Authentic, but not better


January 24, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

The authentic instruments movement has exerted an enormous force in music in the last 20 years, making us hear many of the masterpieces of the baroque, classical and even early romantic eras in fresh ways. But such historically enlightened performances (on instruments such as those the composers themselves might have heard) have been more successful on records than in the concert hall. That fact was demonstrated yesterday in the Baltimore Museum of Art in an all-Mozart program by Pro Music Rara.

The old instruments are almost impossible to play in tune: Stringed instruments squeak and whine and wind instruments gurgle, burp and make other sounds suggestive of severe gastrointestinal distress. In the recording studio, digital editing excises such unpleasantness -- something that's impossible in actual performance.

Baltimore Symphony hornist Mary Bisson, who performed on the Waldhorn (or valveless horn) in Mozart's Quintet for that instrument, violin, two violas and cello in E-flat (K.407), is a splendid musician whose playing on the modern instrument is one of the reasons I always look forward to Baltimore Symphony performances of Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1. In past PMR seasons, she's always been attracted to the valveless horn. But, Mary, enough is enough already!

I know that some people like to climb Mt. Everest without oxygen tanks; attempting to play the valveless horn, however, is as dangerous as attempting the summit in Birkenstocks. There are legitimate reasons for using the valveless horn in this repertoire -- it has a more individual character and it blends better with strings than the modern horn. But there is something called progress, and I would have preferred to have heard Bisson's admirably noble and interpretation without having to worry about her martyrdom for Mozart.

Neither performance of the other pieces on the program -- the Duo for Violin and Viola in G (K. 423) and the Divertimento in E-flat (K. 563) -- could be described as scintillating. Violinist Cynthia Roberts and violist Sharon Pineo Myer played the overlapping lines in the last movement of the Duo in a pedestrian manner. The performance of the great K. 563 work -- in which Myer and Roberts were joined by cellist Allen Whear -- was not sweet-toned or smooth enough to do justice to its visionary intensity.

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