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CLASSICAL CORNER ‌ Puzzling Over Period Performances

Authentic ancient music to match our historical vibes



There's been truckloads of debate among classical music types in recent decades over the so-called "period performance" movement: the revival of centuries-old music as played on the instruments it was originally written for -- or, in most cases, their replicas. Period performance pushers often aim to emulate the interpretive styles and spirit of these old eras as well. Most modern classical fans first heard Baroque and earlier music on modern instruments, played with contemporary style and techniques. Even the great J.S. Bach was ignored by the musical public for centuries until Leopold Stokowski's lush, romanticized orchestral transcriptions of his music came along (remember Fantasia?). Trouble was, many concertgoers assumed Bach was meant to sound like that.

But back then, Bach and his contemporaries were actually composing for much smaller orchestras, whose members played the primitive ancestors of modern instruments. Stringed instruments as we know them today had been perfected, but the gut strings and Baroque bows of the day made them sound very different. Brasses and woodwinds lacked the fancy valves and metal keys that they now sport, and had a rougher, more primitive sound.

Also, performance techniques and styles were radically different, as we know from "how-to" guides left us by leading musicians of the day. Strings were then played with minimal vibrato, producing thinner, more searing sonorities. Vocal and choral methods were something else entirely. Instruments were tuned to different pitches, to boot.

Anti-PP forces argue that re-creating all this makes for ugly, old-fashioned noise. They contend that ancient instruments are no better than museum pieces compared to their modern equivalents. PP apologists counter that today's richer symphonic sound hardly suits early music, and defeats much of the brisk rhythmic punch and drive that conveys its true spirit.

Granted, it took the PP camp a while to get it right -- early efforts in the 1970s and '80s often sounded clumsy and bizarre. But as they gradually perfected their craft, their music simply began to sound right: one could easily imagine the great masters living in such sound-worlds.

Before long, Classical-era ensembles embraced the trend, and now we have period performance recordings of Mozart and Haydn -- even Beethoven -- sounding very different indeed from the "big-band" readings that most of us grew up with. Still, how can anyone know how music really sounded in Handel's or Mozart's day? The whole notion of period performance, at the end of the day, is no more than educated guesswork.

If you ask me, it's all a big tempest in a teapot. Great music transcends performance practice -- you can count on it to speak for itself. I own CDs of many famous works in both PP and modern accounts, and treasure them all. Modern instruments and interpretations certainly sound smoother and more refined -- but what fault can there be in striving for the actual sound and spirit that the composer intended?

Charleston, hung up on history as she is, could use a resident PP Baroque ensemble or two. (Steve Rosenberg's excellent early music ensembles come close, but don't quite count.) After all, couldn't the actual sounds that once graced her old homes and churches lend our hometown's fabled ambience a more authentic ring?

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