27 January 2019

Musical Authenticity - An Impossble Dream

Playing old music on old instruments does not result in an “authentic” performance.  One of my major issues with the Period Instrument movement is the tendency of so many groups and individuals to believe that just because they are playing the notes on an instrument which was either made during the composer’s lifetime, or is a copy of one, their performance is thereby legitimised as authentic.

It is certainly an intriguing experience to hear Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven et al played on the kind of instruments which the composers knew and wrote for, but too often it is no more than that.  We become enchanted by the novelty of the sound and, since it is so different from the norm, we take it as a legitimate recreation of the music as heard at the time of its composition.

Concerns of tuning are frequently ignored.  So many period instrument enthusiasts expend hours over sterile debates on the pitch of A in 1700, and never once thinking of its implications.  Were instruments tuned meticulously to that pitch, and if so, how?  Did they tune to another instrument? Did they use a tuning fork?  (I well remember a fascinating exhibition in the Royal College of Music of old tuning forks which posed a lot more questions than it provided answers.) Can we really believe that 17th century Lutheran services were delayed before each musical interjection in order for the musicians to re-tune their instruments?  Did aristocratic patrons in 18th century Vienna sit idly by while their court orchestras painstakingly tuned to an A?  And in the days before heating, air-conditioning and de-humidifiers and humidifiers, did everyone stop to retune when the inevitable happened?  In short, did the “early” musicians (and their listeners) give a fig about unified pitch or consistent intonation?

Then there are the matters concerning methods of playing.  Where did the bow touch the strings, how were the reeds prepared, how individualised were the mouthpieces, which fingers were used to strike the keys, and how did organists select and manage their registrations?  We have some answers to these questions, but by no means a totally comprehensive understanding, and merely to suggest that because one contemporary commentator thought to make a note about a one-off experience we can safely project that on to all music of the period is a nonsense.  Look around and see the huge variety in playing techniques, orchestral layouts and interpretative nuances in our own time; are we to assume that earlier ages were more universally consistent in these matters than we are?

Even where we can be fairly certain that we are playing the right instruments, the right way and in the right tuning temperament and pitch, we cannot perceive the music through the ears of an earlier age.  Not least in a society like ours, swamped by a persistent exposure to music of all sorts and overwhelmed by the sheer cacophony of daily existence, there is no possibility that we can hear or even perceive music as earlier generations did.  In short, it is so thoroughly inconceivable that we can recreate a performance from an earlier age in a way that can rightly be described as “authentic”, that one wonders why so many bother. Yet groups still invest in a few natural horns, buy gut strings for their violins, get hold of a modern copy of a fortepiano and remove the spikes from their cellos in order put it about that they are “Period Instrument” bands, while their performances do not have even the merest whiff of historical authenticity. 

Image result for Ensemble DialoghiDuring my stint with the now sadly defunct International Record Review I found myself at one point inadvertently thrust into the position of the magazine’s Early Music Specialist.  In that capacity I was regularly exposed to the finest, most deeply thought-out and perceptive performances of early music – using period instruments -  and I came to love, not the sound of these instruments, but the immense musicality which the leading figures in the Period Instrument Movement possessed.  That was over a decade ago, so what a lovely surprise to stumble across a Period Instrument group which not only saw their instruments as vehicles through which to interpret music (rather than as vehicles to make a novel sound) but had such towering musicality that the novelty of the instrumental sound was quickly subsumed within an all-embracing interpretative outlook which, while it was certainly informed by some historical understanding, was dominated by a powerful communicative zeal aimed unequivocally at 21st century ears.  Three minutes into the Mozart K452 Quintet, we had quite forgotten that we were hearing instruments of Mozart’s time, and were absorbed into a world of timeless musical intrigue which had every ear in the hall totally captivated.

Not for nothing was this ensemble called Ensemble Dialoghi, since a sense of dialogue, between all five musicians was the most obvious thing about their playing.  Sitting through their performance of a Haydn Trio was like eavesdropping on an intimate conversation between lovers, the oboe and bassoon at times animated, at others entreating, and at others in happy concord.  The historic instruments certainly added an intriguing dimension to the performance for those of us with an interest in such things.  How wonderful, for example, to hear the inevitable timbral fluctuations from the natural horn as it created its full pitch range through hand-stopping, affording such a clear insight into the kind of sound Mozart was clearly aiming at; a sound which cannot begin to replicated by modern instruments, yet one which many in the audience will most probably not have noticed given the amazing fluency and command of the ensemble’s hornist, Pierre-Antoine Tremblay.

As I went into last night’s concert, I was harangued by a colleague when I told him I had never previously heard Ensemble Dialoghi.  “What?”, was his incredulous response; “But they are so famous!”.  Not to me, I regret to say, but the loss is mine and they have immediately shot up to the top position in my pantheon, not so much of great period instrument groups, but of great chamber groups.  Their music-making transcended the compartmentalising of them as a Period Instrument group.  Whether or not their ability to communicate their love and affection for the music they played is in any way “authentic”, I very seriously doubt, and with their informal, casual concert clothes, in which no 18th century court musician would have been seen dead, and playing from modern printed editions under bright electric lights in an air-conditioned, humidity-controlled space to a hall full of ordinary Singaporeans sitting intently focussed on their music making, nobody could have regarded this performance as anything remotely “authentic” to the time of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven.

For me, it was a wonderful palate cleanser after the previous evening’s gorging on the deep-fried and battered, cholesterol-filled Mahler Symphony.  For all the emotional upheavals in the Mahler (and more of that in a later post), I have to say the deep sense of satisfaction I experienced from the Ensemble Dialohghi’s programme and performance utterly and completely annihilated from my mind any lingering memories of Mahler.

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