Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Simon Rattle's Beethoven

I must confess that I am very satisfied by Simon Rattle's 2003 recording of the complete Beethoven's symphonies. I find his interpretations have addressed some of the interpretative impasses from the past. Besides, the precision in time and dynamics of the orchestra literally produced harmonic phasing. Till now, I have not listened to a recording that has combined such mathematical precision with elegance and, frankly, cultural familiarity.

Some online users-commentators complained about the lack of warmth in these recordings, largely based on two counts: (1) Rattle's interpretation emulates the texture and techniques of the orchestra of Beethoven's time, with less vibratos, a thinner touch in the contact between the players and their instruments, a more subtle brass section, and a stronger emphasis on the woodwind; (2) the recording enhances these features by creating the impression of a more three-dimensional space; this is done by the engineers' strategically planting the microphones not necessarily close to every orchestral section, but at a distance that can convey the spatiality of the stage.

I was not a great supporter of playing music with the aim of emulating the performing style of its historical period. The idea of performing Renaissance and Baroque pieces, for example, with period instruments, was still not a popular practice when I studied at music school in the early 1990s. I once told a salesperson at the Virgin Megastore on Sunset that I did not care for period performances of Bach (and I still admire Glenn Gould, who, ironically, treats the piano as a giant harpsichord). Almost two decades later, however, we do know better, and we have better performers who understand how to control these instruments, as opposed to those performers in the early 90s who simply allowed the instruments to control them.

Having the performers controlling their instruments, however, brought about a different set of issues. For example, even though these instruments are not tuned according to equal temperament, their fingering inevitably conforms to our perception of tuning, thus instead of replicating a period performance, many of these recordings have made it easier for us to swallow what could have been considered as "out of tune" or "disorganised" modes of performance. Moreover, recording engineers, with the development of 125-bit technology (one that finally surpasses the faithfulness of analogue sound), have learned how to take advantage of the new dynamic and frequency ranges to create a more three-dimensional and stereophonic impression of space. The result is an emerging new aesthetics in recording spatiality, sectional balance, and timbre. As a consequence, orchestral sections are balanced not according to the way a 17th- or 18-th century Baron von XXX would have perceived the music in his private chamber, but how we expect it to sound in an acoustically well-tuned space. This new aesthetics is definitely not one that embraces warmth, but mathematical precision.

Rattle's performance is certainly driven by our new knowledge on period performances, the more controlled techniques of these performers, and together with new recording techniques (frankly, not so much technology, for, after all, our CD's still play back these recordings with good-old 16-bit decoding, the same that we used to listen to "Beat It" in the 80s). The most important thing, however, is a subtle change in our expectation that accompanies this epistemological and technical shift: we now expect recordings and performances to be cleaner, more precise, and more faithful to our historical knowledge (again, not necessarily historical "truth").

More important, however, is an ontological shift in our musical perception. The recordings of Karajan and Berstein, considered retrospectively, represent the grand finale of the trajectory of European Classicism and Romanticism, with their emphasis on unity, integrity, and expressivity. The recording technique of the time emphasises not spatiality, but perceptual unity. Engineers usually used the front-and-back or the side-by-side technique of two-channel microphone placement in order to capture a unified sonic image of the orchestra, and maintain a balanced "phantom centre" for the ears (i.e. one gets the impression that the sound is more or less coming from the centre). Up until the early 21st century, most self-proclaimed digital recordings were still made on analogue tapes with Dolby SR noise reduction. As a result, the timbre conforms to the performance with the engineers' intention to achieve warmth and perceptual oneness.

We are now, however, on the other side of the ontological scale. With our Web 2.0 informational and perceptual landscape, and more subtle philosophical shifts in our ways of perceiving the world (both intellectually and vernacularly, e.g. in photography, cinema, academia, literature, journalism, etc.), we are no longer used to that kind of integral monolithic perception. Rather, we are constantly aware of our relationships in space, and the multiplicity of our sensorial stimulants, and most important, the mobility of both our bodies and these stimulants. In this sense, Rattle's recordings can be understood as a response to, and a symptom of, our new mode of perception and ontological sense of being.

Listening to the mid string section of the orchestra swelling to the foreground in a way that a Karajan or Bernstein recording could have never done (an instantiation of our mobile ears), I must say that I can no longer be satisfied by being bound to an imaginary chair and listen to an essentially mono recording under the disguise of stereophonic sound.

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