Bach and Boulez in a gondola: in defence of modern performance

March 31, 2013

There was a synergy between two articles I read recently, each from a different side of the Atlantic, that struck me as as two sides of a single, crucial attitude to contemporary music, and to modern music-making.

In a recent feature over on icareifulisten on viola-player and exponent of contemporary music, Nadia Sirota, who has commissioned works from several composers including Nico Muhly, Sirota talks about not using music of the Baroque period as a way in to classical music for those new to it; a feature perhaps of teaching music in primary schools in the belief that Baroque’s simple textures and comparatively straightforward harmonic language (ever heard any of the Passion settings by Bach ?!) will offer an access to musical for those unfamiliar with it.

At the same time, music critic Tom Service advises us in a recent Guardian article to be wary of the assumptions fostered by the period-instrument movement that the way we perform Baroque music now is how it should be executed, is what its composers would have expected from contemporaneous performance. As he says, with reference to listening to Mengelberg recording in the 1930s, if we already mistrust performances from over seventy years ago, and greet various performance practices of that time with scorn, how can we safely say what Bach himself would have liked, what Vivaldi would have expected ? Bach would have written for instruments that were, to him, modern, writing for what players around him were capable of playing (and later, in the explorations of Beethoven, sometimes even beyond). Baroque music was realised by its own modern instruments, and so to plunge back into a supposed ‘historically-informed’ or ‘authentic’ school is to deny the possibility of performing Baroque music on instruments of our own time, with our own technical possibilities and approach to performing.

Would Bach have written pieces for the modern piano, or the concert-grand Steinway, if he had been able to do so ? Absolutely. And evolutions in the design of stringed instruments – steel rather than gut strings, differently-shaped bows capable of producing a more sustained sound – that were driven by the desire to enlarge the sound capacity of the burgeoning orchestra playing in larger venues, would be a facility composers may well have seized upon too.

This is not to say that there is no place for period-instrument practice – the scholarly pursuit of practices and traditions from the past is a vibrant way of informing how we might approach one way of realising them in the twenty-first century. But it ought not to deny the progress in instrumentation and ensembles that would make performing Baroque music unacceptable with modern orchestras. It is one way – not the only way. Historically-informed realisations should sit comfortably alongside modern ends, each working to inform the other. Listen to the translucent touch of Andras Schiff playing Bach to hear a Baroque sensibility combined with a modern instrument. And Baroque music isn’t as simplistic as school curricula would have you believe makes it suitable as an introduction to classical music either.

For some listeners, what music is doing now, how it engages with or comments upon modern life, with modern sounds and sound-samples, might be equally as important a way in to classical music as Bach or Vivaldi. The sounds of urban life sampled by Reich in City Life, the almost mystical instruments-meets-electronics of Jonathan Harvey or Pierre Boulez; the bristling rhythmic writing and modern textures of Muhly or Turnage; some of these might fascinate and engage today’s musical neophyte.

20130330-220536.jpgWritten in one age, the music of the Baroque, and of Bach in particular, speaks across all of them, to each age in its own voice, allowing us to hear it through the media of our own time, whilst still celebrating its humanist message. So let’s introduce people to classical music across its entire, dizzying breadth – you can never tell what will (if you will pardon the pun) strike a chord with someone – which includes Reich, Adams, Harvey, or Unsuk Chin. And while we’re doing so, let’s allow room for modern orchestral and instrumental performances of Baroque music. You never know what will float someone’s gondola…

Posted by Daniel Harding