Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Baroque and Authenticity

Often times I mention COT Director Brian Dickie's blog - he has really perfected the art of the blog and of course has much interesting news and thought to offer on it. We are all lucky to have such a chance to look into that world. Recently he has posted some thoughts on the subject of "the baroque" to which I have been meaning to add my own thoughts. This is a huge can of worms and words, and one about which I could write probably a not-so-small book (and might one day). I will try to keep be concise here at the risk of not being quite as coherent.

First, I am not a purist. If anything I feel I'm more in line with the observations put forth by the wise, if reprehensible, Richard Taruskin in the 1980s. For various reason I think "authenticity" is rather like a phantom. It is something that gets a lot of hype and belief, but it doesn't really exist. That isn't just because there is so little historic truth about performance practice we can know for certain (most of what has become accepted as "baroque performance practice" is actually not so clear cut when one looks at the sources). No, authenticity doesn't exist because the whole notion of authenticity, the primacy of the composer and his epoch's "intentions", is completely a modern concern, one that would not have concerned the 17th or 18th century musician. HIP performance attempts to arrive at some sort of ur-text, sweeping away years of pedagogical tradition as someone might sweep the dust off an antique. The "dust" in this case isn't meaningless, it is instead an evolving performance tradition of which the baroque musicians were aware and were apart. The idea of turning away from that comes from the same modernist attitude as the academic composers of the 60s and 70s. Actually, even HIP is part of the tradition, it has to be as much as it might wish it could actually be something completely different.

That paragraph was simply a preface to this: I do believe in the current supremacy of period instrument, and more importantly historically informed, ensembles to realize this music. I also believe in the importance of enlisting singers that are vocally appropriate for this music in a historically informed context. This is personal - I think the music making is better. Beyond that, aside from the few (and they do exist) that would prefer to hear the Leppard bastardization (more on this later) of "Calisto" to Jacobs more stylistic (though only slightly less a bastardization...more on that later too), or prefer to hear the incomparable Jesse Norman turn Purcell's famous lament into a soggy-swamp, the general aesthetic of the age does break towards more historically informed forms of performance. Ultimately I agree with the young enthusiast that started Brian's thinking on this, Chicago as a major city is desperately in need of its top baroque orchestra to be using period instruments and a more informed manner of playing (and more informed players). They can and should be better.

There are certain historic points of which we can be relatively certain, and which I think should effect performance to that end (at least until our collective tastes change). I will bullet some of these that pop to mind:

Gut strings - The use of all steel strings did not happen until this century. The sound of gut is completely different and gives a color not possible on steel strings. Using gut strings is important and there is little reason for not doing it (except fear on the part of modern players that will have to adjust)

Baroque/Classical/et al Bows: The construction of the bow is INCREDIBLY important. The modern bow is different in many ways, perhaps most importantly in weight distribution, than a historic bow. This changes the natural bloom of the note and the way one phrases. The music will sound different with a period bow versus a modern bow.

Instrumental Vibrato - There is little question that vibrato was used with discretion in the baroque. It is true that there remains heavy debate as to how much vibrato was or was not used, still, the modern approach of vibrating on everything is ludicrous and was not part of the baroque aesthetic. Vibrato was not treated as part of a machine that turned on at the playing of each note, it was used with intention. The myth that period orchestras have worse intonation than a modern orchestra comes from the fact that modern players can hide bad intonation with vibrato. They don't play a note, they play around a note. Hearing a modern group adjust to playing with no vibrato...now there is poor intonation.

Vocal Vibrato - Now here is a debate!!! A healthy relaxed voice has a natural symbiosis with breath and its inherently cyclical nature. It can go between vibration and straight singing seamlessly and with comfort (both are healthy) and uses vibrato as an ornament just as we know the treatises indicate (Monteclair is the most explicit on this point). A wide vibrato that cannot be controlled comes from poor breath-support. This sort of vibrato distorts pitch and makes clear coloratura impossible.

Bel Canto - Here is something I have wanted to get into for a while, ever since Bill Crutchfield made some rather silly comments on IU's recent production of "Figaro" to the affect that he was teaching the singers the historic way of singing this bel canto music. This is simply not true! Mozart and his contemporaries were absolutely not "bel canto". Not that they didn't have aspects of bel canto, of course they did because their school grew into bel canto. But, we can't apply the style of bel canto in reverse. There are aspects of bel canto that were not part of classical singing, just as there are parts of classical singing that were not part of baroque singing. Some things Crutchfield asserts are true - individual ornamentation for one. But, he also asserts that Mozart should be sung with the perfect legato that one identifies with bel canto. This is just not true. Legato is just a tool in the box of a classical singer, and it was one used even less in the baroque. More grating is insistence on "beautiful sound", that every note must be in the sweet spot. Rubish I say! In Mozart every note is NOT equally beautiful, there is a hierarchy. It is this thinking that causes modern players of play Bach like it is Brahams...SOME NOTES ARE MORE THAN OTHERS!!!! It is that contrast that bring the music to life.

