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Good Performances - Shame about the Repeats!
on 2 January 2011
While I wouldn't disagree with the praise that's been heaped on these performances, sadly there is one thing that completely spoils my listening pleasure - the observance of Development-Section repeats. For me, this is uncessary and damaging; hearing the development twice robs the music of its surprise value - like someone telling you a funny story with a great punchline - twice! Inevitably, the second time you hear it, the effect is diluted.
Repeating the exposition is quite different; you're at the start of an adventure, and there's something reassuring about retracing your opening steps. In classical and romantic symphonies, the exposition should always be repeated, and some works (Beethoven's 5th symphony, for example) are positively emasculated if the repeat is not taken. But, repeating the development is totally counter-productive. It's pointless, boring, and risks expanding the music beyond its natural length.
Take the Prague symphony for example. When both repeats are taken, the first movement can stretch to almost 20 minutes - that's about the same length as the first movement of several Bruckner symphonies (3, 4, 5, 7, 9) which cover a vastly greater terrain without repeats - and longer than the first movement of Beethoven's 9th!
Had Beethoven sanctioned exposition and development repeats, the 9th's first movement might easily have lasted almost half an hour. Luckily, Beethoven realised repeats were unecessary, and broke with convention - repeats would actually have damaged the structure and continuity of the movement, diluting the white-hot intensity of its narrative.
For me, observing development-section repeats damages Mozart's symphonies, quartets, and sonatas. Partly, this is because Mozart's developments are sometimes quite quirky and startling, sending the music in all sorts of new and unexpected directions. This being so, you lose the surprise factor when the music is repeated.
Having been taken through the twists and turns of a vigorous and pithily-argued development section, you're being prepared for the coda to round things off when - suddenly! - the development is repeated, and you have to go through it all again. Why? What's the point? Do we REALLY need to hear the music once more? Or are we just trying to put out well-filled CDs that offer full value?
Imagine this happening in a film or a book - you're a couple of minutes from the end, and - god help us! - the last third of what we've just seen or read is repeated exactly. Madness! And why does this only happen in Mozart? You don't get development-section repeats in Beethoven, or any of the later composers like Brahms, Mendelssohn, Schubert or Schumann.
If you discern a narrative thread in music (as I try to do), you'll hopefully agree that repeating the development is uncessary and (in most cases) wrong; far from lending the music extra stature, it diminishes it.
Of course, many will not understand what I'm talking about, and disagree - 'the more the merrier' they'll say; 'we simply can't have enough of this glorious music'. But, this misses the point; More is not Better. Music is not like visiting an eat-as-much-as-you-like buffet, and gorging yourself sick just because you can.
J M Hughes