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Classical 101

Old Versus New, Or Vice Versa?

ADAM - TWO AUDIO PIECES These days when we hear Vivaldi, Bach, or Handel in recordings, we're more likely than not to hear a period instrument performance.  This usually refers either to restored instruments of the 18th century or earlier--depending on the music--or to modern reproductions made to duplicate their  sound and appearance as much as possible. The aim most often is to reproduce the sound and style of performance that music scholars believe audiences at that time would have heard.  And just to complicate matters a bit more, there's also "historically informed performance practices" on modern instruments--more practical for many groups performing in concert--which is a kind of compromise. As music evolved from the Baroque era through the Classical, Romantic, and Modern periods, the style of the music and the instruments themselves evolved and changed. For example, metal flutes replaced wooden flutes,  newly developed valves and keys allowed woodwind and brass instruments to play notes more accurately, and stringed instruments went from using gut strings to metal strings, among other changes in the design of the instruments themselves. Consequently, they became louder and the sound itself was different from the older instruments. Composers usually write music for the instruments commonly available to them, so there's not too much of a problem for a conductor or performer of the composer's time to figure out how it's supposed to sound given the music score to work from. However, by the middle of the 20th century, playing music written over 200 years earlier involved many subjective interpretations about how those pieces should sound and be played.  The differences in the instruments themselves and the performance traditions that evolved during that time significantly changed the way older music sounded in concert. With modern historical scholarship and a curiosity about exactly what Bach's music may have sounded like in his own time, the the period instrument movement got going in a big way beyond those who had been specializing in Renaissance and medieval music. So, where does that leave us as music lovers today?  For one thing, it gives us a great variety of choices in recordings of the same works that sound and feel very different from each other.  For instance, listen to The English Concert (a fine period instrument group) with Trevor Pinnock conducting a Bach Brandenburg Concerto in "authentic" style, and then listen to an older recording of the same concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic (a great modern orchestra) led by Herbert von Karajan. There's a world of difference that's quickly apparent even to someone new to listening to classical music.  The lighter, more transparent orchestral textures, the sprightly rhythms and often quicker tempos are easily distinguished from the sound of a larger modern orchestra with a bigger body of strings creating a more lush full sound with "heavier" textures, sometimes less rhythmic buoyancy and more likely slower tempos (Karajan was especially known for the smooth, polished sound he created with his orchestra). Pinnock [audio:pinnock.mp3] Karajan [audio:karajan.mp3] Which performance is better:  The "older" one (1965) with the newer modern instruments and more romantic performance style?  Or the "newer" one (1982) with the older-style instruments and more "authentic" period performance techniques? Since the 1970s when the period performance movement really got moving, there's been much--sometimes heated-- debate about whether it's appropriate at all to perform Baroque and earlier music on modern instruments.  The issues and arguments can get pretty complex and involved, but  I believe ultimately it comes down to what moves you emotionally as well as what stimulates you intellectually. When you listen carefully to a performance, you know which one you like more. That's the one to choose. But if your curiosity is piqued, listen to other ones too.  There's a world of great music out there.