Here we go again! ‘Original’ versus ‘modern’ in Baroque repertoire

… take Handel’s Op. 6 concertos – the (period instrument) Il Giardino Armonico set … marvellous … some others too … but what about the likes of Scherchen, Richter, Busch, Karajan, Schneider, Neel, Lehmann, even Marriner and Leppard …  are these guys merely past-masters who were good in their day but who are unsuitable for our more scholarly age, or do they still have something to tell us?

21 thoughts on “Here we go again! ‘Original’ versus ‘modern’ in Baroque repertoire

  1. David

    I’m excited to see what Andris Nelsons will be offering when he starts doing more Bach. Although he used to say this music was best done by specialists, he has apparently recently come round to the idea that there is such depth in the music that it will stand up to modern performance styles.

    I happen to agree. To me, baroque music can be given wings equally by impassioned C19th style performances, but where would we be without the grace and poise of ‘period’ performances? To me the two are not mutually exclusive but enrich each other – a fine and necessary counterpoint, methinks!


    1. My thoughts exactly David. When it comes to period instruments I’d (often) add excitement to ‘grace and poise’. But that depth that Nelsons speaks of does indeed respond to any number of approaches … some may scoff at Mengelberg’s St Matthew Passion or Furtwängler’s Fifth Brandenburg but strange as they are (or can be) to modern ears it’s worth attending to them just to see what they have to teach us … which in my humble opinion is a great deal.


      1. Steven Swalbe

        Willi taught us much. Modern ears need to be readjusted. I have BWV 1050 with him. Give me the hiss and the scratches any day, as apposed to the modern ‘perfect’ turgid performances. There is NO modern decent interpreter with period instruments. Bach should be played as Bach wanted it, not as some weirdo thinks he should be executed today. The CLASSICAL SLAYERS under #NORRINGTON (may he rot) desecrated my music GOD’s music. I will curse them for ever and the morons who lauded him. According to them Furti, Toscanini, Richter, Barenboim, Beecham, Karajan, Thielemann, Bernstein etc. must have been garbage.


      2. Steven Swalbe.

        HNY Rob! If you can stomach it, my views are always outspoken on anyone or anything; so if I vehemently attack an artist, I reprent the views of the silent majority. I hate to see composers’ great opi mutilated. Even if I am a Knappertsbusch fan, I’ll still condemn his ‘Fidelio’. As for the cretins who go for the mm values? The early values were erroneous. Try op.106 at mm =138 (LvB’s only mm indication.) or scherzo at 80!! Shmonsez! You see whereto I am leading. zzzz? This always gets me going. Maelzel even stole the metronome from Winkel and patented it. HvB was born in 1830. Did he ever talk to LvB about mm values in the sonatas.? Amen.


  2. Jeremy Pound

    I’m always astonished that people hold such vehemently opposing opinions on this, Rob – some of the bile that gets directed at period instrument performances in particular is just extraordinary.

    I was brought up with the period instrument sound in my ears – as a chorister I sang on a number of occasions with the AAM under Christopher Hogwood – and as a result I currently find, say, Klemperer’s Matthew Passion decidedly stodgy and strangely mannered. However, Michael Tanner, whose opinion I respect enormously, rates the same performance as one of the greatest recordings ever made.

    As far as I’m concerned, we are both right. Works are there to be interpreted in a number of ways, and the possibility that one day I might come round to Klemperer’s version is exactly what makes music in general so constantly appealing.


    1. I suspect that Michael’s opinion chimes with mine about that Furtwängler Brandenburg too, for all its mangled sound and slow pacing. I agree with you. There’s room for both. And it’s not even that simple: Huberman, Heifetz and Busch in the Bach violin concertos are actually closer to the modern view of things than you’d imagine they might be, even though each is very individual.


  3. Period instrument performance is very important, but it can only go so far with ‘historical accuracy’. Unlike the times when the music was written we are listening to it with ears that have heard Beethoven, Wagner, and Debussy. So I think all approaches are valid as they’ll bring the music to life in different ways – the result may not always be to our tastes but I mostly prefer a performance that is musical over one that is historically ‘correct’ but dull. Of course, it’s possible to do both, as many do!


  4. Bendor Grosvenor

    Usually when I see a poster advertising a performance with ‘instrumenti originale’, I think of out of tune tourist shows. Which shows you the extent of my exposure to period instruments I suppose.

