I’ve recently been spending a lot of time with the brilliant recording of Beethoven Op.127 made by the Klingler Quartet in the mid-1930s. Karl Klingler was one of Joachim’s favourite pupils, and so the quartet’s numerous recordings are certainly historically significant, but I’m going to postpone talking about lineages and ‘traditions’ for now, and instead look at their Op.127 in detail with half an eye on the familiar ‘urtext’ ideal.
The beginning of 127 is famous for making very little sense to a listener who hasn’t already seen the score: if you don’t know how it’s written down, you’re fairly unlikely to be able to work it out. The marking at the beginning is maestoso, and the music is very often described as being like pillars. A quick survey of Spotify and YouTube confirms that this is also just “how it sounds”: every single recording I could find approaches the opening in exactly this way. I could have picked any of them to illustrate this, but here’s a link to a fairly representative example: a live performance by the Alban Berg Quartet, whose Beethoven interpretations are often afforded special reverence. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BTJh0xzVmgw)
As with most Beethoven, it’s now so well-known, and the score so easily accessible, that perhaps intelligibility without seeing the notes isn’t so important any more. In fact, one might even argue that the lack of clear grammar in the sound of the music feeds into the idea that Beethoven’s late compositions are from another planet entirely, and that this sort of discomforting aural experience is necessary for projecting the work’s revolutionary character. It’s an appealing idea, that we ought to let his genius remain far beyond conscious understanding.
But given the enormous effort expended in the last 100 years on working out (and arguing about) exactly what Beethoven wrote, and what he meant by his notation, it does seem a little strange that almost none of these modern performances would actually allow a new listener to work out the basic pulse. How long is the first note? Which of the big accents is a first beat? Is it in four, or eight, how many? It could even be a bar in 5, followed by a bar in 3! I always assumed that this is just ‘how it goes’, and so although there are obviously things that can be done to help make the phrase structure make some sort of sense, the maestoso feel and the huge sonic pillars are much more important. At the back of my mind were always thoughts like: “this opening must be so monumental” etc.
Then I listened to the Klingler Quartet recording. The whole thing is available for free on the British Library website: http://sounds.bl.uk/Classical-music/Beethoven/026M-1CL0018510XX-0000V0. I’d recommend having a quick listen to the start, otherwise this next bit won’t make much sense.
What they do is entirely unlike anything I’d ever heard in this piece, and it was a complete revelation. There are no nonsensical block chords here; instead you get a genuine two-in-a-bar feel, complete with swing, subtle variations in articulation, and a compelling sense of phrase and gesture. To anybody used to the conventional pillars, it seems fast, but with a few hearings I think it actually starts to sound even more maestoso. The gestures are so rhetorical and the tempo so sure of itself that it is pretty much impossible for a listener to feel lost in this performance. The faster speed also means that each chord starts to sound much more like a beat than a bar, allowing them to link the entire sequence together and form a single, logical phrase. The Klinglers’ sense of internal momentum and structural logic gives a listener real confidence in the pulse, instead of having to guess the individual beats and wait agonisingly for the next chord to arrive. This may be an entirely subjective judgement, but I would say that this sort of certainty in the pulse is pretty unlikely to detract from a majestic character, and for most people it probably enhances it.
This example throws up yet more questions about the idea of faithfulness to the score. When we have the score for reference (see http://i0.wp.com/www.rolf-musicblog.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/op.127_1.jpg), it seems as though modern ensembles are doing exactly what Beethoven wrote, and the Klinglers are not. There are no spread chords marked, for instance, and they certainly don’t take the sf markings ‘literally’. On the other hand, they do project the much higher-level intention, of being able to hear the marked 2/4 time signature, which is almost never true of modern performances. Who is more ‘faithful’ to Beethoven?
One way of thinking about this is as a sort of hierarchy of intentions. Do you prioritise the meter, or the markings? (We think about this quite a lot ourselves, as I’m sure every chamber group does.) In this example it’s practically impossible to do both, especially if your interpretation of a sforzando involves a hefty accent. What the Klingler Quartet do, then, is really to prioritise the ‘high level intentions’, that of the entire phrase and the metrical structure. For them, barlines and the phrase’s internal logic usually trump marked accents*. It seems that over the course of the twentieth century, the practice of prioritising these more abstract features of scores began to be overtaken by literal fidelity to expressive markings. Of course this is a huge simplification, but I think it’s something that can really be observed in the recorded evidence, and is certainly not limited to quartets.
Perhaps one of the reasons for this shift is that to emphasise high level intentions sometimes involves adding gestures that aren’t explicitly stated in the score, e.g. spreading the chords. By the 1930s, the Joachim-inspired style of the Klinglers, with frequent lingering and rushing, quite slow slides and varied vibrato, was becoming old-fashioned. Performance styles were changing rapidly in this period, and free, gestural approaches like theirs were particularly unlikely to stand up to the rhetoric of textural puritans, who proclaimed that ‘the score is the work’. It became a matter of moral standards for a performer to adhere to the letter of the (sacred) text. (This was famously expressed by Stravinsky, who longed for his music to be executed, not interpreted.) The performer was implored not to get in the way of the music, and so there was no place for the sorts of ‘extraneous’ gestures that were so fundamental to the expressive language of the Klingler Quartet, and many other musicians of their generation.
I’m not saying at all that their approach represents some wonderful lost truth of Beethoven that must be recovered at all costs, or that everybody has got it wrong. This example is just particularly striking because almost every group since has shared more or less the same idea about how this opening ought to go. Which means that until you’ve actually experienced a radically different vision like this one, there is no reason to think that ‘the music’ has ever signified anything other than glorious pillars of sound. It may be closer to what Beethoven expected, or it may not - that’s not really the point. It’s simply a reminder that however well we think a piece goes, there are almost always totally different ways in which it can sound persuasive, and mean totally different things. Old recordings are a great way to discover these, and they lead us to question what we think we know about genres, scores and composers.
There are so many fascinating things about this recording that I’m sure I’ll write about it again soon. I’ve only managed to talk about 7 bars so far, so there’s plenty more to say…
*The Historically Informed Performance movement was quick to point out this shift in hierarchy and restore the superiority of barlines over markings. Of course this is yet another massive simplification: these things depend a lot on the repertoire and the type of sources available. In general, historic recordings tend to show a rather more complex picture than pedagogical texts, which are by their nature prescriptive and idealised, and they have the shortcoming that they don't need to mention the things which everybody did, because it was just assumed that they would carry on doing them!