Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Speaking Of Music...

I haven't done a classical-music post here in a long time, even though (thanks to YouTube) I've been listening to more of it recently than I have in a while. One thing I've noticed about classical music on YouTube is that most of the comments show a disturbing obsession with speed. That is, every YouTube comment thread on a performance of a classical piece will consist mostly of a discussion of the tempo, usually with most commenters claiming it's too fast. (Sometimes they might say it's too slow, but this is not quite as common.)

Not that YouTube comments are a place where you expect to find deep intellectual commentary, but you're more likely to find relatively sophisticated discussion of musical performance in threads about pop music. For the classical videos, it mostly becomes an argument about tempo, divorced from other considerations like phrasing, balances (what instruments are allowed to dominate and which are muffled) and dynamics. Even the tempo discussions are weirdly divorced from reality, since you get people claiming that a slower tempo is what Beethoven or Mozart would have expected -- which, given that "Andante" and "Adagio" were faster in their day than they later became, just isn't true. Then you get the opposite, people pointing to metronome markings and historical evidence for what the "right" tempo is, and that in some ways is just as bad (what matters is whether the speed makes sense in this particular performance, not what the metronome marking says). Finally it becomes a discussion of the tempo the performer starts with, when most performances go through at least some change in speed. Some performers, the "romantic," demonstrative ones, make it clear when they're speeding up or slowing down, others try to disguise it, but they all do it to some extent. In short, the basic speed of a performance certainly is worth talking about, but not at the expense of everything else.

With that out of the way, here's a Beethoven symphony performance I found on the YouTube (aka "le YouTube," "der YouTube," and "il YouTuba"). It's by Frans Br├╝ggen, a recorder player who also became Holland's leading period-instrument conductor, putting together a band called "The Orchestra of the 18th Century" with which he recorded a lot of (strangely enough) 19th century music by Beethoven and Schubert. His Beethoven is hard to find on disc, but it's actually probably the best of the period-instrument Beethoven. He turned in performances that were leaner and rougher than big-orchestra Beethoven, but also more flexible and personal in interpretation than the "authentic" Beethoven performances coming out of England.

This video is from a 2002 performance of Beethoven's 8th symphony, which is kind of perfect for YouTube because every movement is under 10 minutes, so each movement fits neatly into one video. In some ways it's Beethoven's weirdest symphony. He wrote it at a time when he was known for making symphonies bigger, longer and more ambitious than ever before; he wrote it at the same time as his 7th symphony. And yet it's the shortest symphony he ever wrote, deliberately re-introduces devices that were out of date (like calling the dance movement a "minuet"), and makes its impact by introducing weird, unsettling or surprising little moments into movements that are otherwise very light and conventional-sounding.

It's not at all the kind of thing you would have expected to find between his 7th and 9th symphonies, and people have spent almost 200 years trying to figure out what exactly he meant by writing it: was it a look back at the "classical" style of Haydn and Mozart? Was it a parody of old-fashioned compositional methods? Or maybe a parody of current musical fads? (There used to be a legend that the second movement was a parody of the metronome, a device that had only just been invented.) It's a fun piece, but there's something a little unsettling about the fun. That's one reason why the harsher sound of period instruments works well in this piece.

1 comment:

Kenneth Burns said...

Are you pleased enough with YouTube's sound quality for classical listening?