Sunday, March 28, 2010

Education projects

There is much talk about the ageing of the audiences of classical concerts. I can speak out of experience: at the concerts I am attending I see many grey and bald heads, and very few people who are not at least in middle age. As I only attend concerts with early music it is possible that the situation is better in other sections of the classical music scene. But from what I hear and read that is not really the case.

The cause of this situation may be partly financial: people under 40 probably have not enough spending power to attend concerts at a regular basis. But it is also a matter of not being acquainted with classical music. This is partly the result of the bad state of music education in schools in the Netherlands. And I wonder whether that is really different elsewhere.

Lamenting this state of affairs is one thing, trying to do something about it is quite different. Fortunately there are musicians who create and take opportunities to present themselves and the music they love to young people. Some years ago the Belgian violinist and conductor Sigiswald Kuijken performed all London symphonies by Haydn, and as part of that project he also talked about Haydn and his symphonies to young people. I heard some fragments of it on Belgian radio, and Kuijken was quite good in explaining what the music was all about.

The Holland Baroque Society also has developed some educational projects of its own. Its website says: "Children and young people in the Netherlands no longer come into contact with classical music in general, including Baroque music, as a matter of course. So Holland Baroque Society sees it as a duty to take it themselves to the schools, and in that way introduce students to the beauty of the Baroque. As with their concert series, HBS organises their educational work on a project-basis, which run parallel to the concerts. In this way they hope to impart their own enthusiasm for this music, and use their own inspiration to stimulate the children’s creativity."

They organise so-called 'Kids Only concerts'. They are presented "exclusively for those students that have taken part in the educational project, and the form and length of the concert is tailored to the age of the audience. The concert’s program revisits the material previously handled by the musicians during the lessons."

They give an example of a visit to a school where members of the orchestra gave presentations to every class with classical music in general, and music of the baroque in particular. This is an excellent example of an attempt to introduce young people to classical music.

Another ensemble has developed activities in this field. Recently a disc with German sacred music by the Swiss ensemble Gli Angeli Genève, directed by Stephan MacLeod, was released (Sony). The booklet tells us that "[as] part of its educational activities, Gli Angeli Geneve enabled secondary school students to spend an entire semester, under a pilot project, helping to organise and make all the arrangements for one of its concerts." This included scheduling, preparing contracts and organising concert tickets. "In a more musicological vein, they were introduced to musical analysis and the history of the cantata, they wrote a large portion of the notes that follow, originally for the programme to the Gli Angeli concert which took place in January 2009".

This way the ensemble extended its activities with primary-school children to older pupils. "[They] met the members of Gli Angeli Genève, in class or at rehearsal, and learned what professional life for them actually implies."

These are some examples of activities I know of which show professional musicians taking responsibility for promoting classical, and in particular early music. It would be great if others would copy their examples. Hopefully this kind of activities will result in more young people attending classical concerts in the future.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A creative approach

Creativity is an important quality of any musician, and in particular of interpreters of early music. Not everything the composer had in mind is to be found in the score. Not everything can be written down, and not everything needed to be written down in the composer's time. Apart from the fact that often interpreters and composers were identical there were practices and aesthetic ideals which were generally shared. It is the challenge to modern interpreters to find them and incorporate them in their performances.

If a reviewer writes that a performance is characterised by a 'creative approach' to the repertoire that is generally meant as a compliment. For me it means that an interpreter is emphasizing elements which are in the score but are often overlooked or not fully explored. An example are the many recordings of baroque instrumental music by Nikolaus Harnoncourt with his Concentus musicus Wien. Also interesting in this respect are the interpretations of Jed Wentz and his ensemble Musica ad Rhenum, in particular in regard to tempo and rubato.

Another example of a 'creative approach' is the performance of music in another scoring than one is used to. For instance, recently the French harpsichordist Noelle Spieth has recorded the Pièces de clavecin en concert by Jean-Philippe Rameau on harpsichord, without additional instruments. This option is specifically mentioned by Rameau, but as far as I know they have never been recorded this way. And in the liner notes of her recording other examples of French music are given which according to the composer can be performed in an alternative scoring. So musicians who put that into practice should gain applause.

But not every creative approach is applaudable. Recently I listened to a new recording of some of Vivaldi's sonatas for cello and bc. There is no lack of recordings of this repertoire, but when they are played by the Belgian cellist Roel Dieltiens that is something to look forward to. He belongs to the world's elite of the baroque cello as a number of fine recordings testify. He also has his own ensemble, Explorations, with which he explores often unknown territory. But the Vivaldi recording was a severe disappointment. In my review I have labelled it a 'stinker'. I hardly ever use that word as I have much respect for musicians and am convinced they give of their best in their performances. But what Dieltiens and his colleagues are delivering is inacceptable.

