Wednesday 11 May 2016

How to be HIP - from listening to Adelina Patti to an 18th century Scots dance band

Clare Salaman
Clare Salaman
Study Day: How to be HIP – Historically Informed Performance; Here and Now, Why and How; Richard Wistreich, Stevie Wishart, David McGuiness, Clare Salaman; Kings Place
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
Richard Wistreich
Richard Wistreich, founder of Red Byrd and Director of Research at the Royal College of Music, talked about Reconstructing Historical Singing – Reality or Fantasy? - the challenge of 'historic singing' in a contemporary environment. In Improvising the Past Stevie Wishart, composer, improviser and instrumentalist, both talked and played as she showed us how she re-creates the music of the past. Whilst David McGuinness, director of Concerto Caledonia, asked the question Is Early Music Classical?, questioning whether the musical lives of the original performers might be better reflected elsewhere in our present-day culture. The day was presided over by Clare Salaman, multi-instrumentalist and director of The Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments, and all four took part in panel discussions and a final Q&A.

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
Adelina Patti as Lucia di Lammermoor
Patti started singing at the age of seven in 1851 and sang her first Lucia di Lammermoor in 1860, a period when the singer-led improvisatory approach was still common. Her manager and coach had studied with Giuditta Pasta (who herself had sung Mozart at a period when Mozart would have been 60). These links are all extremely tempting, but how reliable are they as a basis for reconstructing historical singing?

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.

Stevie Wishart
Stevie Wishart
The issue of how much we don't know came up again in Stevie Wishart's illustrated talk Improvising the Past in which she explained how she came to be performing medieval music after studying to be a composer. She elucidated her journey towards understanding more about medieval music and its performance, and explained how in the absence of secure documentation a large element of improvisation and innovation was necessary. This extended from the music itself to the instruments, where no complete medieval fiddle has survived and Stevie Wishart's one had to be built based in surviving material and visual iconography. Throughout the lecture she not only played recorded examples, but gave us live demonstrations on fiddle and on hurdy-gurdy.

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
David McGuinness
All this changed when CDs came in and commercial pressures brought a greater degree of homogenisation, where the interesting stuff going on was at the edges, whilst globalisation brought a feeling that diversity is lacking.

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.

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