Playing styles in the age of recording

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Photo courtesy of Beverly & Pack

(Photo courtesy of Beverly & Pack)

Marisa Gupta arrives in Putney next week with violinist Maria Włoszczowska, violist Rosalind Ventris, cellist Jonathan Dormand, and double bassist Lizzie Burns, Marisa will culminate her residency, entitled Faithful to the Spirit, with a concert on Sunday, May 1 at 3:00pm at Next Stage in Putney.

Below Marisa discusses playing styles during the age of recording. We encourage you to respond with any questions or comments you may have!

'The biggest problem with today's playing is that people want to sound smooth and nice; everything is ironed out flat,' Raphael Wallfisch. Strad, 23 February 2016

Judging from reactions to this online, these words seemed to resonate with and provoke musicians in equal measure, suggesting an opportune moment to examine these sentiments more closely.  Though the focus of our upcoming residency is not necessarily performance practice, it is impossible to deny the differences between the seemingly (by modern standards) eccentric performances heard on early recordings and today’s smoother approach. Scholarly studies of early recordings attest to the fact that attributes we might today view as idiosyncrasies were integral aspects of performance styles of the time; characteristics not just of performers, but of composers’ own views and performances. Whether we choose to adopt the playing styles or not, before dismissing them outright as distasteful or self indulgent, it is worth giving these stylistic habits due consideration, in the same manner afforded to written treatises in earlier music.

In the early days of recording, whilst there was great individuality and a range of playing styles, there were (as is the case now) certain commonalities that defined the epoch. One of the pioneering scholars in the study of early recordings Robert Philip describes a drastic change in rhythmic habits over the course of the twentieth century:

'To a late twentieth-century listener, recordings from the early part of the century at first sound rhythmically strange in a number of ways. They seem hasty, slapdash and uncontrolled, in a manner which now sounds incompetent. But this impression is to do with style as well as competence. The impression of haste is caused partly by fast tempos, partly by a tendency to underemphasize rhythmic detail compared with modern performance. A slapdash impression is given by a more casual approach to note lengths and a more relaxed relationship between a melody and its accompaniment. Lack of control is suggested by flexibility of tempo, particularly a tendency to hurry in loud or energetic passages. All of these habits are generally avoided in modern performance, and rhythmic competence is now measured by the extent to which they have been successfully controlled'. (Philip, Early Recordings and Musical Style, p.6)

Earlier performers often used significant shifts in tempo within a piece/movement to bring out changes in mood or character (including differences in tempos between first and second themes in sonatas). Maximum tempos tended to be faster. Notated rhythms were often altered. Slides were used more frequently, vibrato less so. In keyboard playing there was the un-notated separation of melody and accompaniment, and unmarked rolling of chords, octaves, etc. There was also a type of rubato in which the melody was played freely, while the accompaniment maintained regularity. In piano playing, many of these devices probably came from earlier keyboard instruments, such as the harpsichord. Whilst the use of these practices was widespread, it was not always accounted for in written documents from the time. These practices were still heard on recordings in the first part of the 20th century, although they gradually fell out of favour.  

Though the reasons for this are not fully understood, the scholar Daniel Leech-Wilkinson writes that WWII cut off this view of musical performance, making it seem obsolete.  Certain expressive techniques that had been declining gradually came more or less to an end by 1939. These interpretative devices seemed charming during an earlier time. Faced with the horrors of the War, it is possible that they now seemed naïve and self-indulgent. Timothy Day, former curator of the British Library Sound Archive, also hypothesized that the less exaggerated rhetorical emphasis found in musical performance seemed to have had counterparts in other kinds of public speaking and in the less overblown gestures of film and television acting.

