Sunday, 24 August 2014

Historically Informed Performance II: Instrumentation

The second basic difference in modern recordings and HIP recordings is the instrumentation used. In short, HIP recordings try to use instruments and ensembles that the composer would have used in his time, and for which he would have composed. (I am not by any means an expert in this so I will cover this briefly.)

Let's take an example: Bach's Wohltemperierte Clavier. There are many recordings available for this set of Preludes and Fugues, and there are many choices of instrument out there.

Most people would probably think that the most obvious choice for a HIP recording is one on the harpsichord. In fact, that is mostly correct. Harpsichords were popular and widely composed on in 1722, and most of the Preludes and Fugues would have been intended for one. But is it the only instrument on which Bach would have heard them? 

Bach's original harpsichord, which he owned the last twenty years of his life

In fact, sometimes we simply assume that all the pieces in WTC were all composed together for the same purpose. The fact is that Bach, when constructing this collection for his students and for his children, used older fugues and recycled new material. This poses tricky questions regarding interpretation, as some of these are unclear regarding instrument; some are even organ pieces.

A clear example is the A minor fugue from WTC I.

Highlighted in red, we can see the tonic pedal lasting four and a half bars, which is physically impossible to maintain without the use of a pedal (on a piano). The only other alternative is that this is an organ fugue arranged for keyboard (that pedal note being more metaphorical than not).

So, there are problems when interpreting these pieces, regarding instrumentation. I personally like Gustav Leondhart's harpsichord recording, yet the pedal in this fugue is obviously not played fully. So maybe it would be better to listen to the WTC set on an organ. 

There are performers who record these on the organ, but then there are some pieces that are obviously harpsichord pieces! 

This is mainly a matter of taste, therefore. Until now I have talked about the instruments that the composer would have used to write the music. But back then, like now, the instrument that the composer used was not necessarily the instrument that would have used in common households. A perfect example of this is the clavichord. The clavichord is like a smaller, weaker harpsichord which was usually used for practice or composition. However, many households had one, instead of a more expensive harpsichord. 

Therefore, due to the fact that the WTC Preludes and Fugues would have been played extensively on a clavichord, shouldn't we also accept this as a genuine option for recordings? (I personally love the clavichord's sweetness and sonority).

Bach's clavichord

Furthermore, the clavichord was still around by the end of the 18th century, and people still owned the instruments in their houses, despite the modern advances of the fortepiano. We can therefore assume that many people would have played Haydn's and Mozart's sonatas on a clavichord, and even some of Beethoven's. In fact, I recently heard a beautiful and convincing recording of Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata on a clavichord, by Wim Winters.

It is most likely that this sonata was composed on a Viennese fortepiano. But people probably still played it on the older and smaller clavichord (and harpsichord).

So really we should redefine what the principles of instrumentation for HIP are: not "performed on the instruments the composer would have used" but "performed on the instruments the musicians of the day would have used".

But... if the composers were happy to hear their pieces played on a clavichord, harpsichord and fortepiano (such as Mozart or even early Beethoven), what prevents us from playing them on a modern piano / violin etc... ? Food for thought. I know what my answer to that question is, but I would like to find out yours. Please comment below and thanks for reading.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Which is your favourite classical music CD?

So, I've been thinking recently about what a gift it is to have music so easily accessible and of such high quality all around us. In particular, I've been thinking about CDs and classical music, after listening to John Eliot Gardiner's Bach cantata set. These recordings are worked at with precision, intelligence, fine musicians and great quality. Bach would most certainly be impressed.

Therefore I'd like to ask you, readers of this humble blog, which classical recording would you place at the top of your list? Would it be Glenn Gould's 1981 Goldberg Variations, Kleiber's rendition of Beethoven's fifth and seventh, Gardiner's Matthäus-Passion?

Leave a comment below and explain why you like your recording. I'm excited to hear your suggestions.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Piece and composer of the day: Tarquinio Merula and his Capriccio Cromatico

After fighting my way through a heavy exam season, I think that I am ready to initiate normal life again. Therefore, to start the summer of with a bang, I'd like to show you all this piece which I've just discovered for myself.

