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Ralph Vaughan Williams, to my mind the greatest classical composer Britain has ever produced, and the BBC has very kindly obliged by marking the occasion with much good stuff.
This evening BBC2 screened a Proms concert from earlier this week of some of VW's work - The Tallis Fantasia, Serenade To Music and the Ninth Symphony, and for about two hours I was in hog heaven, particularly as the BBC Symphony Orchestra was being conducted by Sir Andrew Davies, one of my favourite conductors, a man who appears to twinkle at an orchestra rather than conducting them.
There was an interesting moment when, between musical bits, the presenters showed two of the soloists taking part in Serenade old footage of Malcolm Sargeant conducting the same piece, with VW himself sitting on the steps of the podium. And one of the soloists commented that under Sargeant they were taking the piece a lot more slowly than she and the rest of the orchestra were going to later.
This was picked up by one of the presenters who said that, if VW was sitting there, surely this must be the way the Serenade was meant to be performed, the correct way. And I thought that was a very good point. To which her co-presenter replied with some Blairite stuff about `feeling the music' and `making it your own,' which I thought was the classical music equivalent of `Shut up and sit down' and did him little credit.
I've been thinking about just this thing, on and off. Because of the length of a Vaughan Williams symphony, and the capacity of CDs, these days if you buy a symphony you'll find it bundled together with a lot of other stuff. I'm still a distance from having all the symphonies, but already I have several versions of the Fantasia, and a couple of versions of The Lark Ascending. And they're all different.
I first heard Fantasia On A Theme By Thomas Tallis when I was about eleven. I can't remember which orchestra was performing it but it was conducted by Vernon Handley and the recording was sponsored by Benson & Hedges, and to my mind that's the `perfect,' the baseline performance. It's the one that's in my head when I hear all other performances.
I have two recordings of the Fantasia on my Walkman, one of them conducted by Handley, and they're not right. One is almost right but there are places where stuff just goes too fast. The other one really charges through the piece. And The Lark is the same.
Which makes me wonder. What's the point of putting a time signature on a piece of music you're writing, if, fifty years later, people are going to ignore it in order to `make it their own'?
This of course doesn't amount to a hill of beans, but it's been perplexing me for a while.
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RealThog: leavingfortusa
User: realthog
Date: 2008-08-30 23:44 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)

"to my mind that's the `perfect,' the baseline performance"

Back in my teens, when I was going through my first years-long classical-music binge (of which there have been several; it's only in the past couple of decades that I've discovered the joys of putting Mozart and Meat Loaf on the same carousel), I developed a rule of thumb that I've never seen much cause to revise:

* the baseline performance is the Supraphon one;
* or, if there's not a Supraphon recording, it's the Heliodor one;
* or, failing either, it's whatever Eastern European performance you can get hold of.

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User: hutch0
Date: 2008-08-30 23:49 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Now there's an interesting thought. I wonder if there's an Eastern European version of the Tallis Fantasia...
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User: calcinations
Date: 2008-08-31 11:24 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Surely its a bit like speed limits on motorways. You know people break them, but it tells them what they should be doing. Or dietary reccomendations. But yes, in general, I think the composers timing should be followed wherever possible.

Now, one funny thing is that back in the late 90's I did a tour of Sweden and Demnark with the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra. For some reason they let me play I think 2nd horn in the Elgar cello concerto, probably the most difficult piece I have ever played. Anyway, maybe it was due to it being my first exposure to it, but I think the playing by the soloist and orchestra on the tape that I have is superior to the Jacqueline du Pre recoding I have on CD, in terms of timing, speed, emotion etc.

I have all the Vaughn Williams CD's in a boxed set from EMI, recorded by the Royal Liverpool hilharmonic orchestra back in 1990 or so.
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User: hutch0
Date: 2008-09-01 22:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Which does beg the question: how close are modern interpretations of the works of composers for whom we don't have any recordings? Beethoven? Liszt? Bach? Should we slavishly follow every time signature and tempo mark?
I think you're right; I think there is a kind of `imprinting' that happens when you first hear a piece of music - particularly if you've been involved in performing it - which sets that particular interpretation as the default in your mind, and every other interpretation doesn't sound quite right.
I'm saving up for that box-set. At the moment I have all the symphonies and a lot of the shorter work, but it's on tape and CD and vinyl and I'd like to get it all on one format if possible. And I really want to find a copy of Job.
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2008-09-02 00:37 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
There's also the issue of repeated listening to particular recordings. It is imprinting but that doesn't make it more "correct," just more comfortable.

While touring with an orchestra in my younger days, we played Smetana's "the Moldau" repeatedly one season. Every time, it needed to be new and fresh (or there was hell to pay if we didn't do so). To this day, however, I still hear it with a click in the first part of the hunting party's Doppler effect because that's the way I first heard it on an old 78.

I find it amusing that your impression that RVW's presence at a rehearsal was indicative of what is absolutely right for one of his particular compositions. The most generous and gifted of composers with whom I've worked (and there have been a fair few) were very much open to interpretation and were generally excited by liberal interpretations. If they wanted something specific, they marked them specifically. It is the insecure composers and performers who INSIST on things being just so.

Also, you mentioned "Fantasia On A Theme By Thomas Tallis" which is, of course, RVW's attempt at `feeling the music' and `making it your own' of Tallis' work. Just a thought.

-the other jean-marie

The designation of definitive recording of something would preclude the necessary of subsequent recordings (maybe even performances of it) and that simply is not the purpose of creating music. If it were done, when it were done...
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User: hutch0
Date: 2008-09-02 22:39 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I wasn't saying that it's `correct' in an absolute sense, just that your first experience of a piece of music - or a play, indeed - sets the baseline from which you view all other versions of it.
I thought the soloist from `Serenade To Music' was making a good point when she said that the presence of VW at the earlier performance must have validated it in some way. He was sitting there with the score across his knees. Or maybe he was reading a newspaper. But the point was that he was there; Sargeant and the choir and the orchestra could ask him questions about the piece, could get the operating instructions straight from then writer. Of course performance is open to interpretation, and I'm sure VW was open to this.
And the Tallis Fantasia is a different thing. It's a fantasia written around an existing piece, not a performance of that piece.
Big Hugs.

Edited at 2008-09-02 11:05 pm (UTC)
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2008-09-02 23:45 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Woe to the listener whose first experienced VW's music was at a concert of the North Podunk Middle School string ensemble!
(It could happen!)

But they didn't ask (to our knowledge), the performance still went on, the world still spun and there's no public record of the VW suing the conductor for breech of [specific or ambiguous] tempo markings.

I'd maintain that there is a parallel between composing around theme and interpreting what may or may not have been specifically marked in a score because composition is just another step in the performance process. However, that's just because fun to poke at you.

the usual

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