Challenging Performance: The Book. 23-1 New Moon

23.1 Exchanging the Moonlight and Erlkönig

I provided some background for these performances in Chapters 1 and 5.  From Chapter 5:

… with the pianist Mine Doğantan-Dack and soprano Diana Gilchrist, in a workshop in 2013, … we exchanged characters of the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ sonata and Schubert’s song ‘Erlkönig’, whose meters and rhythmic profiles are similar but whose traditional characters are opposite. … [W]e did this principally by swapping their conventional tempi, taking ‘Erlkönig’ to dotted crotchet=ca 56 and the Moonlight to ca 120; but of course when you do that you change a lot more than just speed: the very different mood that the speed suggests also requires different articulation, … vibrato (for the singer) and timbre. … The Moonlight works remarkably well as a storm, and ‘Erlkönig’ recovers the full horror of a song about child abduction that we’ve lost in nicely-behaved Lieder recitals.

Mine performed the Moonlight movement in joint talks we gave in London in June and July 2013 and at the University of Surrey in October 2013. There was an unsurprising mix of strong reactions, for and against, tending to align with age. I offered it as an imaginary example of transgressive performance in an article, ‘Classical Music as Enforced Utopia‘, in 2016.[1]


  1. Erlkönig

Diana recorded ‘Erlkönig’ with pianist Shelley Katz in 2019, especially for this book, now at around crotchet = 68 (though with a dramatic tempo shift towards the end). That performance was included at the end of Chapter 5, and I place it here as well.

Schubert, 'Erlkönig': Diana Gilchrist (sop.), Shelley Katz (piano) -- rec. 2019.

For us a particularly fascinating detail was the varied rhythmic profile of the Erlking’s verses which it’s now possible to hear for the first time, and which in this performance gives him an insinuating social veneer, suggested by the dance accompaniment to his first stanza and the mock-innocent figuration around his second, which only makes him the more loathsome. Diana’s tour-de-force of vocal characterisation carries the whole performance irresistibly, so that the tempo (to which one quickly adapts) seems essential, as if it could not be other. It’s a virtuoso demonstration of the extent to which the performer makes the music through shaping our experience as listeners, which seems to us to arise inevitably from the notes. It takes a performance as different as this to show properly just how illusory that impression is. But the whole performance is highly disturbing, as it should be given the subject-matter. (Be sure also to hear Diana’s and Shelley’s ‘Ave Maria’ recordings, no less remarkable when compared to anything else one can hear from that embarrassingly hackneyed score today.)


  1. The New-Moon(light) sonata

In August 2019, we recorded the whole of Beethoven’s Op 27/2 score, now (for practical reasons) with Ji Liu as the pianist. The sound engineer and co-producer was Andrew Hallifax. I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the enthusiasm of both, and to thank Ji in particular for his courage in making this recording, courage which every performer who hears it will recognise.

Ji started from my very broad suggestions for speeds and characters, which he then developed into performances that are his own. The first movement is much faster than in 2013, faster even than proposed here in chapter 1; and (as ch.1 envisaged) it convincingly describes a storm as opposite to the usual moonlit night as it’s possible to imagine. The first movement runs straight into the second, usually an Allegretto but here an almost Mendelssohnian slow movement using rubato to accentuate its dreamlike quality. The final movement, at a medium pace as opposed to the usual mad rush in which details and contrast are lost in a tempest of sound, becomes more unsettling, perhaps threatening, matching upward melodic direction with surges in loudness, and it makes space for much more rhythmic characterisation in the interludes. The whole sonata, in other words, is utterly changed; and yet it works. It’s another example of extraordinary performer creativity, every moment of it inconceivable within current WCM culture whose only response can be to condemn, marginalise and if possible exclude it. Because it’s disobedient to the score.

What does this tell us about Beethoven’s score? About potential it has that no one, surely not he, had envisaged? About our relationship with scores, composers, traditions, audiences, a musical public, with those who ‘know’ about music and those innocent of assumptions? About what music can do with us and we with it? About our relationship with musical Others, that’s to say with the virtual personae, potentially unlike ourselves, that a musical performance creates? If you’ve not read earlier chapters, now may be the moment to do so, before engaging more intensively with these questions. (Chapter 11 on obligations to composers may seem particularly relevant if this is your first encounter with transgressive performance.)

For now, simply enjoy!

Beethoven, Piano sonata op.27, no. 2, complete: Ji Liu (piano) -- rec. 2019

Continue to Chapter 23.2: ‘Ave Maria’

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[1] ‘Classical music as enforced utopia’, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 15/3-4 (2016) 325-36, at 334.

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