May 17, 2005

The aesthetic brilliance of Toscanini and Furtwangler

Interpretation is an art that revolves around the definition of perspectives—in the crucible of analysis, most of the differences in performance come down to whether the artist creates the work from outside, looking in, or from the inside, looking out. Last Friday, the Akademie für Alte Musik presented a beautiful exploration into both possibilities; they played Handel Suite from "Almira," Vivaldi's Concerto in D minor for two Oboes, Bach's Concerto for two violins, and Geminiani's Concerto Grosso no. 12 under the direction of Georg Kallweit, a meticulous craftsman who chiseled each work into poised beauty while being completely removed from it.

The tuning was beautiful, the expressions exact, and the tempi and the passagework rehearsed until they approached the point of spontaneity. Kallweit began each piece by walking around the stage and explicitly tuning each performer, listening, calibrating, and making absolutely certain of the pitch, the inflections, the sub-inflections and the nuances of the Baroque A and E before commencing to play. Every gesture was practiced, every turn beautifully gauged, and every expressionistic subtlety planned to the nth degree. The clockwork precision of his staccati, the absolute coordination he drew from the members of his ensemble, the minutely planned variations of timbral balance between the solo oboists in the Vivaldi concerto and the precise tempo contrasts between the Sarabande, the Bourée, and the stately Minuet in the Handel suite were all eloquent testimony to his interpretational perspective. He was an embodiment of the Toscanini ideal.

And what exactly is the Toscanini ideal? An interpretational philosophy that begins with the premise that the interpreter owes his ultimate artistic allegiance to the work of art which he is engaged in recreating. It is the aesthetic of ultimate non-subjectivism, where the artist strives to be a superbly wrought conduit, facilitating the audience's involvement in the work without being swept away himself. Logical paradoxes permeate this aesthetic; there is intense involvement by being intensely uninvolved, and exquisite unobtrusiveness by near-dictatorship. The central tenet is the view that the performer cannot be submerged by the performed, as the purpose of a recreation is to allow the composer and his work to communicate to the audience from the mists of time. The interpretation is highly involving, but the artist himself purposefully directs the involvement, never losing sight of his forces, his overall conception of how the piece ought to sound, of the expressionistic palette he seeks to cover and the precise execution of every expression.

The piece that is created bears the mark of objective perfection, all the brilliance of rigorous interpretation strategy—and no trace of the interpreter. The style is the absence of style, and context is indeed everything. By no means is this to say that every interpretation is uniform—startling variations are in fact implied by the aesthetic, created by the interpreter in a supremely conscious exercise of imposition dictated by context and relevance.

An interesting corollary of this philosophy is that history is more or less irrelevant. The eponymous conductor who concretized this aesthetic, Arturo Toscanini, once said of Beethoven's Eroica, "To some it is Napoleon, to some it is philosophical struggle; to me it is Allegro con brio." To immerse oneself in the historicism and socio-economic background of the work is to get caught up in its spirit, to empathize too much, to seek to portray too much of the impressions which will inevitably be colored by your own perceptions. It is to lose one's sense of remaining outside, to lose objectivity. The music must be played using the context of performance and the context of annotation.

Toscanini's rehearsals during his tenure as the conductor of the New York Philharmonic were legendary—every detail was planned meticulously, to the point that their rendition in the concert hall became a matter of spontaneity. His recordings of Beethoven's symphonic cycles are eloquent testimony to his artistic philosophy. Toscanini rescued classical music from what he saw as the morass of Romantic subjectivity—conductors like Mengelberg, Furtwängler and Nikisch, who so imposed their personalities upon the music that they conducted with such force and power as to obscure the composer himself. It was no longer Beethoven's Fifth symphony, but Dimitri Mitropoulos's or Bruno Walter's Fifth.