You see, I have just started learning a new "set" of repertoire on the piano, and along with Mozart's 20th concerto, I thought that I'd better add some baroque into my life, as I haven't played any music from this era for a long time.
I chose Bach's "Chromatische Fantasie" as my baroque piece for this season and, whilst doing some background research, I found myself listening to the strangest piece of early baroque music. 

Tarquinio Merula was born in Busseto in 1595- or 94, and was trained in Cremona. A fine violinist, organist and sacred composer, he achieved fame in his life along with several important positions such as maestro di cappella at Cremona cathedral. However, it seems that he was quite a Casanova, having been charged with indecency amongst his pupils. 

Tarquinio Merula

In fact, this general sauciness about him was present in his musical ouvre, composing very rousing works for the time, such as an opera (baroque opera is quite, well, erm... see for yourself), madrigals and canzonettas (both very romantic), which were all the rage amongst the Italian upper classes. One need not look any further than this chromatic piece to realise that Merula was one of those musical bon viveurs that revelled in the fashionable and modern trends of his day, rather like Monteverdi. Also, he helped pioneer many musical forms, such as the aria and trio sonata.

I do hope you enjoy this chromatic little jewel by Merula. I recommend you listen to this great recording, with original temperament (because I'm that historically informed). Let me tell you though, that equally tempered music will sound about ten times better after listening to this recording.


Sunday, 18 May 2014

Review: Andrei Gavrilov with the Bristol Ensemble (18-5-14)

When I first heard that the great Russian pianist Andrei Gavrilov was going to play the two hardest piano concerti ever written in one single concert, I was fascinated. Later on, when I heard that he would attempt the monumental feat without a conductor I was utterly shocked at the thought of such a concert. I was really looking forward to this concert, and I can say that I’ve never quite seen anything like it.

The Russian master Andrei Gavrilov

The Bristol Ensemble conducted by the pianist himself and led by violinist Roger Huckle started the evening of Russian music off by playing Mussorgsky’s “Night on a bare mountain” with flaming bravado and true Sturm und Drang. The technicalities of the piece were well executed by the orchestra, and the piece was conducted most extraordinarily by Gavrilov, demonstrating his overflowing musicality and passion. His freedom in leadership and his total dedication to the mood and atmosphere of the music was captivating to watch and created an instant bond with the audience, creating a thoroughly enjoyable experience.  Perhaps a minor drawback was the lack of power from the string section, but I can almost certainly say that this was due to the hall or to the amount of players (4 desks of first violins).

Then Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto commenced, with its loud brass figure at the beginning followed by punching and then lyrical strings. Gavrilov started, and filled the hall with his sound, playing musically and virtuosically. The music all seemed to flow naturally, with the piano cadenzas captivating the audience and prompting me to the edge of my seat. This was a sophisticated yet zesty performance, with a flawless third movement and a lyrical and rich second movement.

However, Gavrilov’s sound was too aggressive and eager, probably due to the rather timid piano and the lack of a lid. At times, the attack was too much, and the sound drowned itself out, not allowing a full sound to be produced and blurring some faster passages. I can see why Gavrilov would do this, as the piano had to be heard amidst the orchestra and its fiery playing. In spite of this, I do feel that the sound could have been more moderate. 
Having said this, I would much prefer this to be played with Gavrilov’s ebullient sense of performance and musicality however loudly and roughly, than with a shyer and less passionate approach.

Following this captivating display came the outstanding performance of Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto. This was tamer, with a less vigorous approach, which I personally preferred. The first movement was taken at a perhaps faster tempo than usual, which created a brilliant effect and allowed the piece to flow much more easily. The second movement was rapturous, and Gavrilov’s conducting really took the Bristol Ensemble to another level. This swiftly progressed to the vivacious third movement, which was euphorically performed with an incredible musical and technical prowess from Gavrilov. The orchestra adhered to Gavrilov’s musical decisions wonderfully, and performed on a different level than usual. This was also done in the Tchaikovsky. Solos were handled very well, and Roger Huckle led accurately and coherently from the front desk of the first violins, assuming an instrumental role in the performance. The lack of conductor somehow brought the orchestra and the soloist together, creating an essentially intimate affair which led to a musically enthralling performance. 

