Top Ear

Just Mendelssohn being Mendelssohn, HIP being HIP, and Me

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Leonard Ip writes

When I didn’t have the slightest clue what a Historically Informed Performance is like, I listened to Concerto Köln’s Mendelssohn string symphonies and I thought that it’s lovely. No, I didn’t only thought it lovely: I love the music, and I love the performances.

What vitality, what fire, what grace! Mendelssohn, the preternatural prodigy, completely shines through. If Mendelssohn did not outclass Mozart as a prodigy, at least he equalled him. Everything is perfection in Mendelssohn – adolescent works like the string symphonies! – structural balance, musical ideas, everything. It’s the same state of compositional perfection as found in Bach and Chopin (this I cannot say with Mozart): this is where every note tells, and nothing, not one note, can be taken away without affecting the musical quality on the whole. Until this very moment, these pieces’ neglect makes no sense to me at all. Certainly they aren’t more difficult to play than Mozart serenades, are they?

And with such élan is all this music brought together by Concerto Köln! Before hearing any other performances of the 10th String Symphony, I surmised that none but CK can so thoroughly reveal the tragic power in this piece as an immortal evidence of Mendelssohn’s divine gift. The astonishing clarity and fire with which CK attacks the final ‘piu presto’ (b. 352) took my breath away when I first heard it, and it simply occurred to me that no human being could have written music like this when he’s less than 14. The wildest of passion contained in the strictest of order – what else is it if it’s not God-given!

That’s about it for “Mendelssohn being Mendelssohn”.

As for “HIP being HIP”, I have nothing to do but to make a confession. I was fooled and I thought HIP = vibrato-less = unmusical, cold, academic shit. Well, the first equation is correct, but what a deluded moron I was to think of the second one! I know I owe it to Norrington: the notion of vibrato-less Mahler still seems to me one of the most horrifying things in the world (no less so than eating a bull’s penis). There are, however, many things other than Mahler that that are worth hearing under the light of HIP.

HIP, I will insist, is little more than a rather academic-seeming jargon. What I think I discovered was not the philosophy but the method of performance. While Norrington’s vibrato-less Tchaikovsky and Mahler (might) have told us that HIP playing can be abominable, CK’s Mendelssohn proves the exact opposite. It’s a revelation: the esprit that impressed me so much in their playing is unimaginable without HIP – or, simply, with vibrato.

I clearly recall an argument with a friend on performances of Scarlatti’s very popular B minor sonata (K. 27 or L. 449). I felt an urge to correct him when he said Gilels’s unconventionally slow and romantic reading is the only one that comes close to the original spirit of the music, and that HIP is dry and lifeless and should be banned. Though I liked that rendition, and though as a matter of fact I generally like romantic touches in classical works, Gilels’s cannot be the sole truth. My counter-example was Michelangeli, who played this sonata probably some million times and always with refinement and elegance. His tempo is what we consider normal (or conventional), but it will be nonsense to call his performance “academic” or “cold”. I am not saying either that HIP observes the music’s spirit more accurately:  The only thing that is important is how the music is played, but not what rationale the playing bears.

Who says, eh?

With that bombshell, I conclude today’s editorial.

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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