WHY Do You Keep Performing Old-Timey Classical?

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I know, I’ve already blown up at least once over this, but apparently classical performers and record labels just don’t get the message. They keep on recording and issuing new versions of music that has already been recorded dozens if not hundreds of times, and a great many of those older recordings are not just classic but definitive performances that will never be equaled, let alone surpassed.

And, really, I want to know: WHY??

The obvious answer, which is still not a good one, is that most classical audiences like the old stuff because they don’t like or understand modern music. But for crying out loud, this is 2022!! We’re no longer in the 1950s, reading Henry Pleasants and other reactionary critics complaining about the “agony” of modern music and how no one likes it.

I grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s. Of course I listened to a lot of old standards; that’s what sold even then; but I also kept my ears open. I didn’t automatically reject new music just because it went out on a limb that I hadn’t traveled before. I absorbed the music of Schoenberg and Stravinsky through Robert Craft’s recordings. I listened to Britten’s Peter Grimes and War Requiem, and liked them. I bought a copy of Alberto Ginastera’s Bomarzo when it came out, and went to hear his harp concerto in concert. I discovered Berg’s Wozzeck, music by Bartók and Martinů, anything and everything I could get to hear. Even Mahler was new to me, once upon a time. And I liked much of what I heard.

In college, I was given J.S. Bach Chorales to take apart and study to learn how composing worked, at least on a basic level. I discovered a lot of lieder and chamber music during this period. But I continued to keep my ears open, and learned to instantly analyze what a composer was doing within the confines of new music. In the early 1970s, I found the music of George Crumb and Peter Maxwell Davies very strange, but I listened to it over again until I “got” it. Nowadays, it doesn’t sound all that strange to me.

More importantly, as time went on, I found myself gravitating towards new music more frequently than the old, for the simple reason that most modern-day performers had little or nothing to add in their performances to the classic recordings of the past—which now stretches back to the 1990s. Most modern classical performers play this music in a brisk, energetic manner. They don’t miss a note. But what they have in technique they sorely lack in imagination.

It’s gotten to the point now where individual soloists and chamber groups are so desperate to sell CDs and get airplay that they’ve taken to “reimagining” the older classics. But their performances are still, for the most part, either glib or simply not better than the great artists of the past. I’m sure it must gall them that, even on classical FM radio, they still play a lot of older recordings from the 1950s through the ‘80s and not their “brilliant” new readings.

And it’s always going to be that way, because we now have at least a century’s worth of fabulous performances to draw on, and this covers EVERY corner of the standard repertoire: opera, solo instrumental music, chamber music, orchestral music.

When I read reviews of these new recordings, I find that many critics agree with me. They often give tepid reviews to these tepid recordings, although a handful think somehow that these modern recreations are the cat’s pajamas. They’re not. Yes, once in a while you run across a performer who really does have something new to say about the “standard repertoire,” but not many. Three of those whose recordings I always listen to because they have real imagination are cellist Zuill Bailey, pianist Michael Korstick and violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, and even they don’t always supersede the older recordings. But mostly, I’m really only open to reviewing recordings of music not as frequently recorded. And that doesn’t mean the 18th-century crap. Aside from the fact that most of the forgotten composers of that era are forgotten for a reason, most modern-day performers completely ruin the listening experience for me with their anemic-sounding orchestras and their whiny continual straight tone, which I’ve said time and time again is not historically correct.

I will occasionally audition recordings of older music buy performers I don’t know, but not often…perhaps one in 40 recordings. I’m just tired of being disappointed and disillusioned, and as I said earlier, most of you folks are not interpretive geniuses; you’re just well-trained machines who rattle off the notes.

Nadia Boulanger said, way back in the 1950s, that any classical musician who does not play the music of his or her time is not a complete artist. Do you hear that? Do you understand that? Well, you probably do, but you still won’t change or expand your repertoire, and that’s sad.

So for all you classical CD merchants who keep sending me “news” about new releases of old music, be forewarned. I will ignore most of it.

Both I and my readers deserve more insightful music and performances than what you are offering.

Oh yeah, one final thing. What is it with these cello and guitar recordings?!? Does anyone besides you and your friends like them?

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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