An interesting discussion with students about whether it’s right to ‘scale things up’ to 21st century tastes when playing 18th/19th century music. They had played Beethoven so powerfully and with such speed and ringing ‘attack’ that I found myself wondering whether they had converted the music into something that would have startled the composer. I said it was important to remember what ‘loud’ would have seemed like to someone writing for delicate instruments more limited in scope. And to remember how the instruction to play ‘fast’ might have been meant by someone whose idea of ‘fast’ was probably determined by things like galloping horses – not Formula One racing cars.
My students countered with the idea that if Beethoven were alive today, he would enthusiastically have embraced the possibilities of bigger, louder pianos, and string instruments with stronger bows, louder strings, and more projecting power. In a way, I agree with them, and I often really enjoy performances which use the full dynamic range of modern instruments, thereby revealing more of the music’s emotional range.
On the other hand, I increasingly feel it’s a mistake to act in ignorance of what Beethoven and his friends would have heard when they sat down to play chamber music together, and how those familiar sounds would have matched the musical content. It sometimes seems to me that there comes a point when the ‘upgrade’ to 21st-century sonorities actually obscures some of the musical points, rather than enhancing them.