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“It must be a foretaste of purgatory…”: Sir Colin on the HIPsters

23 March 2012

Sir Colin Davis has never liked HIPsters – musicians dedicated to ‘Historically Informed Performance’ – but in an interview with Jessica Duchen in The Independent today he goes rather far. (There is a much longer and more interesting version here.)

Performances in a longer lineage still have their power, as I wrote in my review of David Zinman’s Beethoven the other day (here) and when contemplating Sir Colin’s own Così fan tutte a few weeks prior (here). Only complete idiots would suggest otherwise. To listen to Sir Colin’s Mozart is not only to be reminded of Karl Böhm and others of the golden age of conducting after the war, but to pierce to the very heart of the piece, and indeed what it means emotionally and in our present context. That Così was something I will cherish for as long as I can remember it. But Sir Colin’s ability to conduct like that is not dependent on what kind of orchestra he’s using: it’s just that he’s damn good at what he does. And so were Böhm, Furtwängler, Beecham, Bernstein, and everyone else. It is not solely the fault of HIPsters that Beethoven and Bach (let alone Wagner) cannot mean so much to us nowadays: little means anything any more. And that, to answer Boulezian’s question from this morning, is indeed lamentable, if more a social and political failure than a musical one. Perhaps Daniel Barenboim‘s complete Beethoven cycle with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra at the Proms this July will show us what we have been missing.

There is really no reason that modern symphony orchestras shouldn’t be playing Bach and Handel. This blog has far too often bemoaned the fact that they don’t – and especially that they are scared even of Haydn. Incidentally, Sir Simon Rattle’s Matthäuspassion with the Berliner Philharmoniker is shortly to be released on DVD – it’s deeply moving, and we should be pleased that things are moving in the right direction. (There’s a snippet here.)

Otherwise, can’t we all agree to get along? To a 23 year-old who has grown up with innumerable playing styles competing for his ears on innumerable different discs, it all seems petulant. It’s really no use calling Gardiner and the like “emotionally retarded”. No longer are we in the 1980s; no longer is there a war over the soul of music. The best of the young conductors – even Davis’s own protege, Robin Ticciati – happily embrace performance practice, exploring its textual and emotional possibilities. So too does the man who should be next in Sir Colin’s old job at Covent Garden, Sir Mark Elder. Meanwhile, the best of the period bands – the OAE and AAM on good days – are perfectly capable of profundity. If they weren’t, the whole movement would have collapsed years ago. They stopped scraping their way through pieces resolutely without vibrato years ago, or at least the good ones did. (If you want “unspeakable,” I refer you to this.) They are now supremely flexible orchestras.

There’s still too much purely bad playing around, not to mention too much mediocrity in conducting and too much of a sense of routine to commercial music-making (especially in America, where the fact rather than the content of a performance is enough to bring out waves of adulation). Hearing amateur HIP playing is never preferable to root canal surgery without anaesthetic. But things are getting better. Simply attacking HIPsters isn’t going to change anything. Their insights are not going away, and on the whole I think that’s a good thing – if we can wed them to the genuinely historical, traditional understandings of Davis and others. Historically Informed Performance must be about more than bowing: it, surely, should be the aim of any Eroica or Fidelio or Ring to recover the philosophical and even political meanings that we have lost, and to make them relevant to our own depleted times. If we can rekindle a sense of what ‘history’ actually means, taking music out of the museum, then we might all be able to stop whining about the death of classical music and so on. We’re not going to be able to do that if we keep fighting about it.

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