Toscanini laid the groundwork for the modern interpretational aesthetic—an enduring legacy that influenced titans like Eugene Ormandy, Pierre Boulez, and John Eliot Gardiner, and essentially constructed the philosophical underpinnings of period performance practice. After all, period instrument performances are about reconstructing music as it was performed in the composer's time, as he would have had it played, upon the instrumental forces he would have had at his disposal, to recreate a sound that he might have envisaged, not that which others after him might have envisaged for him. However, Toscanini's philosophy also marked the decline of subjective beauty, the Romantic grandeur and the immortal imprint of the titanic interpreters who literally became one with the piece, allowed it to permeate them, and molded the music by molding themselves.

And it was precisely this artistic philosophy that was evidenced in the style of the second conductor of the Akademie für Alte Musik, Stephen Mai. His interpretation of Bach's first orchestral suite was a superb demonstration of his style. He moved with the music, conducting the ensemble with his entire person. He would crouch intently over his violin during the pianissimi, straightening up with grand sweep to indicate a crescendo, theatrically bowing his way through a build-up, and triumphantly cadencing a phrase with a uniquely Romantic flourish. He eschewed the traditional dynamic planes—forte-piano without overt gradations—for a much more nuanced texture composed of almost Stokowskian crescendi, and even incorporated tempo fluctuations to make his point.

The piece that was most eloquently representative of his style was Bach's first orchestral suite. In sharp contrast to Kallweit, he tuned carefully but nonchalantly, leaving it largely up to the artists. He seemed less interested in precision and coordination and infinitely more engaged by expressiveness. He molded the music from within, never subscribing to an ideal, but rather the non-ideal of subjective beauty. His edges were lightly less clear than Kallweit, his staccati slightly more blurred, his moods more expansive, his gestures more dramatic. He became the music, shaping it organically from inside out. His style bordered on being un-Baroque—Bach spoke through Mai's voice, unabashedly coloured by Mai's vision. His was the exact opposite of Toscanini, Furtwangler's non-ideal.

He was the interpreter who looked upon interpretation as an autonomous art form. The performer was at perfect liberty—within reason—to alter any characteristic of the piece he desired to better voice his vision of what the music ought to say. Precision objectivity and fidelity were not even considered to be important artistic goals. The score is a mere guideline, opinions are malleable, and the artist must immerse himself in the piece to express its implicit statements, and through it, to express his own. Every performance was a statement of artistic ideology and must be treated as such. Music can and must be made a function of the artist, and his times.

In many senses, this is a quintessentially Romantic aesthetic—the interpreter as autonomous artist who has the right to create art from whichever raw materials he chooses to exploit (in this case, musical compositions). Wilhelm Furtwangler (after whom I chose to name this philosophy), Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Willem Mengelberg, Dimitri Mitropoulos, and, of course, Leopold Stokowski were just some of the outstanding artists of this tradition. A percussionist of the orchestra which Mitropoulos happened to conduct spoke of how the conductor would physically morph into the music and conduct with his entire body, shaking with emotion and galvanizing the entire orchestra into hitherto unknown expressive heights. The legendary "Philadelphia sound" of the orchestra under Stokowski is an example of instrumental forces being indelibly imprinted with one man's artistic soul. Every piece played by the orchestra for years afterward carried an afterglow of Stokowski's spirit. Such was the scale and the scope of Mai's interpretation in the concert last Friday.

It is impossible to make a positive statement about the relative merit of either philosophy. Such a statement would be naïve at best, for it assumes that there exists a "right" or a "wrong" way of interpreting a piece. Each school of thought has its allurements and its pitfalls—one can grow straitlaced or decadent with equal ease. However, it is the existence of such differences that makes the art of classical music vibrant and ever interesting.

The Akademie Für Alte Musik had the inexpressible advantage of creative heterogeneity. It had the privilege of being able to perform both under a Kallweit and a Mai, both of who exposed its repertoire to different influences, bringing fresh perspectives to every performance and giving the ensemble a delightfully unpredictable character. Every member of the orchestra looked as if they were enjoying themselves immensely—the oboists' enunciation was superb, and the cellist's figurations were scintillating with life. (Incidentally, the cellist played viola da gamba figurations upon a modern cello without omitting a single turn. The effect was electrifying.) The concert presented the image of an artistic collaboration that was involved and intensely alive, even after more than two decades of performance. Such is the passion and the power engendered by the existence of aesthetic variation.