Sunday, 23 January 2011

Grieg plays Grieg - resurrecting the mammoth

 Here, Edvard Grieg plays his own A Butterfly on a piano roll made in 1906. Under the surface noise and primitive sound capture, enough remains that we get an idea of what Grieg himself sounded like, as a pianist.  There are numerous ancient recordings like this about, remastered, cleaned up and reissued. On this site you can hear Mahler play Mahler, (transcriptions of songs and symphonic segments), Debussy and Rachmaninov playing Debussy and Brahms playing Brahms.

Now there's a new reconstruction from Simax records, specialists in Scandinavian repertoire. Two enthusiasts, Sigurd Slåttebrekk and Tony Harrison, have recreated Grieg in a new recording Chasing the Butterfly. What they've done is a mix of cleaning the original and replaying it on Grieg's own piano the low tech way - fingers and feet on keys and pedals. The result is such that you can play Grieg and Slåttebrekk together and marvel at the similarity. Please read the article here in the Financial Times for more detail. 

Reconstructions fascinate because we assume that we're hearing how the composer would have wanted the music played. But it's dangerous to assume that these very early recordings have any kind of interpretive authority. Real performance traditions developed from full, live concerts. These early recordings were semi-experimental. Recording technology 1880-1920 had major limitations. Often they ran only a few minutes - sometimes as little as 120 seconds - so performances had to be tailored to fit the medium, not the other way around. In any case, performers knew that most people wouldn't be listening to cylinders except as snapshots of the real thing. Because the technology was expensive, often only one take was made, not necessarily the best. And many composers aren't specially wonderful performers (compare Debussy and Rachmaninov). When we think of recording, we're referencing 90 years of "proper" recordings. But those who lived pre-1920 did not think in those terms at all. Yiou can almost imagine Mahler sniffing: "If you think you MUST play X at those tempi, you're nuts".

So resurrecting the Mammoth in music history is fascinating, but of limited real application in terms of performance practice. What makes music isn't slavishly following some sacred rule, but bringing out the spirit in the music. It'll always be personal, created afresh by intelligent, capable performers. Still, it's fascinating to listen to these ancient clips that preserve a moment of a composer's life even though he and those helping him make the artefact are long gone. Below is Brahms, playing for Thomas A Edison in 1889. (Also see Edison's film of Hong Kong in 1898  on this site, and his films on Native Americns dancing in 1894):

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