The whole piece finished fantastically with Gavrilov creating an explosion of sound and playing brilliantly. He captured the essence of the music and was able to transmit that to the audience, even if it meant snapping a string at the end and leaving the piano rather traumatised!

After a standing ovation from the audience and persistent clapping, Gavrilov returned to the stage and performed an exciting encore (Prokofiev?) in a dramatic, but musically sincere way. This adventurous and essentially fun piece finished the evening with a clear message: Gavrilov was enjoying himself, and with his novel but rousing conducting technique and his gobsmacking virtuosity he was able to make the audience enjoy themselves in this unforgettable concert.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Historically Informed Performance I: Tuning

I'm sorry guys, but it's difficult for me to avoid the elephant in the room any longer. Today is the day I shed light on my period performance tastes.

As any musician friend of mine will be able to tell you, I am ardently pro-HIP (historically informed performance) to the end. On this massive series of why I believe that it is the correct and should be the standard way to play any sort of music, I will give you all my reasons and allow you to make a historically informed decision.

Please note, although I said that I think HIP is the correct way of performing music, I would like to stress that that doesn't mean I condemn non-HIP performance, or that I can't appreciate or enjoy a non-HIP performance. In fact, there are many fine non-HIP performances out there, and of course it is your choice to choose which performance practice you like. (I even have some in my CD shelf...don't tell anybody.)

So in this first instalment of this series I would like to talk about the fundamental concept upon which the auditory experience of music relies on: tuning. 

It is common knowledge that today's standardised frequency for the note A (A4 specifically) is 440Hz (Hertz meaning vibrations per second). Well, mostly, but I'll get on to that later.
It is also of fairly common knowledge that period performance practice uses the standardised tuning of A=415Hz. But why? How can the definition of a note change through time, and how do we even know?

In fact, how do we even go about standardising the scientific value of a totally relative and intrinsically subjective concept that is "A"? The answer is, we don't. It is important to establish that A has never been the same. It has always changed from period to period and from region to region. 

But how do we know? In fact, period organs, period flutes, trumpets, horns and other non-tunable instruments can give us a pretty close idea.

The frequency of A differed greatly among the different regions of the western world in the baroque period. It can be safely said that pitch was higher in the north of what is now Germany than in the south, that pitch in Venice was higher that in Rome, and that pitch in France was a totally changeable concept dependant entirely upon the type of music being performed (to be expected from the French, obviously). 

Actually, this clears up a lot of issues. For example, have a look at this excerpt from on of Monteverdi's (Venice) operas:

This is meant to be sung by a soprano. Now, an operatic soprano of nowadays might find this uncomfortable, at is is so surprisingly low. But, if we perform it taking into account the date and period where it was written, it would be easier to perform as the music would sound a semitone higher, according to our ears. 

So how is this important?

Well, there are many examples like those we've just seen from baroque Italy, France and others, so that's a reason.
Another reason this is important, is that music is perceived differently depending on it's pitch. For me, Bach's Mass in B minor actually played in what is to day a B would sound weird.
It is also important for period instrument makers, but fundamentally, it is important for us, the listeners, as we should - in my opinion - hear music as the composer and contemporary audiences heard it.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Piece of the day: 7 Trio pieces for 3 Trautoniums by Paul Hindemith

Firstly, I have to apologise to everybody for not posting for a while. Rest assured I am back and ready to carry on writing.

Onto our subject for today. I must admit I was pretty shocked when I heard these pieces. 

Paul Hindemith - 7 Trio Pieces for 3 Trautoniums (Courtesy of ollavogala)

These seven barely-minute-long pieces written by Paul Hindemith in 1931 are a fantastically rounded set of rarities. They are written in an almost textbook expressionist style, but they never quite leave tonality, always charmingly resolving to a lovely triad at the end. This perfectly matches how the Nazis viewed him as a degenerate atonal artist, but the secretly hoped that he would continue to write in his early tonal style and become an iconic mainstream German composer.

