Post by C.Z.
A question for Mike. I dislike the fast tempos in 18th C. music which are de rigueur today. The pendulum is almost vertical. It seems to be a race among conductors to see who can play it the fastest without killing the oboist, as they get faster all the time. The other night I was listening to a recording of the B Minor Mass hy Gardner where the fast movements were technically disjointed. The varied contrapuntal sections of the choir and orchestra were regularly out of step with each other because he could not keep them together at those tempos.
Does this obtain in 18th C. opera also? I don't seem to have heard it there, though admittedly I don't listen to much opera of earlier than the 19th C.
I'll happily give my two cents worth, especially as it also often applies to Wagner, but why me especially? Very flattering, but really it's a matter of opinion and judgement. There's no doubt that the period-instrument movement was right to wind up the tempi of 18th-century music generally; scholarship does justify it, for reasons I've no intention of going into here (it would take hours and I'm not that sound on them anyway...) But how much faster, is the question? It can be revelatory, but it can also be self-defeating, as you say, by making life too hard for the players and voices. Among the leading early lights of the period movement, Roger Norrington tended to whip things up like mad throughout, while Christopher Hogwood was usually more flexible, although his Beethoven caught the bug. But Gardiner has always been famously fast in almost anything. Sometimes, as in his film of Cosi fan Tutte, it's sparkling; but his Magic Flute, for me as for many, is a hard-driven disaster, and he's not much better in Don Giovanni. So yes, it does infect 18th century opera, but many conductors manage to find a better balance. Nevertheless there's a school that seems to relish taking the swirling statue themes in Don G as rapidly as possible, stripping them of atmosphere and mystery -- the same sort of people who think comedy is more intellectual if it isn't actually funny. I feel that when tempi get that extreme, when there is some concrete reason the music no longer works so well at that speed, then we can actually say that it's wrong. But up to that it's a matter of preference. Some of the old Bach mass recordings seem pretty lumpen to me -- and KLemperer's Mozart, for all its power.
When the revisionists get into romantic music the results are equally mixed. It was undoubtedly faster then the 1930s norm, but again we can't say for sure how much so -- metronome markings were often inserted by the publisher, not the composer, and are unreliable. Norrington's Flying Dutchman and Mastersingers overtures are so fast that music meant to be sung or marched to onstage couldn't possibly be -- so the likelihood is that they're wrong. But on the other hand Gardner's Berlioz and choral Schumann are absolutely wonderful.
Anyhow, that's my feeling as far as I can sum it up right now-- must go in to dinner or my wife will kill me!