The more restrained style of the post-war era lasted for many decades and still exists to an extent now. Today, it is not common to alter notated rhythms. Most music is played in a synchronized fashion. Portamento is used less frequently; vibrato is more constant. We often strive to unify tempos within a movement or piece, unless otherwise indicated by the composer. Notated rhythms are interpreted more literally and deviating from them (and notation in general) is considered a shortcoming or a sign of poor taste (though it is common in early music, jazz, popular and folk music). Rubato today tends to relate more to slowing down than it does to rushing.

Before dismissing this earlier musical approach as uninformed and disrespectful of composers’ intentions, it is worth bearing in mind that before 1945, most composers assumed no one would perform an entire movement in strict tempo. In a 1915 letter to Durand, Debussy wrote, ‘You know what I think about metronome marks: they’re right for a single bar, like “roses, with a morning’s life.” Only there are “those” who don’t hear music and take these marks as an authority to hear it still less! But do what you please.’ Though Rachmaninoff and Grieg did not desynchronize to the same degree as many of their contemporaries, they both used fast maximum tempos and a great deal of un-notated tempo modifications and rubato. András Schiff describes Bartók’s own performances as ‘unbelievably lyrical and romantic, tender and rhythmically subtle…the style is rooted in nineteenth-century rubato with chords that are notated together. The way he arpeggiates them is very distinctive; he seldom plays chords together.’

Writing in The Times in 1929, the critic H.C. Colles urged record companies to make discs of Elgar conducting his own works, observing that despite his meticulous markings in the score, his intentions were

‘…written in his head, and only there. Such things as the pauses and accents, directions for rubato… and such indeterminate suggestions of mood as his favourite Nobilmente, acquire their authoritative interpretation only from him. He knows where to throw the emphasis in each phrase, so as to give it eloquence…His mind, especially in the oratorios, moves in a region for which notation offers no precise record’.

Indeed, as Timothy Day writes, recordings show instances where  ‘…composers themselves appear cheerfully to ignore what they have painstakingly notated in the score.’

This is too vast a topic for the scope of this forum (there were individuals, such as Stravinsky, who did not adhere to the attributes above and I have not broached the subject of national schools of playing). The broad summary I have provided of various authorities in the field (which I have listed below for further reading) should still be sufficient food for thought, relevant to most performers today.

Understanding that our current musical preferences are not necessarily absolute, and that our expressive framework is wider than what we allow ourselves, is liberating. How this translates into performances today is more complex. Contrary to the energy I have devoted to this topic, I do not necessarily view old recordings as superior or inferior to modern ones. I see recordings often as snapshots, reflecting where a work might exist at a given moment in history – thus making a piece of music something dynamic, a live entity that evolves over time.

I’ll close this with one last thought from Robert Philip whose words, though written over 20 years before Raphael Wallfisch’s, seem a most apt and eloquent response:

‘Old-fashioned playing uses rubato to create a sort of relief, in which significant details are made to stand out. By comparison, a modern performance is much smoother and more regular. Any points of emphasis are carefully incorporated into the whole, nothing is allowed to sound out of place; the relief has been, so to speak, flattened out. If we now find some old-fashioned rubato clumsy and eccentric, perhaps a musician from the early twentieth century would find modern playing lacking that life and rhetorical eloquence which rubato was supposed to create’. (Philip, Early Recordings and Musical Style, p. 69).

—Marisa Gupta

Sources, and for further exploration:

Composers in Person, various composers (including Julian Anderson’s excellent liner notes), (EMI Classics 50999 2 17575 2 5, 2008).

Timothy Day, A Century of Recorded Music (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000).

Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, The Changing Sound of Music: Approaches to Studying Recorded Musical Performance (London: CHARM, 2009)
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Daniel Leech-Wilkinson ‘Recordings and Histories of Performance Style’ in The Cambridge Companion to Recorded Music, ed. by Eric Clarke, Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, and John Rink (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Neal Peres da Costa, Off the Record (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

Robert Philip, Early Recordings and Musical Style (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

Robert Philip, Performing Music in the Age of Recording (New Haven and London: Cambridge University Press, 2004).