Magazine article The Spectator

Capturing a Moment

Magazine article The Spectator

Capturing a Moment

Article excerpt

Stephen Pettitt on how Sir Roger Norrington and others started the debate about 'authenticity'

In the late 1970s, the conductor Sir Roger Norrington, at the time in charge of the late and lamented Kent Opera, created the London Classical Players. With this act Norrington, who has just turned 75, joined a small group of musicians regarded by the wider profession as, to put none too fine a point on it, rather nutty. They included his British colleagues Christopher Hogwood and Trevor Pinnock, the Dutch harpsichordist Ton Koopman and recorder player Frans Bruggen, the Belgian Sigiswald Kuijken, and, from a slightly older generation, the iconoclastic Austrian conductor and viola da gamba player (and noble descendent of European royalty) Nikolaus Harnoncourt and another Dutch harpsichordist, Gustav Leonhardt. All were united in their determination to ditch received wisdoms, deconstructing accepted norms of performance practice and putting it all together again using as their only tools instruments and treatises from the same epoch as the music they were playing.

Suddenly, old violins which had been modernised to cope with the stresses of metal strings at high tension were converted back to their initial states and strung with gut. Players played them without vibrato and with a comparatively low-tension, light baroque bow. They studiously applied the principles outlined in Francesco Geminiani's The Art of Violin Playing and Leopold Mozart's A Treatise on the Fundamentals of Violin Playing. Flautists dug up, or else had expressly made for them from ancient blueprints, wooden instruments which had holes and no elaborate key mechanisms to make covering and uncovering them easier. The baroque and classical flautist's bible was a volume dating from 1725, On Playing the Flute, by Johann Joachim Quantz, flute player, flute maker and composer for Frederick II of Prussia. Other woodwind instrumentalists found their equivalents. Craftsmen turned out lovingly made copies of 18thcentury Stanesby oboes, for instance. Horn players were the bravest of the brave, turning to valveless horns and adjusting the instrument's pitch by shoving a hand slightly indecently up and down its bell. Split notes were fully expected.

Indeed, in those days, what one generally heard from an orchestra of baroque or classical instruments was a scratchy, emasculated, poorly tuned sound. Enthusiasts learned to turn a blind eye, or rather a deaf ear, to that minor inconvenience for the sake of experiencing what was an entirely fresh approach to very familiar music. Phrases would be semi-broken into shorter breaths, sighing slurs abounded, there would be rapid swells and diminuendos, and all was done with passion and an almost complacent certitude that it was, de facto, The Right Way.

And when Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert tore through the Brandenburg Concertos with this new, vibrant energy, embracing Bach's inventiveness rather than revering it, devotees of this new fashion felt at one with the music, seemingly as never before.

Yet for a long time these enthusiasts were outnumbered by those for whom a lowering of absolute technical standards was unacceptable, and to whom the traditional ways of doing things were preferable. The majority still wanted seamless phrasing, lavish vibrato, strong, silky string tone, a homogenous wind choir, and timpani which resonated forever. …

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