Saturday, February 8, 2014

Breaking symphonic sound barriers

Scott Cantrell of The Dallas Morning News detects a regrettable rise in volume levels of orchestral and other classical performances to “ear-splitting intensities,” unimagined by composers until the 20th century.

“[B]y contrast with our world of jet airplanes and literally deafening rock-music concerts, the loudest sound most people experienced all through the 19th century was probably a thunderclap,” Cantrell observes.

“By all means, let the climaxes in Shostakovich and [Christopher] Rouse blast us into submission. But let the gentler climaxes of Brahms and Dvořák ring out on their own far less forced standards. Let us meet earlier music on its own ground, rather than coarsening it to fit ours,” he writes:

There’s a similar phenomenon at play in performance tempos, especially of classical-period and earlier music.

When Mozart calls for an exceptionally fast tempo – as, for example, in the finale of the “Haffner” Symphony (No. 35) – present-day interpreters should bear in mind that in Mozart’s time the highest speed a human would experience (and live to recall it) was atop a galloping horse.

Just because today’s performers can play prestos at jet speed doesn’t mean they should.