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?


  1. Dear Johan (if I may),

    I completely agree with you.
    This is a major problem with Early Music nowadays, and some of the people seem to be more interested in learning just a few rules to go on stage to play as many concerts as possible, instead of reading, studying, analizing, asking questions and why not, making still experiments.

    You didn't mention about the standardized A=415 / Vallotti, and the dogmatic use of critic editions, with the result that musicians often perform the mistakes which are published in the score, because they didn't check the manuscripts... (these problems often recur in the HHA - Halle Handel Edition, where there are many incongruences, mistakes and very unclear modernizations).

    I stand against the superficiality and the arrogance of some of my colleagues, and I hope I will have always the strenght to work seriously, with humble and respect for the music and the composers we perform.

    Let's hope that the new generations of musicians will take the challenge of bringing HIP a step forward.

  2. Hi Johan,

    I am curious: which opera did Rousset perform with swapped scenes? That sounds much more like a typical Pierre Audi choice - I think Audi did something similar in his production of Monteverdi's Ritorno di Ulisse at the Nederlandse Opera, for instance...