Not everyone thinks that way. In the April issue of Gramophone the disc is one of the 'Editor's Choices', and in his review Duncan Druce praises the recording as "a creative approach (...) that will make you listen afresh". He notices the "large, continually varied continuo group". There is nothing new about that: it is the fashion of the day, as I have written in my previous entry in this weblog. Whereas Duncan Druce obviously judges this practice positively I find it extremely annoying and completely uncalled for. What Duncan Druce calls "accompaniments that are often profusely elaborated" I'd rather tag as "exaggerated". In his view the "improvised interpolations" are part of a creative approach which is "throwing new light on the music". Which new light, I wonder. Are these performances bringing us closer to the music as Vivaldi might have wanted it to be played? Is there any historical foundation for this kind of improvisations, including an "organ toccata" which is as long as two movements? And what about the inclusion of a song between two movements? Did Vivaldi really expected his performers to burst out in a song?

Anyone is entitled to his opinion. And I know very well that Duncan Druce is a professional musician and reviewer and knows the early music scene from within. But even so, what worries me is that the 'creative approach' is applauded as if this is a quality in itself, independent of the music's historical context. It is revealing that in the whole review there is no consideration of what the historical sources might have to say. It seems unlikely that they indicate that there should be no singing between two movements of a cello sonata by Vivaldi. But I would be very surprised if there would be any historical evidence giving at least some plausibility to Roel Dieltiens' approach.

Yes, creativity is an important quality for any performer of early music. But might we expect at least a 'historically informed creativity', please?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Fashionable performance practice

Is the interpretation of early music affected by fashion? Over the years many things have changed. There was a time when interpreters tried to follow what they understood to be the rules of performance practice of the past as accurately as possible. They tried to avoid everything which couldn't be justified on the basis of historical sources. This was partly motivated by an aversion against traditionalist performers taking control over the music.

Today performers take much more freedom. They realise that historical sources don't tell everything, that they are not always unambiguous, and that various sources sometimes contradict each other. There is also more awareness that composers - who were mostly also the performers of their own music - didn't always play their music the same way. This explains the existence of various versions of the same work. And this has led to a more balanced approach towards something like an Urtext which often not only offers just one of a number of options, but also isn't anymore than a rudimentary indication of what the real performance must have been like in the hands of the original interpreter.

This development can only be welcomed. It has everything to do with a better understanding of the aesthetics of the time. The more a performer knows about that the more he is able to find his own way in the interpretation of early music, without crossing the border of what is historically and stylistically justifiable. An important development is the growing interest in the art of improvisation. This was a necessary skill of performers in ages past, and not just of organists. Of course, there is a strong element of improvisation in the addition of ornaments which has been practiced from an early stage in the history of historical performance practice. But today interpreters go a step further, for instance by adding a short improvisatory prelude to a keyboard suite.

From history we can learn that freedom is often misused. That is also the case here. I can't help feeling that some interpreters aren't that much interested in what historical sources have to tell. That is based on my own experience of listening to recordings and live performances. I have seen singers entering the early music scene which had never been accepted about 15 years or so ago. Studies of performance practice in the 17th and 18th centuries don't leave much doubt about the fact that vibrato was only used as an ornament. Today there are many singers in the early music scene which don't care about that, and singers who oblige to what was common practice in the baroque era are more the exception than the rule. Rhythmic freedom in the performance of recitatives is often ignored and a truly speechlike performance isn't something which goes without saying anymore.

Another issue is the choice of instruments. I can't see any reason for using a lirone as a basso continuo instrument in a cantata by Handel. Some time ago I heard a disc in which Italian music was performed with an oboe, although the music was composed well before the instrument made its entrance in Italy. I can't see any justification for the use of a guitar in sacred music by Buxtehude and his circle. And what about the use of an organ in Handel operas? That is all highly debatable.
And the historical foundation for the use of a battery of basso continuo instruments in Biber's Mystery Sonatas is very thin. Let's not talk about the choice of fortepianos in keyboard music from the decades around 1800. That is a can of worms in itself.

There is much more which seems to be the fashion of the day, like the continuous change in the scoring of the basso continuo within a single work. Are interpreters afraid that audiences might getting bored if the basso continuo is played by cello and harpsichord for 10 minutes? What does that tell us about their capabilities as performers? And why is it impossible to play a slow movement with a harpsichord? Do we really need an organ or a lute for that?
Talking about the lute and other plucked instruments - do we need to hear them in the basso continuo all the time? Were they as often used in the 17th and 18th centuries as they are today? And were they used as percussion instruments as often as they are today? Is this practice an attempt to attract an audience which is used to listen to popular music?

