Music’s Never-Ending Story (2/2)

Post-war directions
After 1945 fascination of the baroque flared up in an unprecedented way, but in novel directions. Conductors like Carl Münchinger had much more interest in the eighteenth century and were more respectful of its styles. Moreover, they eschewed the romantic way of making music. Münchinger’s early Decca recordings of the Four Seasons is surprisingly ‘straight’: to be sure, modern instruments are used, but the tempos are strictly adhered to, and the band is a small one. This mono recording effectively launched the Vivaldi craze, which has scarcely abated to this day.

While Münchinger used modern instruments, a number of musicians decided they stood a far better chance of matching eighteenth-century performances if they used contemporary instruments; along this route lay a sort of purity. Alfred Deller founded the Deller Consort in 1950, which was vital to the revival of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century music, and he was instrumental in reintroducing the male alto voice after long neglect. Gone were the days when conductors could confidently espouse a devil-may-care approach to sonority and phrasing in their performances. Violins had to have gut strings, tension on the strings was reduced, baroque oboes and natural horns replaced the strikingly different modern instruments.

These trends can be heard in the pioneering recordings of Harnoncourt – whose Brandenburg Concerto and B minor Mass recordings caused a sensation – and in the important joyful, popularising performances of the much-missed David Munrow and his Consort.

The authentic movement had moved into the starting lane of what was to become an astonishingly successful industry of period-instrument performance. Record sales rocketed. Collectors were fascinated by the prospect of hearing Handel as he might have heard it; conductors Christopher Hogwood and John Eliot Gardiner sometimes rivalled the sales of rock musicians. Why this was so is hard to say, for although the authenticists adopted some aspects of the historical originals, they also reflected a truly modern obsession with literalism, at the expanse of musical imagination and expressive communication. Some attribute the success of the authentic-performance groups to modern self-doubt and insecurity.

Taking pre-war and recent recordings of, say, a baroque concerto, we hear many differences: there is less vibrato, strings have an agreeable edge that only gut strings give, dynamics are somewhat reduced, players try to phrase in a baroque manner without the delicate shading of the romantic style, and tempos tend to be livelier. Above all, one senses a greater ease and responsiveness in the instruments to the music. The technical abilities of the players have now improved out of all recognition. In the great centres, among them London, Amsterdam and Boston, one can hear groups every bit as accomplished as their colleagues in the symphony orchestras and string quartets.

Meanwhile, back in the study
Just as performers and their trend-setters found themselves retreating from nineteenth-century performing patterns and absorbing massive quantities of new repertory, often baroque in origin, so too were the composers. They rejected the half lights and dreams of the romantic period; Wagnerian orchestration with all its instrumental doubling and monumentality seemed to embody a decadent or over-ripe culture. In contrast, the baroque had solid virtues of clarity, clearly incisive articulation, and straightforward expressive intentions. Anyone reluctant to probe into the subconscious recesses of a new Tristan found all that was healthy and musical in the baroque, especially the baroque concerto.

Stravinsky based whole works on baroque models. Dumbarton Oaks is the product of his immersion in the Brandenburg Concertos. What he liked about baroque music was the way in which each movement acquired energy and dynamism from the opening motive, rather like setting a top spinning; it wasn’t dependent on the anecdotal ‘story telling’ of romantic melody. Instead of crescendos or transitions between sections, Bach follows the baroque technique of blocking out dynamics, sections and instrumental groups in the ritornello-concertino manner. This block construction with terraced dynamics and relatively unblended orchestration was taken up by Stravinsky and his many imitators in their neo-classical works. But no matter what he took from the past, Stravinsky always sounds like pure, undiluted, twentieth-century Stravinsky.

Today the baroque influence is as great as ever. The English composer Peter Maxwell Davies has been writing a series of concertos based on the seemingly inexhaustible model of the Brandenburgs, and he is certainly not alone. The popular ‘minimalist’ Michael Nyman incorporated extensive ‘borrowings’ from Purcell into a Pulcinella-like fabric of resounding originality – the film score of The Draughtsman’s Contract (the famous number ‘Chasing Sheep’ is an ingenious reworking of the tiny prelude to Act 3 of King Arthur). The twentieth-century love affair with the baroque seems set to continue for a while.

Classic CD magazine, 1996

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