And then came Nikolaus Harnoncourt! It is a sentence that I have spoken with conviction for years to make clear to people how all the dust seemed to be wiped off Bach’s passion music and a much fresher, more original sound emerged and what a liberation that was at the time. Okay, those boy sopranos didn’t seem quite able to cope with the emotion they expressed and sometimes you missed the warmth of the female alto voice, but still – well, that’s how you talk in the hope that people have, or had, the same experience as you .
Harnoncourt passed by, there were other performances, unadorned with a small cast or just as if an opera was being performed, and when you hear Harnoncourt now, you think: Did I really like that? How is it possible.
Recently I listened to the radio program Discotable, in which three different performances of Beethoven’s Second Symphony were discussed this time. I immediately knew what I preferred: the performance, which was immediately brushed aside as soon as the experts were given the floor. ‘Somewhat older’, they said, ‘romantic’, ‘not quite up to date’.
Oh. Once again lingering somewhere in time and not keeping up with the developments. It concerned the Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Claudio Abbado, in the year 2000. ‘A top orchestra’ was admitted, ‘beautiful and well done’, nevertheless: over.
“But I realized that advancing time does not necessarily mean advancement in the arts.” Marcel Proust’s narrator thinks when he hears a few people speaking condescendingly about a great actress in favor of a much less gifted, but younger and more fashionable elocutionist.
“There is no progress anyway,” said one of the people in my Proust reading club as we discussed that passage. That raised some eyebrows, including mine.
“No,” she insisted when we came up with overcome diseases and increased emancipation. Of course those things were pleasant for those who were now cured or had more rights, but on a large scale it was impossible to speak of progress, after all there is no fixed point from which you can determine this. With every change, everything is lost that is just as valuable, but that we no longer know or regret.
I thought of the man who for years had sympathetically quoted an aphorism by JC Bloem that reads: “Every change is a deterioration, even if it is an improvement.” It always made me laugh, casually considering it a form of pessimism. But our conversation now at that Proust passage, in which Proust also writes that a physician of a century and a half ago was perhaps as great a physician as one admired now “because genius outweighed lesser knowledge,” I understood better what Flower meant.
“So much is lost in winning,” as Judith Herzberg wrote.
The softness of the more romantic performance practice has given way to the more energetic contemporary. That doesn’t argue against the former any more than it does for the present, it’s just different.
The absolute point from which to establish that the new is a deterioration is equally lacking. Unless you call yourself up to that point, but I didn’t dare do that, over there by that radio.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of September 5, 2022