Historically informed performance – evolution or devolution?

Posted on October 6, 2013

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I have recently been to a piano recital at St Christopher’s Hospice in South London, where a Beethoven Sonata, Chopin Fantasies and Impromptus, and adaptations of Schubert’s songs by Liszt, Thalberg and Heller. The pianist being Elena Margolina, one of the leading interpreters of Schubert’s music, she played all these pieces with extraordinary technique, energy and dynamism. All the pieces were played on a robust, modern grand piano (Petrof), which was perfect for providing the Beethoven experience. However, for Chopin and Schubert perhaps a smaller, more fragile, instrument would have been ideal (J not that it would be a realistic expectation for a small venue like this to proved a different piano for each piece J).

Since the nineteen fifties-sixties there has been an increased interest in recreating the music of early composers on the instruments, or close copies of the instruments that were in use in their age. In some cases this has been combined with a laborious study of the original musical scores authored or personally approved by the composers themselves, aiming to reproduce an authentic experience of the music. As the great majority of the artists touched by this movement are passionate professionals obsessed with minute attention to details and quality, both in terms of the instruments and state-of-the-art interpretation of music, this movement produced some spectacular results. As a result, the HIP (Historically Informed Performance) movement has been moving the periphery towards the centre of cultural life. Some well respected composers and performers have made a case for HIP, like Paul Hindemith, Nikolaus Harnoncourt (whose main activity as conductor and scholar has been revolving around HIP) and Christopher Hogwood (harpsichordist and musical director of the Academy of Ancient Music orchestra). In their pursuit for achieving the best results, some of the greatest conductors of our time have made HIP recordings, like Simon Rattle, Roger Norrington and Ivan Fischer. Others incorporated period instruments and a spirit of historical faithfulness in their performances, like Claudio Abbado. Several ensembles specialised in HIP have been producing extremely successful and popular performances, like the Academy of Ancient Music, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the New York Pro Musica Antiqua.  Several instruments, such as the viol, the recorder and the harpsichord, long replaced by their modern counterparts have been raised to popularity again.

Listening to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto 5 ‘Emperor’ played by a period ensemble – The Academy of Ancient Music (AAM) – and one of the best non-period orchestras of our time – The Wiener Philharmonic (WP) several differences become apparent. First I would like to mention the very different sounds of the two pianos. The sound of the piano in the AAM recording is more fragile, delicate, perhaps more glassy, clear in the upper registers and much less powerful in the lower registers.  The sound of the string and woodwind instruments are warmer, the sound of the violins separate more clearly from the background of the lower strings, the brass instruments seem to have a less tempered, brazen sound.

The HIP movement created much controversy, especially in its earlier stages, when it was regarded by many as a brand of ‘purist’, rigid, arrogant and prescriptive conventionalism. They argued that looking at the period instrument performance as the only ‘valid’ representation of these pieces could be detrimental, both to the dissemination and survival of the music and to the development of creativity of young performers. However, if one can avoid historical bigotry, HIP could go the other way, stimulating research in performing practices (techniques, cultural attitudes) of different cultural eras preserving valuable knowledge and inventions of the past, that could be integrated in the development of new art. Also, it could enhance diversity by promoting instruments that were developed and forgotten in the mist of history, making the sound of different orchestra’s less uniform. It is true that using the same instruments for the interpretation of pieces with different character would not produce the best possible results.

Personally, as much as I respect the intention to create high quality in music, I have one major problem with the use of period instruments. This is the use of animal ingredients, like sheep gut for violin strings and leather covers for piano hammers, which I cannot accept as justifiable, thinking about the inevitable cruelty by which they are achieved. I very much hope that the HIP movement (and all arts in general) will be able to exclude such manufacturing practices, finding a way to preserve what is genuinely valuable from the past and discarding things that are unworthy to be part of a sensible artistic endeavour.

I like the expression “historically informed” rather “historically accurate”, as it allows musicians and instrument manufacturers to preserve the past, without suppressing novelty and evolution in arts.

 

Tibor Kovacs

 

References:

Butt, J. (2002) Playing with history: the historical approach to musical performance. Cambridge University Press, UK

Kenyon, N. (2011) Early Music Is Enjoying Its Moment. The New York Times. 4 March, p. AR16

Wikipedia (2013) Historically informed performance [online] Wikipedia website. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historically_informed_performance [Accessed 5th October 2013]

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