Articulation (coloratura) - The last point touched on many of these things, but it is worth mentioning that I think coloratura is neither always legato (diaphragmatic we say), or articulated (in the throat we say). It is a blend of the two used at the singer's discretion. Bartoli is great at this.

General Style - This is simple. If you are going to perform this music you have to educate yourself, whether on modern instruments or not. Trills are performed differently in the baroque and in the classical, dance forms indicate certain tempi and characters, ornamentation as a whole was used in different ways related to text, and so much more. There is no excuse anymore for performers and conductors not to know these things.

The performance of Monteverdi - This is particular problem for me, and it isn't just Monteverdi, but all early Italian opera of which I'm a bit of a specialist. This notion of completing the score, adding bells and whistles is nonsense. Leppard started it, Harnoncourt went with it, and so does Jacobs. It is terrible for the music, destroying the early Italian notion of the supremacy of text, and that most of these composers saved treble instrument accompaniment for the most special moments in the opera. Jane Glover, whom I have a lot of doubts about in some respects, at least is clear about this point and doesn't do such things, trusting the music. The Venetian orchestra was one to a part strings, bowed 8' bass, harpsichord (maybe two), and theorbo (maybe two). To that there is justification to add cornetti or recorders, dulcian, organ, etc (looking at larger court orchestras of the day). If you wouldn't add an electric guitar to Strauss, you probably should have the same thought on these works and leave the modern trumpets out. I think using the Leppard editions is pretty inexcusable, that is unless you sincerely want to present Leppard's "Calisto" and not Cavalli's, because they bare virtually no similarity to each other.

I could go on, but I really need to be marking my articulations in the string parts for the Charpentier. I have some final thoughts though, and these are random and not in any particular order.

-HIP isn't perfect by any stretch and does a lot of things wrong knowingly. For instance, it is established fact that classical recitative was mostly realized with a cello playing chords. Almost no one does this. There are lots of examples of this. Pitch is another instance. We have decided that baroque pitch was 415, French pitch was 392, classical pitch was 430, and Venetian pitch was 465, largely because of the convenience of transposing a harpsichord.. This is all modern. Les Arts Florissants is closer when they play French repertoire at 400, closer to an actual "French" pitch. And pitch is important, perhaps not with biblical proportion, but it merits thought.

-Singers! I actually think vocal training is better now in this area than it was twenty years ago. I never really liked Emma Kirkby's voice to be honest, at least not for Baroque lead roles that need more character. I think many "modern" singers are doing the best baroque work: Bartoli, von Otter, Genaux, Keenlyside. Still, Peter Gelb's statement in the Sunday Times that he wants to cast Stephanie Blythe as Orfeo in the Gluck makes me balk....come on. Brian Dickie needs particular credit for this - he casts exceptionally gifted and smart young singers for COT baroque operas (like Danielle Denise who doesn't convince me as Cleopatra, but who I think has a lovely command of the style and particularly in French music).

-America really has to fix this union thing! Modern orchestras, with that good leadership of an Haim or Christie or Bickett, can fake the baroque sound. I have quite smart friends that saw the opening performance of "Cesare" at the Lyric and thought the orchestra sounded tepid and not at all together. I also have friends that saw a later performance and thought they sounded quite convincing. This gradual improvement probably would not have been necessary had Haim been allowed to bring her own players, regardless it would have still sounded better with period bows and gut strings that give a silvery quality that isn't possible on the modern violin with the modern bow. The unions don't allow bringing in a non-house orchestra and it keeps American houses behind. I remember living in Venice and hearing a performance of "Rodelinda" on the radio and thinking that it was an amateur Italian period orchestra. It was the MET performance! No, we now have orchestras in American that can play this rep better and the houses should figure out a way to make that work. COT is a fantastic company, probably one of the best in the country for this stuff, and I really feel they should be using period instruments, because they are one of the few places that can and be a true trend-setter in the States. With the state of the union in “baroque-land” right now, however shameful, I know that using a period orchestra (Ignoti Dei for instance!) would be cheaper, even if they are from out of town, than using local modern players. And I don't know...Leppard? Ah well...

-Finally, for me the baroque is about expression through dramatic contrast (just think of the architecture!!!). This is why vibrato is simply a tool. Ornaments are tools. Articulation is a tool. Not all notes are beautiful, but the phrase is made more beautiful through the contrast of important and unimportant notes. Vibrato all the time is a waste - when used with discretion it makes a note into an emotional dagger. The same goes for straight-singing. I am personally much more post-modern. I don't believe in right-wrong, black-white, on-off. This is an incredibly rich and powerful repertoire if performed as such. I don't think modern players have any less claim to it, but all that perform it need to be aware of its inherent differences, and the distinct approach one must have to bring it to life.

And then there is how to stage it...

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