Improvisation is an important part of the performance of early music. From the early stages in the development of the historical performance practice interpreters realised that simply playing the notes as they were printed or written down by the composer was not enough. The score was only the starting point of the process of interpretation or even recreation of what the composer had in mind. In this respect they reacted against the traditional performances of early music, in particular those which - in their pursuit of avoiding the romantic distortion of pre-romantic music - aimed at avoiding every personal element and even emotion in the interpretation. Only recently I saw a performance of Bach's B minor Mass under the direction of Karl Richter which was a good illustration of this approach.
The more interpreters were mastering the singing and playing techniques of the 17th and 18th centuries, the more they felt free to add something to their performances. They became more generous in their ornamentation and took more liberties in their treatment of rhythm and tempo. In recent times some performers have gone some steps further in that they are adding their own inventions to the music they play. Some harpsichordists, for instance, add an improvised prelude to a keyboard suite. Others don't hesitate to change notes or create their own version from two existing versions by the composer.
Basically this is a good development. It is important to realise that composers were mostly also the performers of their own compositions. There can be no doubt that someone like Johann Jacob Froberger played his own compositions during his concert tours and it is hardly plausible that he played his suites exactly the same way every time. One should be careful, though. After all, today's interpreters are not at the same footing as the composer. It is the freedom of the composer to do with his own music whatever he likes. That doesn't necessarily mean the modern interpreter has the same right. We also should not forget that the interpretational freedom of the performer in the composers' time was not unlimited. Not seldom composers warned performers of their music not to violate its character. Often they published their compositions in order to 'correct' distorted copies of their works, either printed or circulating in manuscripts.
That doesn't take anything away from the importance of attempts to perform the music of the past with the kind of freedom the composers expected from their interpreters. But we have a problem here which is the effect of a crucial part of today's music-scene: the phenomenon of the recording. Ornamentation and all other sorts of interpretational liberties are supposed to change from one performance to the other. With a recording all improvisational devices are frozen for ever. By playing a disc they are reproduced and repeated ad nauseam which violates their very nature. There is no solution to this problem: a recording in the style of the old days - playing exactly what was written down - is no option anymore, as the audiences are expecting interpreters to do something which sets their performance apart from those of their colleagues. But it proves once again that no disc can ever replace a live performance.
Some musicians take further steps on the path of improvisation. In the Festival Early Music Utrecht of 2008 I attended a concert by the Spanish ensemble More Hispano. I enjoyed the concert and was impressed by the way they used existing material for their improvisations. Recently they released a disc with improvisations under the title "Yr a oydo" (*), meaning "going by heart". In the booklet their approach is described as "an active approach, taking care not to just play the written notes of the pieces but adding another dimension to the interpretation as early performers did. Instead of being passive readers, we play the same game using their same tools and resources, and thus creating new melodic phrases, improvised solos, nuances and agogics, never planned in advance. we spontaneously create a way of punctuating the musician's dialogue on stage, playing with open structures that will resolve unpredictably during the course of the performance on stage or during the recording, taking us on new and unsuspected paths. We express our approach to Renaissance music in a fully improvised performance of virtually all the pieces included in our programs."
Whether recorded improvisations are really improvised - and not prepared beforehand or corrected afterwards - is impossible to verify. We have only the interpreters' word for it. But if they say so, let's trust them. Listening to this disc I was thinking how different a live performance and a recording are, in particular in regard to an approach like this. I don't think I would like to hear this disc a second time, simply because I know what is coming. The surprise which is part of the attraction of an improvisation is gone after two or three listens. But it has also to do with the way the musicians treat the material. They state that they try to "recover the art of improvisation by basing it only on the encoded material in the numerous early publications." This means that they don't opt for distorting the music with contemporary musical elements - and one can only be thankful for that. I am not sure, though, whether they have been completely successful in avoiding it. In particular the playing of the recorder sometimes didn't sound like the 17th century to me.
The programme is a bit one-sided in that all pieces are extraverted, pretty loud and in fast tempi. What about more intimate music? Would their approach work in other kinds of music? They write that "[one] of our aims is to show that this creative aspect, at least in the repertoire of the Renaissance and Baroque, is not only a possibility or a permission, but almost always an inescapable duty of the professional performer." It seems to me this statement is hardly tenable: the approach may work in the Spanish or Italian secular repertoire as recorded on this disc, it would be completely wrong in, for instance, German sacred music of the 17th century. Even here some improvisations may be in the style of the 17th century, but that in itself doesn't make them historically plausible. The most striking example is the last track, Ciaconna, in which elements from Monteverdi's madrigal Zefiro torna and his motet Laudate Dominum are mixed, even textually. There seems to me no justification for this whatsoever. It has more to do with the preferences of the performers than what is historically justifiable.
So this disc raises many questions, which in itself is not a bad thing. But for me it underlines that improvisation may be an "inescapable duty" of modern performers, it does matter how they treat this subject. It is easy to go overboard, and I feel that is what has happened here.
(*) Yr a oydo - More Hispano (Carpe Diem CD-16279)