Are authentic performances a silly convention?
'The 'hands-off attitude of the specialised musician has its roots, I suspect, in a deep seated loss of confidence, so that we rely increasingly on rules and evidence as a means of evading responsibility for artistic judgements. It is this quality of confidence which is so striking to modern ears in 'pre-authentic' playing, as in the Bach performances of Casals and Hamilton Harty, for example: a bedrock of convictions on which their particular 'authenticity' resides.'That observation on authenticity in contemporary music from Messiaen authority Peter Hill takes us down an interesting path. The link between Peter Hill's 'convictions' and Jonathan Harvey's 'conventions' is more than alliteration. Because performance conventions may originate from the past, as with the rules of concert etiquette, or they may originate from the present, as with authentic performances of early music.
Peter Hill mentions Casals' Bach and the CD set above illustrates quite magnificently how conviction can triumph over convention. Among the 10 CDs are Casals' classic accounts of the Cello Suites from the 1930s and his 1950 account of the Brandenburg Concertos from the first Casals Festival which was held in Perpignan. The latter recording was made with Casals' Prades Festival Orchestra augmented by the following stellar line up of soloists:
Alexander Schneider , Joseph Szigeti  violin, Paul Tortelier  cello, John Wummer [4 & 5], Bernard Goldberg  flute, Marcel Tabuteau , Laila Storch, John Mack oboe, Maurice Allard  bassoon, Lucien Thevet, Gérard Coursier horn, Marcel Mule saxophone, Fernando Valentin harpsichord, Eugene Istomin  piano, Prades Festival Orchestra conducted by Pablo Casals. Figures in brackets refer to the concertos in which the soloists play. Below is the cover of the 1951 Perpignan recording of Beethoven's Archduke Trio made with Pablo Casals, Eugene Istomin and Alexander Schnieder.
It was conviction rather than convention that drew front desk players including Toscanini’s NBC flautist John Wummer, Philadelphia oboist Marcel Tabuteau, Cleveland bassoonist John Mack and Budapest Quartet member (and Casals' orchestral 'fixer') Alexander Schneider to a remote corner of barely post-war France when air travel was still an act of faith. They came to play and record Bach in primitive conditions and the result was one of the classics of the gramophone. The power of the performances does not come from the precision of the playing or from the sound quality, and most certainly not from musicological 'authenticity'. The power comes from what Peter Hill describes as the 'bedrock of convictions on which their particular 'authenicity' resides'.
It is one of the paradoxes of today's culture that we pay lip service to inclusivity by means of rules and evidence, while practising exclusivity by choice. Classical music is desperate to reach new audiences, and to do so enthusiastically embraces innovations such as reality TV shows featuring classical musicians. But what would the critical reaction be if the 2011 BBC Proms featured the sure fire sell out of the Brandenburgs with Gustav Dudamel conducting the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra augmented by principals from leading international orchestras and Lang Lang playing piano?
* Pablo Casals, A Portrait is released on the German Membran Music label and also includes Casals' 1945 recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto with Adrian Boult conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra, a partnership that prompted Sir Adrian to say of Casals, "There is no known conducting technique for keeping an orchestra together with this man. The only useful practice would be fly-swatting". The very low priced Membran discs are presumably unlicensed copies of the out of copyright originals. The whole area of unlicensed out of copyright releases, which are legal in countries where the copyright has lapsed, is a vexed one. This blog has always defended the intellectual property rights of musicians. But the counter argument is that the musicians, or their estates, do not benefit from these old recordings, and that the only beneficiaries are corporate record labels whose ownership has changed umpteen times since the original release. Anyway, how may of us send a cheque to Van Gogh's estate for the reproduction of the Sunflowers hanging in our downstairs WC? I paid less than £10 including delivery for for Pablo Casals, A Portrait from an Amazon reseller and have negated the resultant negative karma with a recitation of the Mahayana Sutra of the Three Superior Heaps.
** Sadly Gustavo, Yang Yang et al were unavailable. So my Chance Music programme on Sunday November 7, which is a musical homage to Catalonia, will include Pablo Casals' and the Prades Festival Orchestra's 1950 account of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, complete with piano solo. More on Casals in Prades here.
*** Thankfully Pablo Casals is not forgotten, but Hamilton Harty is. Which is surprising, as Harty composed wonderfully accessible but deeply unfashionable music that would surely win classical music some new listeners if it was better known. To try to rectify that neglect just a little, below is my 1979 Chansos 2 LP set of Harty's orchestral music which includes his 1920 arrangement of Handel's Water Music. Bryden Thomson and the Ulster Orchestra play with wonderful conviction and confidence, and the mention allows me to link to my post about the forgotten maestro who was the Ulster Orchestra's first conductor.
Also on Facebook and Twitter. Peter Hill quote is from his article '"Authenticity" in Contemporary Music', Tempo 159 (December 1986). Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). French trivia - on my first-ever visit to France in 1965 I stayed at the Lycée François Arago in Perpignan, a short distance from where Casals had recorded the Brandenburg's fifteen years earlier. A few weeks ago I returned to Perpignan and visited the Lycée, my thanks go to the staff there for being so welcoming. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk