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Uomo e Donna?

Below is a question I posed the other day to Chris and Abby, musician friends of mine, part of research for my novel-in-progress. All here at LiveJournal are, of course, welcomed to comment.

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Chris, here’s a question. Do you see any significant differences in the performances of male and female musicians?

In the news this week there are reports of a study that suggests men and women “differ broadly in their emotional and behavioral patterns, rather than just in a few and comparatively narrow motivational domains such as aggression and sexuality.”

Now, this made me think about why, on a gut level, I greatly prefer a CD of the Berlin Symphony and soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter’s performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto over Heifetz’s playing the same piece with the Boston Symphony.

For one thing, Mutter’s solo begins three minutes and fourteen seconds after the orchestral introduction, whereas Heifetz’s begins after two minutes and fifty-eight seconds. Here are two quite different interpretations of allegro ma non troppo, one significantly faster than the other! Which interpretations, by the way, I’m presuming come from the soloists rather than from the conductor.

I prefer Mutter because she seems more faithful to what I perceive to be Beethoven’s intent, which is to express a deep romantic longing, whereas Heifetz comes across as highly competent and workmanlike but then at the same time he’s rather indifferent and impatient, as if he wants to get through with the performance as quickly as possible.

I’d love to compare your response to the issue of differences between men and women with one that Abby might provide!

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I think the difference between those recordings is partly that the Boston Symphony had previously been under the baton of Serge Koussevitzky in the era of the strong influence of Toscanini. The Berlin Philharmonic on the other hand had Karajan for over three decades previous to the Mutter recording, and she actually started her career after an invitation to play with the Berlin Philharmonic from him. Karajan was noted for his slower performances, polished performances, and the romantic "Karajan soup", while Toscanini conducted like he was watching a horse race at the same time. Maybe the orchestras under their different conductors had sort of trained their audiences on what Beethoven was supposed to sound like - created a zeitgeist for the concert going public that only understood what they had been led to believe in.

Things have changed from the 50's too.

I’m inclined to the view that while conductors are the final arbiters of such things as tempo interpretation, dynamics, etc., they would in the end defer to the instincts and desires of the soloist. I can imagine Mutter, were she playing with the Boston Symphony, saying, “Whoa! What’s the rush here?”


Another thought: An obvious solution to the tempo issue would be the composer's metronomic indications on the sheet music, but then in the case of Beethoven such markings have not exactly been accepted as fully valid expressions of his intentions, nor have they been uniformly adopted in performance practice. So, again, we go back to the interpretation of either the soloist or the conductor, and I vote for the soloist. At least as it concerns Ms. Mutter and her performance of the violin concerto.

I absolutely concur that the Maestro is where the differences are, and when it comes to a Philharmonic, the conductor, like the director of a motion picture, determines everything.

duccio raises an important point. The public does have an idea of what these pieces are supposed to sound like and in order to keep the audience happy, must remain at least close to those standards. In other words, the mob rule may dictate at least some choices in order to insure ticket subscriptions stay in line.

Having said that, certainly the passages and the methodology of play, the fingering techniques, the tonal qualities are all being controlled by the musician, and surely those elements are informed by who that person is. I would never confuse Itzhak Perlman with Stéphane Grappelli or either of them for Hilary Hahn. So I do agree that there are differences.

I don't know that it's just a gender thing. It's a life thing. The pieces these performers choose to study to develop and to perform has something to do with it, their education and experiences, and their sense of the world all contributes. And certainly as women see the world differently than men, so would their interpretation of music.

But the difference you're relating is that of an artist and a craftsperson. One can learn the piece, play the notes, do it in time and do it in a technically perfect way, and yet not connect to the emotions of it. The other finds that connection and brings out the subtext of the what's on the sheet. That's where it all changes.

Look at this music lovers:
Brahms piano piece to get its premiere 159 years after its creation...

Your alluding to the difference between an artist and a craftsperson reminded me of the lead graf of my first music review, when I was a brash, aggressive and judgmental young reporter for the Lexington (KY) Herald:

"Violinist Edwin Greznowski, in his solo performance at the Carric Theater last night, reminded me of a hash slinger in a busy cafe. His rate of production is phenomenal, but his heart just isn't in it."

This caused an uproar, and a barrage of complaining letters, to which the managing editor replied, "Apparently Mr. Greznowski and Mr. Palcewski are Poles apart."

Edited at 2012-01-13 11:34 am (UTC)

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