The Dreadful, Dreaded Urtext Performance

I have just heard a performance of Biber's "Resurrection" sonata by a group with a name something like Tragicomedia. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. How could anyone work so hard to come up with such an unnatural approach to this sublime piece? As in most of the recent recordings of Biber's Sonatas of the Rosary (Rosenkranz-Sonaten), I'm afraid the Baby Jesus has once again been thrown out with the bath water.

Let us enumerate the faults: First, the introductory sections are supposed to represent the first Easter morning. The violin should be giving celestial trumpet calls, portraits of descending angels, telling us exactly what is happening. Unfortunately, the recording starts in a mist, the trumpet calls never summon the sense of anticipation that they should, and the angels sound disoriented. The scene as played lacks dramatic focus, and in tone-painting such as this, it must be the duty of the performer to bring out the intent of the music. The angel then tells us what has happened by leading into a song, the ancient hymn "Surrexit Christus Hodie". In the recording, the hymn is there, but the fact that the angel is getting ready to launch into it is not brought out. The introduction simply stops and, after a moment of confusion, the hymn begins, but with no conviction. Part of the problem with the hymn is that the organist has chosen an unbalanced registration, 8+2 principals, and has chosen to take the melody even where not required to, leaving much of the harmony unrealized. The violinist never really digs into the hymn, even though the scordatura (g, g', d', d") is obviously intended to facilitate playing in octaves. After the hymn has been completed, the closing tableau is evidently a prayer at the empty tomb. Here again, the performance lacks all sense of continuity — a series of directionless harmonic progressions with awkward silences between.

There have been many recordings of these sonatas, though I can't remember any so lame as this one. But I know of only one recording where the musicians seemed to know the story behind the music, and succeeded in bringing it to life: Eduard Melkus recorded the cycle for DGG in 1967, with Huguette Dreyfus (harpsichord), Lionel Rogg (organ), and Karl Scheit (lute), Gerald Sonneck (violincello and gamba), Alfred Planyavsky (violon), and Hans-Jürg Lange (Baroque bassoon) (DGG 198422/23). Melkus also realized the figured bass with great care. This is one of the best recordings of anything that I have ever heard. It works because the musicians knew the story and knew the musical language that Biber used to depict the story.

A revered professor made disparaging remarks about "Urtext performances" that put in all the original notes but left out all attempts at interpretation. This was about 1970; the "original", "authentic", and "period" instrument movement was not really on the radar and was not the reason for her remarks. The "Urtext" editions of early music, stripped of all the later interpretive markingss that had disfigured them, had recently been published or were in press, and already they were being played as written, as if they were simply historically significant sequences of notes without any other meaning. Yes, the original notes have to be played, but the music must also be interpreted. It must be made to say something.

Wanda Landowska ran into this sort of problem early in her career. She tried to fathom why the music of the past was played so strangely. She found she had to deal with several myths about early music. Some thought it should be played slowly, because the instruments of the past were incapable of playing as fast as we do today, and the early musicans had not mastered the technique. Others thought that everything Bach had ever written was a prayer, and so all of his music, and by extension most of the music of other early composers, needed to be played with a reverential slow legato. Still others thought that the music of the past, having few marks indicating dynamics or expression, should be played without expression, because the musicians of the past did not know about our modern emotions. As bizarre as this sounds when expressed in a few words, we have here an early characterization of the "Urtext performance".

A strange schizophrenia seems to have arisen unnoticed. On one hand, Baroque music is most often played today in a way that pretends to follow as closely as possible the way it would have been performed at the time it was composed. On the other hand, the recording engineer, seemingly unsatisfied by what he hears, takes unprecedented liberties, making the harpsichord and sometimes even the organ move toward the front of the stage when they have their momentary solos, and then move into the background when they resume their role in the continuo. And on a third hand, if we may be permitted, the musicians themselves sometimes introduce "techniques" that have no historical basis whatever, and are properly called faults.

It seems to me the original goal of the "period" movement was to play the music of the past as it was originally intended. Nowhere in the many volumes of commentary from the past do we find any instruction to make the music as expressionless as possible. Rather, the musicians of the past were expected to produce all the emotions of the human experience, just as they are today. It has always been necessary to go beyond just playing the notes.

The Urtext performance would not be half as bad if it were simply neater. The sounds that are produced by some of these groups border on crude. We expect professional musicians to have learned to control their instruments. They should have learned, by the time they attempt a commercial recording, to make all the little adjustments that keep each note in tune with the next, and that compensate for the different tone colors, intonation, attack, and volume of different notes, on modern as well as antique instruments. There is certainly no historical reason to suppose that the best musicians of the past were untrained rubes, nor that the composers of the past wanted their works to be performed exclusively by amateurs. It is very hard to take seriously recordings where the violins are not even playing in tune with each other. Some of the ensembles sound so bad we begin to wonder if they have fallen prey to the same myths that Landowska complained about. They seem to think that the musicians of the past were unsophisticated, rustic amateurs who were not capable of controlling their instruments in the same way that we expect from a modern symphony orchestra, and perhaps that they were not even aware of the possibility of attaining such control. And even if some of the ensembles of the past did not do justice to a particular piece at a particular performance, is that any reason for a modern ensemble to go out of its way to duplicate such a performance?

Does anyone need proof that technical excellence is possible in the context of "period" performance? That it is possible for Baroque strings to play with perfect intonation and exquisite control? That ensemble playing does not require heavy-handed tricks from the recording engineer? Then try this recording: Rameau: Pièces de Clavecin, recorded in 1986 by Trio Sonnerie (Virgin Classics Limited VC 7 90749-2, Copyright 1989). Violinist Monica Huggett, gambist Sarah Cunningham, and harpsichordist Mitzi Meyerson are simply spectacular in this performance of the five "Pièces de clavecin en concerts" (1741). I must single out the preformance of Mitzi Meyerson for her mastery of touch and registration and her inspired interpretation. But the same should be said of Monica Huggett and Sarah Cunningham. Their technical and artistic excellence is outstanding. Even better, this trio shines as an ensemble. Other recordings of these pieces have been attempted, but they pale beside this one. Here we have a clear demonstration of what is possible in the realm of "period" performance.

- John W. McCoy

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