From this kind of practices it is only a little step towards deliberately ignoring the wishes of the composer. A recent example is the recording of Telemann's Brockes-Passion by René Jacobs. Several arias and some recitatives have been cut "for reasons of dramatic coherence", as the booklet says. Why does Jacobs think he knows better than the composer? He is known for treating the score with considerable freedom. From what I understand from scholars who know more about these things than I do his decisions are more often than not based on personal preferences rather than historical evidence.
And some years ago I heard the recording of a live performance of an opera in which two scenes were swapped for dramatic reasons. Again, the director - Christophe Rousset in this case - apparently saw the need to improve the work of the composer. I am sure that if I would further think about this I would be able to come up with more examples of such behaviour.

And so, after a long walk, we are back to square one: interpreters taking control over the music. Who's the new Herbert von Karajan of baroque music?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

From the recording studios

Some music magazines regularly give information about what is going to be released in the near future. I always like to read stuff like that because it can whet your appetite for what is to come. But this kind of information also gives reason to be critical about the choice of repertoire.

There is much talk about the crisis of the recording industry. One of the causes of this crisis is that too much repertoire is recorded too often. This probably explains why there seems to be no crisis in the recording of early music. There is so much repertoire which has never been explored yet that there is no excuse for recording the same stuff time and again. And fortunately there are ensembles and musicians who are enterprising enough to go off the beaten track.

One of them is the German conductor Hermann Max. In recent years he has recorded a number of unknown German oratorios of the late 18th and early 19th century. Last year he brought a hitherto forgotten Passion: the Große Passion by Carl Heinrich Graun, a really great work which is an important addition to the repertoire for Passiontide. The Italian keyboard player Lorenzo Ghielmi has just recorded another excellent Passion, on a Latin text, by the Neapolitan composer Francesco Feo. Both recordings will be reviewed on musica Dei donum shortly.

Also interesting are two recent recordings of music for the theatre by Haydn which is a still underrated aspect of his oeuvre. Andreas Spering recorded the marionette Singspiel Die Feuersbrunst (CPO), whereas Michi Gaigg recorded a late version of his opera L'Isola disabitata with a German text which dates from shortly after 1800 (deutsche harmonia mundi). To the same category belong the opera Le disgrazie d'Amore by Antonio Cesti (Carlo Ipata; Hyperion) as well as two oratorios by the German composer and theorist Johann Mattheson: Der liebreiche und geduldige David, and Das größte Kind (Willens; CPO).

But the habit of recording the same stuff over and over again doesn't pass the early music scene completely. In recent years I have heard and reviewed a handful of new recordings of Bach's motets. Recently I received another three. The discography contains a whole list of recordings of these works, and one wonders whether all these new performances - which I haven't heard yet - are really worthwhile, let alone indispensable, additions to the catalogue.

And then there are the Brandenburg Concertos. Recently four new versions have been released, by Trevor Pinnock, Richard Egarr, John Eliot Gardiner and Masaaki Suzuki. Trevor Pinnock's explanation for recording them once again was simple: I liked to do it. That's understandable, but performers should also ask whether the music world really needs them. And this year Concerto Köln is going to record Bach's orchestral suites - don't we have enough of those?

There is some good news, though. In one of my previous contributions I wrote about the growing interest in the music of Christoph Graupner. As he died in 1760 it is Graupner year, so we may expect some new productions with music by this German master. Hermann Max - he again - recorded Christmas cantatas which will appear later this year on CPO. Interestingly he has recorded them with one singer per part, a practice he has so far ignored in his recordings of German baroque repertoire. I am curious to see whether this is an omen of a change of mind in regard to the vocal scoring of German music.

The Austrian violinist Gunar Letzbor is also an enterprising artist. With his ensemble Ars Antiqua Austria he has recorded 10 concertos in 5 parts by Charles Mouthon who seems to be the same whose name is usually spelled as 'Mouton' and who so far is only known as a composer of lute music. Upcoming is a recording by Letzbor of the six sonatas for violin solo by the German violin virtuoso Johann Paul von Westhoff (1656-1705). That is something to look forward to, and it is surprising that it has taken so long until these brilliant pieces were recorded.

This year interesting live events can be expected, which hopefully will be recorded at some stage. Examples are Grétry's opera Andromaque in Schwetzingen and Rossini's operas La Cenerentola (Concerto Köln; Paris) and La scala di seta (Michi Gaigg; Graz). Which record company is taking the risk?