Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Reviewing the Reviewer

I am reluctant to admit this, but I listen to classical music as a teenager listens to pop. When something grips me, I listen to it over and over again until there is nothing left to enjoy, until it is drained of meaning to me. I then slip the corpse back into its jewel case and look for my next fix, and, god bless the enormity of the classical music recording industry, there's always a next fix!

The music I'm stuck fast to right now is the recording of Claudio Monteverdi’s Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda by Le Concert d’Astrée and Emmanuelle Haïm. Forsaking the light clear voices of an early-music specialist, she gambles on little-known Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón to sing the role as narrator. Villazón, I am told, is a singer of 19th Century opera, and occasionally appears with other little-known opera performers to, I am told, no small acclaim.

In all seriousness, signing Villazón was indeed a gamble, but not because his glorious caramel tenor isn't up to the task of singing the music, but that his voice isn't meant to be used to sing this music, an opinion derived largely from the performance practice movement. And so here is where the title of this post appears relevant, and I dust off my Foucault doll and do a bit of, uh, discourse analysis.

There's a review of this recording that so completely reflects this state of affairs that it almost seems as though he'd written it just so that I could use it as an example in a blog post. Anyway, here's the review. Go read it and come back here.

Back? OK. It's a good review, I will now offer the disclaimer that I am not really here to criticize the reviewer, the composer Robert Hugill. I am really and truly interested in what he says and trying to suss out why he says it, the logical space he's operating in, because Haïm's decision to use opera singers who sing 19th Century opera to sing 16th Century music is a trangressive act in our musical culture

Hugill sets this very fact out right at the start. He writes:

Emmanuelle Haim seems to have a penchant for working with singers who are not necessarily known for their work in the period performance field. The title role in her recording of Monteverdi’s Orfeo was Ian Bostridge, who is not a singer primarily associated with Monteverdi.

So, like any good writer, Hugill is using a bit of foreshadowing to lay out his main concern with Villazón's singing. He writes:

Villazon is known for his expertise in 19th and early 20th century Italian opera, but his beautiful voice is obviously responsive to other styles and genres. But only to a certain extent... he is only following what are probably the core elements of his grounding in 19th century performance practice. When his voice rises to its upper levels he opens it out in a manner which is entirely foreign to 17th century music. (my italics)

So the concern here is that Villazón's singing is out of joint with the time the music was written. My question is - who cares? As Hugill himself writes, "He has taken on board elements of the style and ornamentation required and his performance is, in some ways, astonishing."

Indeed, the recording is astonishing, and the one place where I really take issue with his review is his criticism of Villazón's word painting. Villazón, at least to my ear, very much brings out Monteverdi's subtle shifts in mood throughout the piece. Indeed, it is Villazón's range, a range of colour and expressiveness that exceeds that of many early music specialists, which makes this recording a triumph.

The tension in Hugill's review is there - the basis upon which he criticizes the performance is not on musical grounds for the most part, but for its failure to adhere to the historical limits placed upon music of this time by the performance practice movement. Hugill himself sums his review thusly:

You get to hear how one of the 21st century’s loveliest voices sounds in this music, providing you can get beyond the vexed issue of performance style.

He knows that this is a major issue, and like any good reviewer, he addresses it, he pays homage to the space our talk about this kind of music works in, even though I bet that he himself really enjoyed the recording, nearly despite the critical infrastructure one is laden with when it comes to music of this period.

My point? That this recording is precisely why the performance practice movement fails to address some of the more basic aesthetic issues surrounding music, by placing historical authenticity, or the archaeological work on our recent culture, the letters and scores and original instruments, the material of history, on a higher pedestal than the quality and emotional immediacy of a work in performance. Or, things before people.

And I must admit here that I've done the same thing as they, just in the opposite direction.

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