Renovation by Retrospection

by James V. Maiello    ¦   September 28 2017

I’m a pretty equal opportunity listener, but I discovered years ago that I really prefer to hear seventeenth, eighteenth, and even nineteenth-century music on period instruments using a historically informed approach and small performing forces.  When I was a graduate student in Bowling Green, Ohio, Finder’s Records maintained a healthy classical music section, and I came home with a recording of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion by the New York Philharmonic, led by Leonard Bernstein.  Bernstein and the NYPO… Bernsteinhow could I go wrong, right? Wrong. Epic performing forces supplemented Bach’s original orchestration, the choir was massive and sang in English, and the tempos were clunky and slow.  Bernstein’s legendary exuberance notwithstanding, it was unlistenable for me.  It is the only CD I have ever returned.  As an antidote, I later bought a brisk, period-instrument recording featuring Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort and Players.  It wasn’t that I was looking for an attempt at historical accuracy, per se, it’s just that the sound of early music has never lost its novelty or its appeal for me.

Historically informed performance and the use of period instruments and tunings can also “renovate” more modern music for contemporary listeners.  Take, for example, the Academy of Ancient Music’s recent recording of sonate concertate by the seventeenth-century composer Dario Castello.  Using quarter-comma mean-tone temperament and tuning to A=466 Hz instead of the current standards of equal temperament and A=440 Hz results in a markedly more vivid sound.  Like restoring a faded painting, it rejuvenates the distinctive colours of individual keys, intensifying dissonances and consonances, and the slightly raised pitch brightens the overall sound.  With different dimensions, gut strings, and baroque bows, period strings sound warmer than modern instruments, and the players must interpret music differently on them (e.g. bowing, etc.). Here’s Elizabeth Blumenstock and Voices of Music performing Castello’s Sonata Primo (Venice, 1629).

Then there are wind instruments, some of which have no modern counterpart. For example, the cornetto is a fiendishly difficult instrument to play, a curved wooden tube with finger holes and a diabolical trumpet-style mouthpiece about the size of an acorn.  Its sound is invariably a revelation to those hearing it for the first time, velvety and vocal.  Imagine the love child of Mel Tormé and a cup-muted trumpet, wielded expertly by Josué Meléndez on this recording.

Other instruments include the dulcian, a forerunner of the bassoon, and the sackbut, the ancestor of the trombone.  Both offer a less refined, earthier sound than their modern versions.

Historically informed performance allows us to experience anew music with which we are already well acquainted, such as John Eliot Gardiner’s sizzling Beethoven cycle with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique.

The most dramatic recreation I can think of, however, is a recording of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique by the period orchestra Anima Eterna Brugge under Jos van Immerseel.  As Gardiner himself points out, in an interview with Bernard Sherman in the collection Inside Early Music, Inside Early Musicusing period instruments for nineteenth-century music is a way of reviving the idiosyncratic sound of these ensembles.  Symphonie fantastique is well known to audiences and it is beloved by music students for its graphic musical depiction of a guillotine execution and for the garish Witches’ Sabbath that closes the work.  Most of us first experienced the piece through a modern orchestra, all the edges polished smooth and the ensemble sound homogenized to fit what the major recording labels thought an orchestra should sound like.  Among these versions, the London Symphony Orchestra’s reading under Colin Davis is one of the best.

Eterna Anima Brugge give a decidedly more vibrant reading that attempts to recreate Berlioz’s concept as closely as possible.

The slightly sinister bassoon is reedy, and the period winds lack the refinement made possible by Boehm-system keywork.  The brass are metallic and edgy, while calfskin timpani heads give the drums a primitively wooly sound.  Two ophicleides—imagine a baritone saxophone with a trombone mouthpiececontraoph—provide a uniquely gritty bass voice, which is given to the tuba in modern orchestras.  Finally, two crashing Érard pianos, dampers removed, serve as the “church bells” that announce the Dies irae.  Berlioz recommended this solution if proper church bells could not be found, and the piano achieves a rhythmic precision and clear attacks that are impossible with real bells.  And so, a standard of the modern repertory is made new by a kaleidoscope of idiosyncratic period instruments that form more of a mixture than a solution.  The distinctive timbres are not dissolved, but rather comingled and discrete. These are the sounds Berlioz might have heard, and we can experience them for the first time ourselves.

It is easy to forget that using period instruments and a historically informed approach also requires a great deal of experimentation and sometimes speculation.  In reconstructing performance practices and techniques, musicians have no choice but to treat the music as a dynamic entity, as a living thing.  Some instruments, for example, lack the precision, range and flexibility of their modern counterparts. Firsthand accounts of performance practices often invite more than one interpretation.  Rehearsals (and even performances) become laboratories for the combustion of science, art, and history.  The pioneers of the early music revival and historically informed performance were breaking new ground as much as they were recovering ancient territory. As the “standard repertoire” becomes increasingly standardized and interpretations more repetitive, there is a certain joyful irony in the fact that retrospection has offered opportunities for some of the most exciting renovation of the Western musical canon’s most well established works.

Now I’ll send you off with a little number by Mel Tormé.

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