Were the old masters perfect?

2 Dec 2016

Yes, they were perfect in artistic sense. But they were not perfect in a modern sense. Meaning in the sense of technical proficiency required today on the concert stage and, especially, in the musical competitions which are the main gate to the concert stage.


Old masters took liberties to play with much less stringent requirements in technical perfection. They afforded much more wrong notes than it is allowed today. Their play was not as stable, “mistake-free”. Their sound was not as sterile and glamorous. Their rhythm often swayed, and their interpretations often seem to us too free and capricious, if not perverse.


But how did old masters manage to move the hearts of people in such an overwhelming extent (we know it from history) and to have such a bunch of imperfections?


Could it be that their magic power which they used to thrill their listeners has little to do with technical perfection?


Could it be that our belief “the higher technical mastery the better for the art” actually takes the music away from its genuine path?


Although  these questions are the subject to debate, the reality can’t be ignored - never before classical music was as proficient as today, and at the same time it had never experienced such deep problems and uncertainty about its future.


In my recent post on perfection, I touched upon the idea that extra high modern standards of technical proficiency are artificial and therefore harmful to the classical music.  Here, I am just about show that old masters, including the greatest of them, have never assigned such a value to technical proficiency as musicians of today.


Yes, the past is always mythologized, it is true, but there remains a great deal of historical recordings that do not lie. Most of great masters of the past played “with mistakes”.


Will Crutchfield, music critic and teacher, writes in his New York Times review of the anthology ''The Recorded Violin'':


Fairly often in the early selections one hears lapses that would almost never turn up in the work of a concert soloist today.”


There are also a plenty of historical recollections. They testify that even great artists of that days were technically imperfect. Not because they couldn’t be perfect but because didn’t need it according to their artistic worldview.


One can easily find this way of thinking goes back centuries. Beethoven, according to recollections of his student Ferdinand Ries, often made mistakes even playing in public.  In a like manner and treated his students:


“When I left out something in a passage, a note or a skip, which in many cases he wished to have specially emphasized, or struck a wrong key, he seldom said anything; yet when I was at fault with regard to the expression, the crescendo or matters of that kind, or in the character of the piece, he would grow angry. Mistakes of the other kind, he said were due to chance; but these last resulted from want of knowledge, feeling or attention. He himself often made mistakes of the first kind, even playing in public.”


Something like that can be read about Liszt and Scryabin, Kreisler and Ysaye et al. All of them happened to play wrong notes, to miss notes, or to take notes not strictly in tune.


Kreisler shortly before the beginning of his adult solo career failed to pass the proficiency test for the 3-rd violin position in Wiener Philharmoniker. Soon enough he played with Wiener Philharmoniker as a soloist.  Actually, Kreisler was never burdened much with technical perfection. More to that, he often demonstrated pretty free approach to the score he played, no matter who the composer. Let’s ask now whether it prevented him from becoming Fritz Kreisler?


The great Szigeti was criticized by Carl Flesch for his heavy and at times insecure left hand technique as well as for his scratchy sound on forte.  Ruggiero Ricci had confirmed it by stating that Szigeti’s sound was not acceptable by  a more recent standards. But who is Szigetti – one of the most profound artists of the violin history.


Brilliant Mischa Elman and Ignaz Freidman often treated rhythms and rhythmical deviations in a highly voluntaristic way. 


Josef Hofman and Arhur Schnabel have featured evident note mistakes even on their famous recordings. Here is just a remark from the review on Hofman’s recording of his Carnegie hall debut:


“...Hofmann gave stunning readings of the Rubinstein Concerto #4 ....ending with a Moszkowski Spanish Rhapsody with seemingly more wrong notes than right, and yet of overwhelming brilliance and power…”


Wrong notes were nearly a brand (natch humorous) of a legendary Arthur Rubinstein. Here is a story from Rubinstein's biographer Harvey Sachs about the pianist’s recording session with a prominent conductor Fritz Reiner:


"At the end of the first movement, one of the orchestra's solo wind players had asked Reiner if a certain passage could be rerecorded, because he felt he hadn't played it as well as he could. Reiner grumbled but acceded to the request. When another player asked to record the previous passage as well, for a similar reason, Rubinstein spoke up: 'If we are going back that far, let's go back a bit further still, because I played a few wrong notes just before that.' 'Well, said the notoriously sarcastic Reiner, 'If we're going to correct all of your wrong notes, we'll be here all day!


The stories of such a kind are innumerable. Actually they are typical for the Golden age. The question is, how to take them today – as anecdote, as old business which doesn’t matter in new realities, or as a reason to think about the modern way of making music.


In my humble opinion, there are many things in the Golden age we could benefit from if they were revived. It is not, of course, about playing with mistakes. The last thing standing behind the Golden age is apologia for mistakes.


The main idea which could be drawn from this great period in musical history is the unconditional priority of meaningful and communicative playing - the priority at all cost, including the cost of technical perfection.


The art of driving the public to tears, or making them think, has very little in common with the ability to never miss a note, or to have all double stops perfectly clean, or to sound without any single scratch, or to hold the rhythm with mathematical precision. The Golden age is the strongest evidence of that.


Photo: Jascha Heifetz

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Violinist deeply rooted in classical tradition and concerned about the future of the genre >> more about the author 

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