Not long ago a violist friend of ours was visiting, and we were listening to a 1960s recording of Walter Trampler and Mieczysław Horszowski , two midcentury greats, playing the Brahms viola sonatas. What our friend liked about Trampler’s playing was that it was “honest”–natural and straightforward, without trying to “show off” either technically or in terms of interpretation. What did she mean, we asked, by showing off? We put on Pinchas Zukerman and Daniel Barenboim’s famous recording of the same pieces, and that was it–a rich, plummy, seductive tone, slides all over the place, plenty of rubato.
These thoughts came to mind a few weeks ago at a duo-violin concert–reviewed here–by Christian Tetzlaff and Antje Weithaas in Zankel Hall (Carnegie’s chamber music basement).
Teztlaff and Weithaas gave superlative performances of selections from Bartók’s 44 Duos. Sharp, emphatic accents; a willingness to dig into the strings; a flexible approach to tempos; and best of all, hushed yet focused pianissimos at the point of the bow. They exploited all the resources of modern violin technique. But we wondered if a less sophisticated approach–a more “honest” one, in our friend’s words–might have been equally compelling.
We have an example: a forgotten recording of the Duos made in the 1950s featuring Hungarian violinists Victor Aitay and Michael Kuttner. Aitay survived the Holocaust and became concertmaster of the Met Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony. (His life story, here, is incredible.) Unfortunately this recording is no longer available (we have an LP); you can get some idea of it in the Gertler/Suk recording on Supraphon.
Aitay and Kuttner don’t have the virtuosity of Tetzlaff and Weithaas; their playing is expressively and technically more limited. They don’t dig into the strings or stretch the tempos as the younger violinists sometimes do. But this doesn’t mean that it’s neutral or reticent. The older violinists show as much care for phrasing, timbre, and articulation, but stay within a rock-solid tempo and a fairly consistent tone quality. Though Aitay and Kuttner were conservatory-trained professionals, the simplicity of their playing is of a piece with the folk music that Bartók recorded in the field–some of which he directly incorporated into the Duos. (For an unforgettable illustration of this, check out this album by the Hungarian folk group Muzsikás, which compares some of Bartók’s original cylinder recordings of folk musicians, the Duos that he based on them, and modern folk-style performances of them.)
We suspect that contemporary violinists approaching these works like to bow near the frog and the bridge, thinking that folk sounds are ugly sounds; similarly they might take a free approach to tempi, thinking that this approximates folk improvisation. But the Aitay and Kuttner recording suggests that this approach is a contemporary projection, and comes from a (perhaps false) idealization of folk music as freer and rougher than the purity of the classical conservatory–not from the actual folk performing styles themselves.
Of course, there’s no need to choose between the two approaches; we wouldn’t forgo the dazzling technique of Tetzlaff and Weithaas. And these two violinists are not making any explicit claims of authentic or historically informed performances (for thought-provoking analyses of such claims, read Nicholas Kenyon here and Richard Taruskin here). But it does seem that contemporary musicians’ quest for greater degrees of timbral variety, technical virtuosity, and some idea of “expressiveness”–through stretched tempos, numerous portamentos, and the like–comes from a world where numerous recordings and the rigors of conservatory training push players toward these particular types of individuality. Bartók’s contemporaries, of course, lived in a very different world. Their style was simpler, yet no less expressive.