I take a certain perverse pleasure in the fact that there seems to be widespread confusion on exactly what my take is on Historically Informed Performance.
Of course, my skeptical opinions on some well-known HIP-ster conductors (only one, really) are well documented (perhaps too much so for the good of my career), but I do deploy a lot of natural horns, tend to keep close to LvB’s metronome marks and so on. I’m dogmatic that one should not vibrate or not vibrate equally on all notes at all times, but not dogmatic about vibrating or not vibrating beyond that.
And I do deeply admire many HIP performers. In fact, just the other day in the car I was so blown away by a performance I had just heard that I was toying with writing a blog post called “Harnoncourt is a Genius.” I still agree with the sentiment, but decided it didn’t merit a whole post.
Not a genius, though, are most pretenders who stand in front of a modern band and ask them to imitate the sound of a period band, or better yet, the recording of a famous HIP conductor. Not long ago, I actually heard a conductor (with a great career) tell the trumpets and timps of a modern band that he wanted a “sound like Harnoncourt.”
I think it’s absolutely great that modern orchestras, particularly British ones, are so adept at all kinds of performance practice techniques. It is wonderful, and important, that symphony orchestras be able to give convincing performances of classical and baroque repertoire. However, simply imitating period instruments on modern ones does create some dangers, which you have to compensate for.
Sadly, the first thing most people noticed about period bands, especially the early recordings from the 80’s, was the extremely loud and explosive timpani and trumpet playing. When you try recreate the attack of a classical kettledrum being hit at maximum impact on a drum built for Bruckner, disaster follows. Even Harnoncourt, who is a genius, made some dreadful recordings in his early years, where his enthusiasm for the sound of those trumpets and drums led him to completely obliterate many a harmony. Fortunately, he has evolved, but many of his imitators are still just copying the production values of old records rather than learning scores with a historically informed perscpective.
Just the other day, I heard such a performance of Beethoven 7, which I’m working on right now, where every forte note in the trumpets and timpani was unbelievably loud.
The symphony opens with a loud forte chord every other bar for the first 8 measures. In both timp and trumpet, their notes in those bars are a-e-a-a. In this performance, those notes were just about all you could hear.
What a pity. On the first chord, the timp is doubling the basses and celli, but they go on to do more interesting things than the drums. On the second chord, they go down a half step to g#, while the timps go up a fifth to E. When the e overpowers the g#, one actually is hearing a different a chord- one in root position instead of first inversion. As it happens, chords (especially dominants) in first inversion are HUGELY important all through the symphony. Beethoven is telling us to look for them in future with this 2nd chord.
On the next forte chord, the timps and trumpets return again to the tonic, a. That means that in the HIP-lite performance, I heard an A major chord. However, the bass line descends again by half step to g natural. If the volume of the A kills that note off (as it often does), it’s no longer a question of hearing a chord in wrong inversion, but of not hearing the right chord at all. It’s an A7 chord in 3rd inversion, V4/2 of IV for you music students out there, NOT a tonic chord. In the “play like Harnoncourt” version, you just hear tonic, dominant, tonic, instead of tonic, dominant in first inversion, V 4/2 of IV.
Next, the basses continue down by half step again (see a pattern here!) to f#, while the timps land on a The timpani part is static, while the bass line moves (and in such an interesting way!). The “PLH” (play like Harnoncourt) version gives you a D 6/4 chord, while Beethoven wrote a D6 chord (remember, he told us, first inversion chords are important in this piece).
Beethoven has made each 2 bar unit progressively more complex- in the first two bars he uses only solo oboe then violin2 and viola, then clarinets in unison plus oboe counter theme with the same vn/va chord. In the third pair, it’s horns in unison, oboe and 1st clarinet in unison (note how he dumped the 2nd clarinet), then 1st flute with a diminution of the theme in the 2nd bar. Wow!. Finally, in the fourth pair of bars, we have bassoons in octaves, 2nd oboe an octave above them (that’s the theme in 3 octaves!), interesting counter themes in all the other winds and chords on the half bars in the strings. I these chords, the basses continue their chromatic descent which began on a from f# to f natural to e.
Finally it’s up from e to f, then back. So much chromaticism- so much emphasis on that e-f-e relationship. Pity if that’s killed by the drums (I love loud drums, by the way).
I’ll try to keep the rest of this short. The ff section that follows is a varied repetition of the beginning. For all their hard work on those scales, it’s the bass progression in the cellos and basses that’s most important (which is why he didn’t write dots on their low quarter notes!). We want to hear the bass line descend from a to e chromatically again. This is cool too, because LvB uses the same bass line to take us to a new key- C major. What a pity if all we hear on those down beats from 15-20 is a’s and e’s.
Here at letter A we have a cool theme in piano, which gets a varied repetition a few bars later in pianissimo. Note that in the pp version, he switches the V chord to one in first inversion, so the bass again has this motion of up a half step and back down again (in this case b-c-b rather than e-f-e). Still, it tells us that the 1st inversion thing in bar 3 was important, as was the e-f-e motion in bar 8-10.
This builds into a varied repetition of the varied repetition (making someone say that is surely the basis of a good drunk test) of the opening- another ff passage like the one at 14, which begins at 34. Again, the cellos and basses look busy with those scales, but even more important is the bass line itself, which is now an inversion. Instead of a chromatic descent, it is a stepwise ascent. Also interestingly, this statement begins in E instead of A, but E in first inversion- the bass scale starts from g#, not e. What a pity when you hear faux HIP performances where all you get is hammered repetitions of e natural, which not only messes up the inversion of the first chord, but obliterates the entire bass line.
Then it’s our cool theme in piano again, in F instead of C major. It again has a varied repetition beginning in pp, which again starts with an inversion of the dominant chord resolving up by half step to the tonic- e to f! Guess what happens- we seem to get stuck on that f for a long time, and there is a huge crescendo, which ends in a fortissimo e natural for everyone in the band. No longer the e in a C7 chord, but the dominant of A major, and it is this note that dominates the last 10 bars of the introduction (in fact, the last 6 bars are just e’s!).
So, everything in that bass line in the opening turns out to be super important- the chromatic descent, the chromatic neighbor motion from e-f-e, the inversions of all the chords. Nothing is wasted, nothing is by accident.
So, what I want to hear in the first 8 bars, among other things, is a balance between cellos, basses on the one hand and timps and trumpets on the other, is an understanding of that- a recognition that it is important the listener hear the chords and progressions LvB intended.
So, here is a performance of the 1st 8 bars of LvB 7 by a conductor who seems to understand all of this absolutely perfectly in his bones. Listen to the clarity of sound in the bass, and the way that those descending pitches seem to connect through all the silences that separate them.
It is, of course, a performance by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conducting a modern orchestra (Chamber Orchestra of Europe), who are impersonating a period orchestra.
PS- This is by no means the worst thing that can go wrong when modern instruments try to imitate the ferocity of period ones. I heard an otherwise very good performance of Leonore 3 recently where whole 2 bar chunks of melody in the cellos and basses were completely obliterated by brass-timp entrances.
At the end of the day, that gun-going-off-period-band- trumet-and-drum sound is a wicked cool sound effect, but only that and nothing more. If you can deploy it in a way that enhances the musical argument, well done, but if it obliterates important aspects of the piece like harmonic progressions, melodies or counterpoint, you’ve confused noise and music.