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 Pi├Ęces 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?

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