Every day at the Detritus we get to observe what happens to a review when the critic is confronted with the unfamiliar, i.e. new music. Since new music doesn’t come with a pre-established descriptive vocabulary, critics are left to their own devices, often exposing tiny inadequacies, more so than usual. Arnold Schoenberg’s music becomes “thorny.” Xenakis’ music becomes “caucophonous.” And in another case, John Corigliano’s music becomes the sum of the program notes. Or John Adams’ music is either more or less similar to Nixon in China. This is understandable, to a degree, and often hard to fault.
But what happens when the critic is charged with reviewing something terribly unfamiliar in a familiar context? Or more precisely, what happens when the familiar piece of music is interpreted in an unfamiliar way?
Let’s take a look at how Vivien Schweitzer handled a different interpretation of the “Goldberg” Variations.
A Pianist Offers Bold Ideas About a Standard by Bach
Since I feel like being lazy, here’s the background to the performance in Schweitzer’s words, which also happens to be 40% of the total number of words in the review:
According to Johann Nikolaus Forkel, who wrote the first biography of Bach, that composer’s “Goldberg” Variations were commissioned by the Russian diplomat Count Hermann Carl von Keyserlingk. An insomniac, the count reportedly wanted Bach to write a musical sedative that Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (a talented young harpsichordist who lived with Keyserlingk) could play to soothe his restless nights.
The legend has been discredited, and Bach’s monumental work is so gripping in any case that it would doubtless have fueled the count’s insomnia.
Objection, your honor! Hearsay.
But there was unfortunately something soporific about the pianist Beth Levin’s performance at the Bechstein Piano Center on Friday. The concert, held in an intimate space at the back of the showroom, was a benefit for the Children’s Orchestra Society, a training organization founded in 1962 by H. T. Ma (the father of the cellist Yo-Yo Ma). It presents children and teenagers in orchestral and chamber concerts with their peers and established artists.
Got it? The piece was once thought to be a sedative, but that’s not the case. And Beth Levin’s interpretation was tediously boring or monotonous as to cause sleep. Clever tie-in. Whoop-dee-doo.
But this is where Vivien gets into the nitty gritty. And so do I.
The “Goldberg” Variations (like much of Bach’s music) offer pianists a chance to make a personal statement...
Like Major League Baseball and Visa: “Express your fanhood through your credit card!” Or Random Phone Company: “Express yourself with a new ring-tone for only $5.99!” Yuck.
The “Goldberg” Variations (like much of Bach’s music) offer pianists a chance to make a personal statement and can withstand a wide variety of interpretations.
What exactly is the width of the variety of interpretations that a piece of music can withstand? But more importantly, what is it withstanding?
It seemed to be more about her than about Bach...
See, two things I don’t subscribe to are 1) the New York Times—I just get the Sunday paper for the crossword puzzle—and 2) the notion that black dots on a page, written at a time when improvisation flourished, are owned more by a composer than a performer, or vice versa. I prefer to think of those black dots more as the composer’s architectural blueprint and the performer the craftsman—one is no more important than the other—the final result being a collaboration. Maybe I’m a Communist.
...and her idiosyncratic decisions sounded jarring and unnatural.
Another thing I don’t subscribe to is the notion that “jarring” and “unnatural” (whatever that means) are inherently bad things.
Harshly attacked accents, as in Variation No. 3...
By definition (I’m guessing here, so I leave it to you to look it up) notes that are accented are more harshly attacked than notes that are unaccented. So, “harshly attacked accents” is redundant.
Harshly attacked accents, as in Variation No. 3, gave the listener musical whiplash...
Remember a long time ago when Schweitzer said that the performance was soporific? Yeah. Me too. You know, I usually sleep through whiplash. How about you?
Besides, I think “musical whiplash” is synonymous with “something that takes you in a different direction.” We can’t have any of that in our music!
...and slow tempos and exaggerated phrasing rendered many variations awkwardly stilted.
Since “exaggerated phrasing” means nothing to me, Vivien, I’ll ask this: what is the slowest tempo that the Goldberg’s can withstand and still be natural? Keep in mind that Bach didn’t indicate the tempos for the variations. Ready?........Go!
Variations Nos. 4 and 29, for example, were so ponderous and stretched out, particularly in the opening measures, that the music sounded distorted.
The performance lacked an overall cohesion and architecture, partly because the vital sense of a dance pulse was lost.
Ugh. Dance rhythm, not “dance pulse.” Very different things.
Vivacious, sparkling variations like No. 5 sounded lackluster.
Geez. Don’t hold back, Vivien.
Had the livelier numbers been more energetic, Ms. Levin might have made her point better when playing the slower variations.
But there was sometimes a strange sameness in a work that should be full of contrast, veering from merry wit to profundity.
Ugh. The work should be...
So how did Vivien handle the unfamiliar familiar? By comparing and contrasting it with the billions of previous recordings and performances of the Goldbergs she already knew and loved. Awesome, because that’s how we do it. That's how we make judgments. That is, if it leads to a better understanding of what is being compared and contrasted.
Granted, Beth’s interpretation might have been boring. I wasn’t there. But...
Unlike reviews of new music, the Goldbergs are accompanied by a mountain of pre-established descriptive vocabulary, as well as performed or recorded models with which to compare. It’s no surprise, then, that Vivien was already influenced (Heck, I would be, too). But, here’s the difference, as I see it. It seems that Vivien used previous models to demonstrate why she found the performance stilted, rather than attempting to use previous models to understand why Beth Levin made the performance choices she made. Vivien, instead, entered the concert hall with her ideal model already formulated and any deviation, any different or unfamiliar interpretation, outside a narrow range of varied possibilities, was doomed before it began. Hence, we get statements like:
- “idiosyncratic decisions sounded jarring and unnatural” To whom? Vivien.
- “slow tempos and exaggerated phrasing rendered many variations awkwardly stilted” To whom? Vivien.
- “Variations Nos. 4 and 29 [...] were so ponderous and stretched out [...] that the music sounded distorted.” To whom? Vivien.
- “The performance lacked an overall cohesion and architecture, partly because the vital sense of a dance pulse was lost.” Vital to whom? Vivien.
- “But there was sometimes a strange sameness in a work that should be full of contrast” It should be what to whom? Full of contrast to Vivien.
It often sounded as if Ms. Levin, who took some repeats and read from the score, were playing Beethoven, Schumann or Prokofiev.
Ugh. Is that a jab at Beth for taking repeats and reading from a score? Because that has nothing to do with anything, ever. On the bright side, good news for Schenkerites: all good music does sound the same!
Bach’s spirit rarely shone through.
Ugh. I challenge anyone to write an essay that expresses your interpretation of Bach’s spirit and how it shines through things, without waxing too poetic. Oh, and make sure it can withstand a variety of interpretations, within reason, of course.