Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 7 2016
Absorbing day discussing how historically informed practice can intersect with modern perceptions.
As part of its Baroque Unwrapped season, Kings Place had a study day on 7 May 2016. Though the title might have been cumbersome, Study Day: How to be HIP – Historically Informed Performance; Here and Now, Why and How, the content was fascinating and full of insights into contemporary practice in period performance.
Richard Wistreich started by playing two recordings, the baritone Alberto del Campo singing an extract from Bellini's La Sonnambula recorded 118 years ago in 1898, and the rather better known recording of soprano Adelina Patti singing Voi que sapete recorded in 1905 (you can hear the recording on YouTube). He asked whether we can hear echoes of the singers' teachers in these (and the teachers teachers). The Patti recording in particular is known because Patti's performance seems bizarre to us today and has been dismissed as the aberration of a singer who was past it (she was 62 when it was recorded and had been retired for 10 years). But when Patti heard the recording she loved it, unlike many singers from the period hearing themselves for the first time, and most of what she does in the recording can be linked to historical texts. So can we see her lack of vibrato, use of glissandos, portamentos, rallentandos, mid-phrase accelerandos, appogiaturas and register changes as being an echo of 19th century style rather than an old woman's drift towards Florence Foster Jenkins?
|Adelina Patti as Lucia di Lammermoor|
Richard Wistreich argued that this reconstruction was no greater challenge than that faced by early period instrumentalists, and period instrumental performance has travelled a long way in the last 80 years combining a mixture of informed curiosity and an energy for renewal arising out of musicology. Though more recently there have been the inevitable compromises between musicology and everyday practicalities, as well as limits to the tolerance of audiences for innovation. Wistreich cited the case of Bach's 'choral music' where there is hard evidence of performance in Bach's own day using one singer to a part, but great resistance to 'giving up anachronistic yet treasured choral performance'. The question of pitch and transposition in Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610 is another case in point. These illustrate the limits of of the symbiosis between academic musicology and performers.
When talking about historically informed performances of music dating between 1450 and 1790 there is a significant elephant in the room, the singing voice. Rene Jacobs stated in an interview that there are 'no baroque voices', and 'the voice doesn't evolve', a position which Richard Wistreich feels is by and large accepted in conservatoires. But he pointed out that whilst the physical organ has not changed, vocal production is culturally and ideologically constructed. At the moment though there are plenty of polished performances, they have only a tenuous concept of historical singing as regards vocal technique.
Richard Wistreich asked whether the pursuit of historical truth was an illusion because we tend to pick and choose the elements used. He asked the question, if we reconstructed baroque vocal technique would we like it, and is it worth it?
He went on to talk about what we know of 17th and 18th century vocal techniques, and the importance of the technique of depressing the larynx when singing high. Depressing the larynx came in in the early 19th century, and before when singers sang in their upper register the results would have be rather different to what we are used to today. Richard Wistreich talked about other vocal techniques used in the 17th century, and demonstrated a modern singer who had learned new techniques. He played a recording by Nigel Rogers of a song by the tenor who created the role of Orfeo in Monteverdi's L'Orfeo. Nigel Rogers singing the fast passagework using articulation from the throat (something extensively practised in the 17th century) was remarkable.
Finally Richard Wistreich said that reconstruction of historic vocal techniques required a combination using what fragments of knowledge we have with informed guessess and that it was important to avoid making claims to be historical when one was not.
After lunch David McGuiness asked the question, Is Early Music Classical?. His initial answer was equivocal and quoted Bruce Haynes as saying that music from the pre-1800 period is profoundly anti-classical. To elucidate the interaction between history and tradition which takes place, David McGuiness first of all took us on a whistle-stop tour of the early days of the Early Music movement when it was indeed very alternative, a reaction against the post-war attitudes. Not only a rejection of mainstream orchestral practice, but a sense of alternative culture, very much associated with the eco movement (all muesli, lentils and sandals) and David McGuiness added that there was an interesting study to be done in the history of queer culture and Early Music. At this period, the music wasn't strictly classical, it didn't sound like mainstream classical music.
David McGuinness went on to give examples from his own recording experience with the interface between 18th century Scots music and traditional Scots fiddling, demonstrating the importance of the non-Classical Scots fiddle tradition to the performance of what is perceived of as Scots classical music. His own feeling was the at some point in the process you have to take your historical hat off and simply be a musician.
And the answer to Is Early Music Classical?. David McGuinness finished with the thought that the answer was 'most of the time, but the really interesting bits most often are moments that are not'! And I am now extremely keen to hear Concerto Caledonia's recordings The Revenge of the Folk Singers and Nathaniel Gow's Dance Band
The day ended with a panel discussion and Q&A which brought up all sorts of issues which had been raised during the day. Clare Salaman commented that it had been so valuable to be able to get together with colleagues to talk about the matters of interest to them, and one of the fascinations about the panel discussions was the issues sparked by discussions.
Elsewhere on this blog:
- Beethoven, Dvorak & a constellation: Trio Celeste - CD review
- Strongly characterised: new music by Reiko Füting - CD review
- Intimate charm: Handel's Acis and Galatea - Concert review
- Impressive achievement, vibrant sound: Elgar's Symphony No. 1 from Trinity Laban Symphony Orchestra and members of WNO Orchesta, conductor George Jackson - concert review
- The delight of having both: Mendelssohn & Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream at Middle Temple Hall - theatre review
- Much to admire: ENO season launch - new article
- Finely sung: Folk song of the British Isles from the Armonico Consort - CD review
- Engaging enchantment: Ensemble Pygmalion's Rheinmädchen - CD review
- Highly engaging: The Sixteen in Monteverdi's 1650 collection - CD review
- Remarkable rediscovery: Classical Opera in Jommelli's Il Vologeso - Opera review
- Passionate intensity: Schnittke's Penitential Psalms - CD review
- Sheer brilliance: Charles Owen & Katya Apkeisheva in Stravinsky's Rite of Spring at Rhinegold Live - concert review