Monday, 21 March 2016

Both innovators - Harnoncourt and Boulez

Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Pierre Boulez  each in their own different ways, transformed  performance practice, and, indeed, the whole way music is approached in modern Europe.  It wasn't simply a question of repertoire. Both conducted Janáček and Bruckner, for example, but drawing comparison between their recordings is just plain stupid. Good conductors find something to say about the music they engage with. That's why we keep listening, again and again, learning from the different approaches of conductors who care enough about the music to keep uncovering what lies within.   Even within the worlds of "modern" and "historically informed", the range of difference between conductors (and composers) is so great as to make direct comparison irrelevant.

To appreciate the links between Boulez and Harnoncourt, we need to escape the straitjackets of terminology and focus instead on the deeper philosophy that motivated both conductors.

Both began their careers in an era when technology changed the market for serious music.  Within a very short time, the recording industry reshaped public perceptions.  Music became a standardized "consumer product", where what counted was how things were sold. Any product designed for the mass market has to appeal to the maximum possible audience. This changes the balance from creative development to "what the buyer expects".  Not the same thing.

Harnoncourt reacted against this by rethinking instruments and the physicality of sound.  Historically informed practice gets a bad reputation because many assume that it's fetish. But as someone said, "We don't eat baroque food". We can't be as baroque people were, so perfect authenticity just isn't possible.  But we can rethink and learn.  It's a myth that smaller ensembles are somehow "weaker". Consider the audacity and adventure of the Renaissance, of the Age of Discoveries, of the Reformation and Counter-Reformastion, and of Louis XIV, whose vision wasn't fettered by petty concerns.  The dominance of 19th century industrial-era values are not the only way to go. In fact, the Romantic Revolution and the changes that followed was far more radical than some realize.  History doesn't stay frozen. Neither Harnoncourt nor Boulez were rebelling per se, but processing the concepts of innovation that have always been behind genuine creativity. It's significant that both Harnoncourt and Boulez were hated by some in their profession precisely because they didn't play the game.Hence the nasty myths that circulate about them being "dangerous".

Ironically, the use of period instruments is a red herring.  It's not so much what you're playing with, as why.  What really counts is fidelity to the composer and what might have been behind his work. Modern music played on modern  instruments reflects this fundamental fidelity.

Coming of age during the war, when performances were limited, and recordings relatively rare, Boulez went back to source, learning directly from scores.  Like Harnoncourt, he was thinking afresh.  The silly myths about him as demon do not  tally with reality. He was exceptionally erudite, with a strong grounding in philosophy, literature and music history and knew the music of the past, even if he didn't conduct or record much. It was enough for him that others were doing that. Intellectually inquisitive, he liked exploring fairly uncharted territory, hence his fascination with Debussy, Schoenberg, Stravinsky and the twentieth century.  Hans Rosbaud knew what he was doing when he persuaded Boulez to start a second career as conductor. Boulez saw himself primarily as a composer, and said that shaped the way he conducted.  Because he had such respect , he was not an "interventionist" nor imposing his ego.  All performance involves interpretation, but interpretation should be based on reasoned understanding.  Boulez's passions were white hot, all the more intense because he didn't do things for show. 

What Harnoncourt and Boulez had in common was a fundamental respect for music, and for the composers they conducted.  Both had uncompromising integrity. Neither courted the popular market. To them, the idea of music as "consumer product" was anathema.  Instead they cultivated excellence, pursuing the highest possible standards. It's not for nothing both created their own orchestras, amd frequently worked with smaller ensembles where every individual musician was part of the creative process. And they weren't alone. Think Claudio Abbado, with whom Boulez worked closely, and of William Christie, who shared Harnoncourt's values but with a very different style. Strong personalities with distinctive styles but not corporate market-driven egotists.  Perhaps that's why there's such variety in modern European music. Maybe not as much as could be, since ultimately the business has to deal with economic and social realities. But without people like Harnoncourt, Boulez and those with their lively, open minds, we'd be a whole lot worse off.

Pleaseuse the labels below to read my numerous posts on Harnoncourt, Boulez , baroque and modern music

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