Magazine article Musical Times


Magazine article Musical Times


Article excerpt

WHY DO THEY play like that?' is the question which inspired this book of author-annotated dialogues, and one which many may be asking as Radio 3 diffuses Bruggen's new version of the Overture to A midsummer night's dream. Whistly flutes sound delightfully pure (or hideously insipid) and the barely post-Baroque strings gutsily focused (or `worse than a school band') depending on your point of view. Never mind 'why' they play like that, it's a miracle that they do: no-one could have dreamt, twenty years ago, that we'd be where we are today, let alone devoting books to discussing why we are.

Sherman has marshalled an eminent band of 20 subjects and for the most part the interviews are pretty successful considering the interview is a rum beast, at best. People repeat themselves, get things wrong, and speak in streams of consciousness which would sprawl over pages if printed verbatim. Sherman doesn't have much to say about how he has intervened, but his framing of the pieces by erudite introductions and useful critical lists of publications and recordings seems to indicate that he knows the limitations of the format. The best of his subjects give a sense of a journey in progress: just when we might have thought we running out of new things to discover, we find that we have hardly started.

There are a few sad omissions: Andrew Parrott somehow couldn't coincide; Harnoncourt as a father-figure ought to have been there; and Emma Kirkby had gone shopping. Sometimes what the interviewees say is clearer from their books (as with Christopher Page), in all cases their recordings say more. But the off-the-cuff remark is not to be despised: try the Dutch cellist Anner Bylsma on authenticity:

'Authentic' means just as alive as it ever was'. Being authentic is, most of all, Aladdin rubbing his lamp: we rehearse some music, and all of a sudden we have the feeling, `Hey! This is right. This is the way it must go'. And I guarantee you that in a year's time, when we hear the tape of that, we will agree that it's not at all how it should go... . It has nothing to do with being historically correct. Nice one! But not really to be taken out of context because Bylsma reads 'history' avidly It's just that he's too wise to believe that you can find in historical documents maxims of 'correctness' and 'incorrectness' which will produce inspired music-making.

The proceedings open with a fluent essay stirring up controversies with a light touch. To my mind, this is the best thing on early music performance since Taruskin's now infamous article (to which Sherman refers at some length). The relationship between musicology and performance leads the way: Rosen's nice-sounding quip about `musicology being to musicians what ornithology is to birds' provokes thought rather than solving the issue. Better is his extension of the comparison: `musicologists can't tell us how it feels to fly'. Susan Hellauer of Anonymous 4 puts it another way: `You can't sing a footnote'. Sherman turns this into a chapter title.

As far as supporters and adversaries of the movement are concerned, two sides are soon identified. On the one side the polished-brogue set lament that `the other side are now playing Brahms' (to be up to date they should have said Debussy). On the other, the leather-substitute, open-toe sandal brigade ask `how can they still be playing Bach on the piano?'

Sherman amusingly interprets this with the aid of in-group and out-group psychology and quotes a few despots such as Pinchas Zukerman: historical performance is `asinine STUFF ... a complete and absolute farce *** AWFUL [...]. Nobody wants to hear that stuff. I don't' (which nicely sums it up - note the absence of the little-phrase `at least' before the emphatic 'I'). Others are more tolerant: I loved Dame Joan Sutherland when she acquiesced to the inclusion of old instruments in a forthcoming recording, `I'm a bit of an old instrument myself'.

The contextualisation of music is an issue on which players are still searching. …

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