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.