Thursday, 10 March 2011

Lay that sackbut down, babe, lay that sackbut down!

I confess: I generally prefer my Bach, Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven played on modern instruments, not period instruments. This is heresy, I know. My friends, the ones interested in such things, disagree with me, but they're nice about it. I've known other, more fundamentalist members of the original-instruments faction who aren't so tolerant. Believe me, if they read this, they'll be coming after me brandishing sackbuts, flageolets, and crumhorns.

I can only go by what my ears tell me. For sheer poetry, my favorite among the innumerable versions of Vivaldi's Four Seasons is Neville Marriner's magical 1960 recording using the Thurston Dart edition. For sheer excitement, I turn to Charles Mackerras' 1960s recording of Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks using modern brass and woodwinds. No period keyboard has ever transported me the way Alfred Brendel does on a modern piano in his 1976 recording of Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue and Prelude (Fantasy). And I'm not ashamed to say I still enjoy Leopold Stokowski's orchestral transcriptions of Bach.

Granted, hearing great works as they were originally heard is historically interesting, and the trend toward “historically informed” performance has had beneficial effects. Conductors today seem to pay more attention to clarity and transparency, and to crisp, sprung rhythms, than they used to. I also admit the period-instruments crowd have won the argument in the public marketplace. So completely have they won that when I was looking for a recording of Sir Hamilton Harty's suite from Handel's Water Music, once a concert staple, I was hard-pressed to find one.

My favorite recording of Messiah remains Sir Thomas Beecham's controversial 1950s version, in still-good stereo sound, from the edition prepared by Sir Eugene Goossens. Just for the record, Mozart also re-orchestrated Messiah, so “inauthentic” performances go back a long way. I had the Mackerras recording of the Handel-Mozart Messiah on LP, and it's as historically “uninformed” as Handel-Goossens-Beecham.

I've been lured by many Messiahs in my time (haven't we all?) but I keep going back to Beecham. His sublime way with the “pastoral symphony.” The shattering “Thou shalt dash them,” sung for all it's worth by opera tenor Jon Vickers. The “Hallelujah” chorus, complete with an almost-over-the-top accelerando near the end.

A few years ago when I played the Beecham Messiah for George Rose, an old college friend and original-instruments guy, his reaction was one of bemused tolerance. George is knowledgeable in both music and Shakespeare. He's an authenticist when it comes to Baroque music, yet in Shakespeare he's open to modern acting style and directors' re-imaginings of the plays.

Isn't Shakespeare performed in modern style similar to Handel performed on modern instruments? This question raises other questions, addressed here to a more scholarly reader (you know who you are): Is there any way to know what Elizabethan acting style looked and sounded like? How would “historically informed” performances of Shakespeare plays be perceived by a modern audience?

Bach, Handel, and Mozart wrote for the instruments available to them at the time. What they would have thought about hearing their music played on modern instruments is unknowable. It's fun guessing, though.

Here's Handel on the act of composition:

Whether I was in my body or out of my body as I wrote it I know not. God knows.”

Here's Mozart on Handel:

"Handel understands effect better than any of us—when he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt."

Out-of-body experiences. Thunderbolts. To me these are the words of composers who would have welcomed, and revelled in, the sonorities and dynamics made possible by modern instruments. My guess is that Handel would have loved Beecham.

Academies of ancient music” are not for me. Great music is a living thing, not something from the past to be replicated. When you're listening, it's an experience in the present tense. Imagine young jazz musicians playing early New Orleans style on old, second-hand, Civil War-era instruments. Yes, it would be interesting to hear what Buddy Bolden and his confreres might have sounded like, but personally I'd rather give these musicians the best instruments and let 'er rip.


  1. I would give a lot to see a Shakespeare play as it was performed in 1600, but the videotapes haven't surfaced as yet. The modern reconstructions of the Globe theater are accurate-- after all, there are illustrations and in some cases the builders' contracts have survived. But the style of acting itself, though much written about, is absolutely unrecoverable. In 1600, it was becoming more "natural" but no one can possibly guess the degree of stylization or formality from which it altered. Acting is always becoming more natural -- look at contemporary movies as compared to 1930s movies; we think the acting is more natural -- but is it? Is it possible that films made in 2010 will look as artificial to viewers in 2060 as the older films do to us. Acting, despite its claims, is always non-natural. But how artificial was Elizabethan acting? It's a sure thing that a stage that featured boys playing women and in which most of the dialogue was written in blank verse and had to be projected to 2000 people, outdoors, did not strive to be natural. It's a good guess that the intent was more to impress than to deceive. I suspect that actors performed in a discordant mixture of styles, the comedy lower than we can imagine and the great speeches much more oratorical. I think we would be disappointed. But in fact no one knows.
    I like to hear authentic instruments for the novelty of the experience. I generally prefer modern instruments, which sound better and are more flexible. I also suspect that the skill level of modern musicians is much higher than in the past. -

  2. May I quote, James, the Earl of Young, on this matter: "Man, it 't'ain't whatcha do, it's the way hot-cha do it," or words to that effect -- taken from the Trummy Folio.