Monday, February 28, 2011

Then and Now

Opening this morning's New York Times was uneventful. There were the usual bad news about our involvement in other countries' affairs. Often I wonder if certain foreign problems purposely get so much attention so that we the people wouldn't notice our domestic mess. Perhaps we should be more careful about encouraging other nations to pursue democracy, a concept they have little or no understanding of. Why is it it so important for us to remove the leaders of Egypt and Libya and yet be quiet about North Korea?  If the restlessness spreads to Saudi Arabia and the price of crude oil triples, would we be equally eager to support to end the friendly monarchy's rule there? We seem to have forgotten about our demands for an election in the Gaza Strip: against our expectations the Hamas won and we, along with Israel, were most upset by their victory. One should be careful with what one wishes for.

Of course I had read all those news a day before and not just from an American perspective. One of the greatest things about the internet is the ability to follow what's happening globally as seen through very different eyes. I'm comfortable in reading enough languages and when I'm not, Google's Translator comes in handy. Naturally the latter requires that said translations be reinterpreted, but with a bit of logic that isn't usually a problem. Pages from Mandarin to Hindi to Arabic open with ease.

It was a short night as we had to get up very early after working late last night. I had set the coffee maker's timer and by the time I got to the breakfast table my wife Marjorie had finished reading the paper, in addition to consuming a respectable amount of high quality java. The Arts section was open, and a review and picture of a string quartet caught my attention. I'm certain that the Takacs Quartet played their Schubert program beautifully, but the photo was disturbing. Are such exaggerated physical motions needed for this great and heavenly music? Shostakovich or Ginastera might have been more understandable, but lovely Schubert? I have seen almost identical pictures of other groups regularly and wonder if all that circus is truly necessary. In the picture underneath I have placed photos of the Joachim Quartet, the true founder of this art form, and Takacs group, next to each other. Joachim made violin playing and chamber music a very serious affair. Thanks to him recital and solo repertoire changed greatly and a virtuoso's encores no longer consisted of imitating animal sounds.

Joachim Quartet (top), Takacs Quartet (©B Harkin/NY Times)

I am fascinated by early performance practices, especially when we have some actual proof of how music was interpreted. Old photographs are more truthful than paintings. The artists made Mozart look pleasant and even charming, yet books tell how homely and unattractive he was in real life with his pox marks and other facial features. Naturally in early photographs action shots were not possible as exposure took time and people had to look very proper. The famous Joachim Quartet looks almost stern in photographs, and based on listeners' accounts their performances were very serious business indeed. From early recordings we know how Joachim himself played: his interpretation of solo Bach seems almost contemporary and is certainly not covered under a coating of constant vibrato or other trademarks of Romantic playing.. We can easily imagine what his quartet must have sounded like. Joachim was revered in continental Europe: his funeral in Berlin was like that of a Kaiser. All that respect and admiration without any gimmicks on stage!

Naturally resorting to showmanship and cheap tricks is nothing new. Being a musician was for a long time comparable to that of a circus member.  We seem to have gone back in time, as nowadays we unfortunately enjoy our musical encounters more with our eyes than with our ears, as if concerts were intended for deaf people. Everyone should enjoy a blind person's experience: bouncing around and madly waving bows or batons obviously would be of no use.

Interestingly, the same New York Times issue had a picture of Emanuel Ax at the piano, playing another all-Schubert  recital at Alice Tully Hall. He looked like a serious musician, an old-timer. Joseph Joachim would have approved.