Piece number five is a particular favourite of mine, with its undecided key of G major/minor at the beginning and its quirky style, it makes for a fun (or funny) listen. And number six, for its beautiful middle section and the ethereal sound that it makes. And number seven. And number two. 
In fact I couldn't decide which one I like the most. I honestly love all of them!

But what is most outstanding of these three pieces is the instrument that they were written for. This bizarre electronic creature is called a "Trautonium". It was invented by Friedrich Trautwein in around 1929 and was developed by Oskar Sala until his death. Hindemith took a particular fancy to this instrument, composing various works on it including a Trautonium concerto with strings.

This strange looking instrument has a vague whiff of electric chair about it, methinks

The instrument works by pressing a suspended wire down to a board, thus allowing the flow of electricity to pass and to create a note (or something like that!). There is also a mixer attached to some later models, allowing for sound effect and other possibilities. The expressive capabilities of this instrument are massive, as the player can produce vibrato and control dynamics. However the most important detail is that the player can control the "colours" ("Farben") of the sound, producing a wide variety of sounds that can sound rich, wiry, dense or light. 

Hindemith used all of these fantastic features when writing these pieces. For me, they show a machine-like and industrialised black-and-white world of the early thirties. I like that.


Thursday, 17 April 2014

Piece of the day: Mass for Double Choir by Frank Martin

Frank Martin (1890-1974) isn't a composer that you hear very much of. He was a Swiss composer who spent a large portion of his life in the Netherlands.

Among his works we can find an operatic setting in German of Shakespeare's "The Tempest", two piano concerti, a harpsichord concerto, a 'cello concerto, a violin concerto, a concerto for various wind instruments and six ballades for solo instruments and orchestra. We can also find a symphony, a chamber symphony, a ballet and a requiem mass among other works. His style is fundamentally tonal, but the composer had an atonality phase like most others during the early thirties. 

What's surprising is that he had a great talent for the piano since his early childhood, when he apparently composed full songs at the age of nine before having received formal musical tuition. It seems that his musical studies were not very thorough, having studied music informally whilst reading maths and physics at Geneva University. Later on he worked with Dalcroze, the developer of Eurythmics (a method of musical teaching that focuses especially on kinaesthetic aspects).

But what seemed to spark an interest in the boy was hearing a performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion when he was twelve. Hereon, we can observe a fondness for Bach and the choral genre: he wrote and played on the harpsichord and clavichord, wrote plentiful vocal settings of religious texts and his chamber symphony is somewhat evocative of Bach's fifth Brandenburg Concerto, as the harpsichord and harp perform as soloists, not as a basso continuo. 

This mass in particular has something about it which makes it very individual. It is not like some pieces that feel as if they end prematurely or too late, but it is almost perfectly formed and has a particular sense of continuity in its programmatic style.

There are some features which I would like to point out.
First off, the piece is set brilliantly for double a cappela choir. The part writing shows a high level of craftsmanship, that we might expect from Martin's experience in choral writing.
The piece is really programmatic, with sections of the text being emphasised with the musical phrasing etc...
For example, in the Creed, the phrase "et homo factus est" is sung with a sudden tempo change, making it slow and reverent, almost reflecting the head-bow done in the mass whilst saying this phrase. 
"Crucifixus" is sung with the interval of the tritone, giving it a sense of turmoil. Furthermore, before this, the tenors proclaim "decisively" "begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father" just to get rid of two or three heresies right there on the spot.

The final section that is the "Agnus Dei" sounds truly penitent and bleak, with one choir slaving away at a quasi-drone whilst the other choir sings a rather menacing melody on top of that, which overall really conveys a call for mercy. It also reminds me of the Hebrew slaves asking for mercy and reminiscing (see Psalm 137). 

Overall, Frank Martin's Mass for double a cappela choir is a great work of art which is great to listen to mostly due to its form and line. Especially recommended during this time.

Do tell me what you think!