But please, just don't play Eine kleine Nachtmusik

by Brent Reidy | 10/28/04 5:00am

Formed in 1973, the English Concert has won exuberant accolades from critics and fans the world over. The group, lead by Andrew Manze, is rightly considered the best at what it does. However, what it does is perhaps the most confusing and absurd concept in modern music: "historically accurate performance."

The term has its roots in the concept that the modern performances with up-to-date instruments, phrasing and dynamics mar the value of the piece of music being performed, as the piece is not being performed the way that the composer originally heard it when it was written. Hence, Bach on a seven-octave Steinway is the gravest of sins, despite the preference a listener might have for a modern Glenn Gould recording.

The level to which a performance can be historically accurate is where the term itself begins becoming absurd, and this absurdity was fully displayed at the English Concert's performance at the Hopkins Center Tuesday evening. For instance, Manze explained to the audience that the instruments used are actually the same age as the compositions being performed, or the best replicas available.

However, the meaninglessness of this statement was on full parade when one realized that Manze's 1783 Joseph Gagliano violin was crafted 100 years after J.H. Schmelzer, a composer on the program, died. Surely, 100 years gave way to technical innovations that made the Manze's violin different from the one that Schmelzer himself heard. Thus, historical accuracy is not true accuracy, but rather the most acceptable set of historical adjustments that please an audience. An accurate performance might feature different instruments for Mozart and Schmelzer, but, right now, that is not deemed necessary and hence, not a point of contention.

Problems with historical accuracy aside, the strangest part of the evening could also be considered the most innocuous: the inclusion of Mozart's "Eine kliene Nachtmusik" (1787) as the first piece for the program. "EkNm" is perhaps Mozart's best-known recorded and performed work. It's heard often in concert halls and in elevators (as Manze gleefully pointed out) and is a standard of the Western canon with which even the most removed hermit is familiar. The composition's fame comes with baggage -- by being the one of most performed pieces of Mozart's chamber works, it is also one of the most misplayed, badly recorded and disregarded.

The attention to detail and accuracy of performance the English Concert displayed has never been garnered to this mind-numbingly familiar composition; Manze's interpretation of "EkNm" was beyond stellar. The balance of the orchestra, dynamics reached and phrasing exhibited was exemplary. If one were to listen to the hundreds of recordings of "EkNm" available, it would be hard to find one that tops the English Concert's rendition.

This level of performance obviously has immense value to the informed listener, however, its value is infinitesimally smaller than the value of the piece that followed: J. H. Schmelzer's "Serenata con altre arie" (1665). Manze cheerfully told the audience that this performance was probably the North American premiere of the composition, as the piece was only recently discovered. He continued, proclaiming that the English Concert took great pride in "delving into music that isn't well known." Schmelzer's composition was fascinating for its construction and also purely for the reason that it was being received by virgin ears. The enchantment cast by this piece far outshone the perfect performance of the, if you will allow the extension of the analogy, prostituted and tired "EkNm."

Hearing the English Concert perform "EkNm" is like bringing Albert Einstein to give a lecture on the physics of a curve ball rather than explain the general and special theories of relatively. Though the former brings greater pleaser to the average audience member and will be arguably the finest explanation of baseball aerodynamics ever heard, a speech on the latter still has a greater value to those interested in the science of physics.

Playing "EkNm" alongside of Schmelzer's "Serenata" invalidated the goal of the English Concert that Manze so happily proclaimed before performing the latter. However, the English Concert does not deserve all the blame for poor programming; this choice of program was probably influenced by the Hopkins Center. The concert was nearly sold out, owing to the fact that advertisements for the event proudly proclaimed the performance of the outrageously popular Mozart's "EkNm," mentioning Schmelzer's unknown work in print only half the size.

Immediately after "Allegro," the most famous movement in "EkNm," concluded, the normally reserved and obedient Hopkins Center audience shattered the unspoken code of audience performance practice, and broke into contrived, spontaneous applause for the remarkable English Concert. Afterwards, the jubilant and elderly crowd returned to their social norms, and applause did not pepper the silent spaces between any other movement of the "EkNm" or "Seranata."

It is evident that after those glorious six minutes of music, the consumer benefit of all the listeners in the auditorium had already surpassed the price of the ticket. The financial mission of the Hopkins Center may have been accomplished, but the educational one flopped, as a defeated Einstein of music was forced to explain high-school physics to an adoring and, perhaps obtuse, audience.