Reflections on Past and Present Maxims of Performance Practice

Over the past decades so-called historically informed performance practice has completely revolutionized our perception of classical music. Important issues such as the structural relationship of tempi within a work, articulation, phrasing, as well as explicit or non-explicit performance instructions besides many other aspects have had a decisive impact on our understanding of Mozart's music. Performers and ensembles who were initially denounced as sectarians have come to be regarded as experts in the interpretation of works from the Viennese Classical period. We can certainly be sure of one thing: if we were able to make a journey back in time and attend one of Mozart's academy concerts in the 1780s, what we would hear would not be spontaneously understandable for our ears nowadays. We would continue to be influenced by our socio-cultural perspective which of course differs fundamentally from that of Mozart.

Musicians from this very meritorious renewal movement ought to be divided into two categories: those who attempt to reproduce the sound of a past era and who want to accustom our ears to it, and those who take up the cause of creating the impact as precisely as possible that audiences at the time of the original performance might have experienced. Many of today's music enthusiasts may well have discovered that music-making according to the second maxim is sometimes not possible without certain concessions, but interpretations following the first maxim have their pitfalls too. On the one hand because historically authenticated performance circumstances which are recreated for concerts as well as for recordings do not necessarily correspond to the ideal intentions of the composer or the acoustics of the venue. On the other because many ensembles performing nowadays on period or reconstructed instruments do so with insufficient players in halls built for the late Romantic repertoire, even though in Mozart's time – if additional financial means were available – the number of musicians was increased considerably for performances in larger halls. Moreover, there is no guarantee that an interpretation cannot go horribly wrong or be totally exaggerated because our approach to the scores and secondary sources containing statements on the execution of the music is based on knowledge from today's perspective – and listening tastes have certainly changed over the centuries.

This scepticism is certainly not intended to disparage the valuable efforts in the realization of ancient music which as far as possible take account of the circumstances and habits at the time of creation, or to denigrate the relevant achievements in interpretation. After a clear phase of insecurity and retreat, traditional orchestras have been able to regain ground in the contested repertoire – in many cases with a much fresher, more open approach than before, enhanced by the knowledge gained especially in the performance of music from the Viennese Classical period.

It can no longer come as a surprise that in this practice of music-making, historically informed performances achieve diametrically opposing results from their allegedly 'old-fashioned' colleagues who follow other guidelines. In principle all approaches are equally legitimate, but experience has shown that as regards performance practice according to the current state of research and best interpretational knowledge, 'correct' does not guarantee a more memorable, more fascinating or more consequential interpretation than a traditional reading.

The constant quest for the meaning of Mozart's œuvre and what it can tell us out earlier epochs as well as about our own time is always confronted with limitations. The results of research as implemented and performed by musicians of today anchor our 'historically informed' conceptions equally as clearly in the here and now as the performers who endeavour to illuminate the present rather than the past. Every major festival of classical music should aim to encourage discourse about the mutual influences and inspiration arising from different approaches to a performance. To dogmatically constrict such a rich, unfathomable phenomenon as Mozart can only result in artistic and emotional impoverishment.

English summary of the original German essay: Elizabeth Mortimer


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