Early Music 2016
Crossing boundaries in an ever-changing world
In 2016, the theme of open and closed borders and their crossing dominated political discourse in Germany and upset the country’s traditional political party structure. During this past year, it also played a major role in the early music movement, though in a totally different sense. Here, though, instead of national boundaries, the issue was the overstepping of traditional boundaries in early music into other eras and styles, all the way to folk, pop, and jazz.
The guiding principle of historical performance practice for the last few decades has been to strive for the most precise reconstruction possible of the way a musical work was originally performed, from the choice of original scores and period instruments to questions of orchestration, tempo, and the revitalization of phrasings and adornments specific to earlier eras. Now, though, more and more performers are engaging in a highly creative dialogue with this music, aware of the impossibility of arriving at a 100% accurate reconstruction of historical ways of playing and hearing, and of knowing the large share of improvisational components in the music composed from the Middle Ages to Mozart that were never written down. We have seen a shift in the notion of “authenticity,” which used to mean playing in the most “authentic” manner possible, meaning in respect of the composer’s intentions; now, though, the sense of the performer’s “authenticity” counts for much more. As in politics, this opening of boundaries involves both risks and opportunities.
Nary a Festival without some form of crossoverThe fact is, that barely any early music festivals are still characterized by original sound purism. Even the highly traditional Regensburg Early Music Festival had flamenco dancing on its 2016 program. The Cologne Early Music Festival (which had merged with the Cologne Early Music Players) opened with Underground Railroad songs from the US Civil War era. The Göttingen Handel Festival saw jazzed-up versions of Handel’s music, and the Heinrich Schütz Music Festival invited Christina Pluhar as its artist in residence, a performer who has made a name for herself with her spectacular crossover projects. She played a lot of traditional music from across the Mediterranean at her concerts in Gera, Dresden, and Weißenfels… though nothing by Schütz.
We could brand this trend as a sign of decline, at a time when it is no longer seems possible to arrive at a new, pivotal interpretation of for example Bach’s Cantatas, the way that the great original sound pioneer Nikolaus Harnoncourt (who died in 2016) had once succeeded in doing. However, such objections fade away when we see how an ensemble such as Christina Pluhars’ L’Arpeggiata won over its audiences with all its ravishing skill and vitality. Or, for example, at this year’s Herne Early Music Festival, when we heard the ensemble Graindelavoix, which played Guillaume de Machaut’s Messe with a sound aesthetic that incorporated folk music elements. However controversial these performances may have been in terms of music history, they were incredibly intense.
Prizewinners without any blindersOnce again, the artist’s personality is of primary importance. A new generation has emerged that moves quickly and uninhibitedly between different genres. Alongside early music giants Jordi Savall and Andreas Staier, the 2016 ECHO prizewinners included musicians such as recorder player Stefan Temmingh, whose repertoire ranges from baroque to contemporary music, or shepherd’s pipe virtuoso Katharina Bäuml and her Renaissance ensemble Capella de la Torre, who makes lively forays with her instrument into the realms of jazz and new music. The Deutschlandfunk Advancement Award at the Bremen Music Festival went to the young harpsichordist Jean Rondeau for a CD on which he plays Bach’s music with great respect but also creativity. For example, he plays Brahms’ transcription of Bach’s Chaconne not on the piano, but on the harpsichord.
Upraoar in CologneOf course such crossing over boundaries also requires a receptive audience. The lack of such openness can, in a worst-case scenario, instead give rise to controversy, as occurred in February 2016 at the Cologne Philharmonic during a concert by harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani with the Concerto Köln ensemble. The Bach family pieces and relatively modern music that the musicians had put on the bill received friendly applause at first. But when Esfahani began to play his transcription of an early Steve Reich composition, commotion and uproar spread through the concert hall. The noise level rose so high that the Iranian harpsichordist was forced to stop, an unprecedented event in recent memory that was swiftly seized upon by arts sections of newspapers across Germany, who unanimously viewed the performance with horror.
In the ensuing debate, the public’s reaction was often construed as xenophobia, especially by journalists who weren’t even local. When we consider that the first half of the concert didn’t trigger any negative reactions, it becomes clear that this rejection of foreignness was directed less at the musicians (as Jochen Schäfsmeier, Chairman of Concerto-Köln, rightfully pointed out), and more at the foreignness of Steve Reich’s wholeheartedly experimental piece. Instead of knee-jerk allegations of xenophobia and racism that come against the backdrop of our politically charged environment, the discussion would have been more productive if it had focused simply on how a 50 year-old piece of music could provoke such reactions, and why such seasoned concert-goers had obviously never encountered such music before.