There are as many interpretations of pieces of classical music as there are pairs of ears—that’s inner ears for conductors, and physical ears for audiences. How does one interpretation, however, come to be deemed better than the next? There are some basic considerations, such as can the musicians perform the correct notes with rhythmic exactness and certainty of intonation? But, given that this is usually a sine qua non for professional recordings, there must be other premises on which judgments might reasonably be made.
A judicious speed, clarity of parts buried in the middle of a texture, appropriate character for the time and circumstances in which a piece was conceived, or the ability to go beyond the page and into the composer’s head—these are just a few of the considerations that might be called on when forming a reasoned opinion of a performance. Music critics spend their lives and their reputations on such wavelengths. Today, let’s take the opportunity for armchair critics to get into the swing.
I’ve chosen multiple clips of the openings of five movements of well-known orchestral music. The year of the recordings is given, as are the names of the orchestras/ensembles and conductors. Some basic parameters for making comparisons are also suggested, which may or may not feel relevant to listeners. The challenge is not only to decide which interpretation appeals to you the most, but to be able to concisely articulate why this is so.
We start with the Classical period and the first movement of Mozart’s Serenade No. 13, Eine kleine Nachtmusik, composed in Vienna in 1787. The occasion for which it was composed is unknown, but the work would have been suitable for domestic performance, and it’s been described as music as lucid and cheerful as anything Mozart wrote. The subtle elegance of the movement is not communicated in the score by prescriptive performance instructions; rather, the mannerisms of the day would surely have been injected spontaneously by the performers. So, if we’re hoping for something ‘cheerful’ and a reflection of the sensibilities of the time and place of its composition, which of these performances do you think best fits the bill?
Moving back to the Baroque period, J.S. Bach completed his six Brandenburg Concertos in 1721 as a tribute to the Duke of Brandenburg. Perhaps one clue for getting a handle on this piece is the word ‘concerto’, usually used as a vehicle to display a performer’s technical virtuosity. If you look at the score of the last movement of Concerto No. 3, there’s hardly a rest to be found in the individual parts, like voluble people who don’t seem to need to draw breath when holding a conversation. Then there’s the challenge of contrapuntal music that shares out the melodic limelight around the different levels in the texture; can the melodies in the lower parts be clearly heard? or do they get swamped by the instruments at the top? So, on balance, which of these interpretations takes your fancy?
Completed in 1808, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony surely has one of the most iconic openings ever written. Can familiarity breed contempt in that regard? The minor key, the unprecedented manner of the opening statements, the drama that seems to fizz and subside as the movement progresses establish the mood, but how about the character behind the notes, which can become sausages on a conveyor belt at one end of the interpretative spectrum, or a fearsome sculpted menace if dressed with light and shade and carefully considered gradations of articulation.
One of the conductors in the following excerpts said this about his approach to conducting the work. Which one do you think it was?
You can compare the conductor to a modern-day stage director. A stage director asks himself, ‘What should I do with this old play? Should I try to visualise how the playwright would have done it today and try to understand what he wanted to say?’ This is the philosophy of a stage director as it is the philosophy of the conductor.
It is impossible to listen to music from the beginning of the 19th century today and really understand what it felt like to hear it for the first time. When playing Beethoven, Mozart or Haydn, it is not enough to play it on original instruments or try to play exactly as our research indicates that they did back then. It would not, to the same extent, move a contemporary audience emotionally, because in the meantime our ears have changed, and so have the things we can fantasise and dream about. I need to play the notes in such a way that we can recreate the feelings of the listeners which Beethoven would have wanted to invoke in his audience, rather than playing it exactly how he wanted it to sound.
I expect I’m not the only one to hold their breath at the start of a performance of the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, which cries out to be taken at a fair lick. For sure, Tchaikovsky’s tempo marking is for it to be played fast and fiery. But, shall we say, the devil is in the detail when the detail can’t be heard. If the conductor hits the spot with a good speed and the players respond with flawless technique and unanimity, then that’s a jackpot for me, especially if you’ve got a smart sound engineer who can capture it to perfection. Here are three interpretations for you to rank in your order of choice, one of which is my own baby bear’s porridge—just right.
Finally, we turn to the first movement of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. I mentioned earlier that precise performance instructions sometimes don’t appear on a written score, giving performers latitude to indulge in a variety of interpretations. Not so in Mahler’s orchestral works. He was paranoid about his concept of the music being followed to the letter. In many study scores you will find a small dictionary of the words that litter the pages, together with translations from the German. For the purposes of this blog, we’ll focus simply on the statement at the start of the score: Trauermarsch: In gemessenem Schritt – Streng – Wie ein Kondukt. Basically, a funeral march, conducted in a strictly measured, heavy step. Getting the right tempo here is crucial: too slow and it sounds as though the music itself has died; too fast and it suggests people can’t wait to get to the wake. The solemnity should be tangible. Which of our clips hits the spot for you?