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CLASSICAL  March 2000

CLASSICAL March 2000

Subject:

Re: Period Instruments

From:

William Hong <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sat, 18 Mar 2000 11:42:09 -0500

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text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (77 lines)

Pablo Massa wrote:

>Surely, the Cothen ensemble and the Violons du Roi had the best trained
>players available in its times.  But this is not the problem.  Perhaps (and
>I just say "perhaps") the minimal level of competence to please Louis XIV
>would not be enough to please a modern listener.  It's possible (without
>regarding unequal temperament) that a note or a passage "ill tuned", or
>played negligently according to our ears, would be admissible according
>to the practices of those times.  There wasn't, almost surely, an uniform
>standard as we have today.  Bach played at Cothen with the "elite" of
>his time; but later, in Leipzig, he played most of his choral works with
>ensembles composed of almost amateur musicians.

Hello Pablo.  I think we will probably disagree on this matter, at least
until I can see some more evidence that even the better ensembles of the
time were not up to some level of competence that we would find acceptable.
To say otherwise seems to me to be very "present-centric", that only modern
musicians have the skills to play this music acceptably.

I know that many astute listeners to historic recordings have said that
modern symphony orchestras are more skilled than their predecessors in the
early 1900s.  If that level of increased skill could be quantified (which
I doubt:-), and extrapolated in a linear manner back to the late 1600s,
does that say that those guys back then couldn't play a chaconne together
and in tune because it was more complex than a progression of half notes?
The idea that improvisational skills alone, plus the ability to come up
with a figured bass "on the fly" were considered so important then does
not lend to my mind an aura of incompetence.

It probably doesn't surprise me that the Chicago Symphony can do "Le Sacre
du Printemps" much more skillfully than Monteux's original orchestra.  But
familiarity with the music does count in this sort of instance, and I think
that the bands in Cothen and at Versailles had that requisite familiarity
with the music of their time.

>I suppose that the level of exigence depended on the different listeners
>and places where music was performed.  Even in XIXth century, when we reads
>Berlioz's description of some performances of his own works, we perceive
>some practices --perfectly normal by those times-- that would scandalize
>us.

Just as an aside, Friday's Washington Post had a pretty dour review
of the National Symphony's latest concert in their Vivaldi Festival.
Now I didn't go to the concert, and I really do appreciate the NSO's
programming this music in a day when HIP ensembles dominate in this
music.  But the overall impression of the review was that the orchestra
was under-rehearsed, with words such as "perfunctory", "unenthusiastic",
"ill-prepared", and "stylistically drab".  Evidently, the reviewer didn't
think that greater training and skill of modern musicians necessarily leads
to better results, even from a purely technical standpoint, let alone
interpretive.  And not words I would use to describe Vivaldi played by
Europa Galante, among other HIP groups.  Too bad, because for many people
the NSO's Vivaldi is the only kind they'll hear, and that may color their
estimation of the composer as a result.

>The performance on period instruments, then, is in my opinion, just a
>matter of sound.  We can't reproduce the authentic performing practices
>--if we really know them-- but as a curiosity, because we are in a
>different cultural context.

Well, the "sound" of period instruments, and the techniques used to play
them, are one of the reasons why I am attracted to them.  And as far as
the cultural context aspect, this has been discussed extensively in another
thread just recently.  Frankly, I have come to agree with those who say
that the differences over the centuries in cultural context or audience
experiences is irrelevant.  The performances are what they are, and you can
like them or not.  They have changed in style over the last few decades,
because people HAVE learned more about the performing practices of the
times, and as a violinist like Sigiswald Kuijken has said, the instrument
itself can teach one much about performance.  But don't ascribe over-hyped
attributes to period instrument performances (like the term "authentic")
that the HIP movement themselves started dropping 20 years ago because it
wasn't appropriate.  That this old argument gets brought up again and again
seems to indicate a more ideological purpose than practical (i.e., how good
is the performance?).

Bill H.

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