    But my view has usually been; if Bach had the choice of hearing is his music played on the most technically advanced instruments, wouldn’t he have said yes, and embraced them?


    1. Just think of Heifetz, Milstein, Szeryng, Szigeti or Grumiaux in the solo violin sonatas, or Gould, Loesser, Feinberg and Tureck playing the ’48’. Give us a break! – these were greats and no mistaking.


      1. Bendor Grosvenor

        Not sure I understand what you mean. I was making a (rather inarticulate) point about the instruments themselves rather than individual performers.

        Hi Bendor – not sure that what turned up as a response from me was in the right place … but in any case I agree with you! Best. Rob

        Liked by 1 person

    2. David

      I think sometimes by understanding the limitations of the instruments for which the music was written, it helps gain valuable insights into what the composer is trying to do; things which on a modern instrument seem like a lack of imagination are in fact an ingenious way of making an older instrument’s limitations into something special.

      I understand the argument about seeing music performed on something technically advanced, but that again is down to subjectivity. Someone with some very powerful version of Midi might eventually be able to synthesize a whole orchestra to a vaguely satisfactory level. And that’s technically incredibly clever. In fact it goes on in pop music all the time – sampling and suchlike. But generally I find it distasteful and hate the result! To bring this back round to the period instruments, it’s sometimes about more than a technically beautiful instrument; it’s about a mindset too.

      Having said that, I do love playing organ works as duets at the piano with someone else playing the pedal line in octaves below!


    3. Jeremy Pound

      Well, yes and no. It’s worth bearing in mind that Bach’s craftsmanship extended to writing his vocal lines, and specifically the words, to match the sound of the instruments that were accompanying them. Many of the instruments of his time had a rougher, earthier sound than their more modern ‘technically advanced’ equivalents, and so tend to meet his intentions more closely.


  5. Stephen Kenny

    It usually strongly depends on the performance, for exactly Bach’s Christmas Oratorio has never sounded as vibrant as with Peter Schreier and the Dresden Staatskapelle in a modern performance. Equally a period performance of Judas Maccabaeus with Ensemble Les Agrémens under Leonardo García Alarcón is currently difficult to find an equal by my ears, especially with regards any contemporary instrument effort.
    This kind of question usually hangs on the performance itself and the period specialists by their very definition play and study this music more often, so more likely than not it would be expected they would provide a better performance. However, some pieces just sound better on certain instruments such as how I feel about the Weinachtsoratorium.


  6. Stephen – I remember Nikolaus Harnoncourt telling me that the main reason he and his colleagues combed German churches for old instruments wasn’t so much because they wanted to play Bach’s music on instruments from Bach’s own time as because, having played so many marmoreal Bach performances as a cellist with the Vienna Symphony, he, NH, thought – no, he knew – that the music sounded better on the older instruments.


  7. Longinus

    Some speeds (and with that goes articulation, vibrato, phrasing, attack) just seem to me to be inappropriate. I think the Giardino Armonico Handel Op6 are ridiculous while Pinnock is just right. The Harnoncourt Matthew Passion from the 70s is groundbreaking whereas I cannot bear to listen to the Klemperer. So all that is personal and can’t be settled objectively. But I do think that the HIP approach has been responsible for bringing back to us music that was largely neglected or forgotten – most Bach Cantatas, many Handel Oratorios (Joshua/Saul, e.g.), Biber, Zelenka, Schuetz, Carissimi, Buxtehude and many more. They were not really viable in a slower, heavier, chunkier, long-breathed performance style. I also find some comments about Bach solo partitas puzzling – aren’t they *easier* on baroque instruments, in terms of chording? I really don’t like the enormous spread chords which are unavoidable with modern instruments, and which always slow down the phrase. This just seems to me an area where HIP is just better, pace Heifetz or Accardo.


  8. Interesting. Yes they are ‘easier’ (on the ear as well) than crunchy spread chords, but that’s just one aspect of the playing. The aspects that I especially like – and that the HIP crew would probably view as accumulated detritus – are more to do with expressive range. Not that period instruments don’t have any, more that modern instruments offer some viable interpretative alternatives. Is it perhaps a generational issue? I hope not, for my sake, but I do think that if over the years you’ve grown to love something you take other views on board as supplements; sometimes they overtake your first loves, sometimes not.


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