Early Music 2016 Crossing boundaries in an ever-changing world

Capella de la Torre

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 crossover

The 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 blinders

Once 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 Cologne

Of 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.

Concerts that break boundaries

In the attempts to break through the encrusted structures of traditional classical music and cross over the boundaries of standard concert situations, and thereby to win over new audiences, the early music scene provided us with some essential stimuli. For example, the Potsdam Sanssouci Music Festival, which in 2016 collaborated with the Versailles Baroque Music Center, has been offering bicycle concerts for years, as well as orchestra rehearsals open to the public with a live commentary via audio guide. This year, the Göttingen Handel Festival held an early morning sunrise concert on the Seeburger See. Promenade concerts and family-friendly open houses (as at the Cologne Early Music Festival) have become almost standard fare. And between Berlin’s Radialsystem, the Köthen Bach Festival, and the Nuremberg International Organ Week, Folkert Uhde, former Manager of the Early Music Academy, stands out for his hip ideas and his successful self-promotion as a “concert designer.”

Musical high points

In the end, what matters is, as always, the musical substance. This is still robust in Germany, despite rising costs, competition from early music orchestras abroad that receive more funding, and – as always – a lack of overarching structures that could represent and promote early music interests more effectively. At the end of the year, though, when all the uproar and hot air finally dissipated from the concert hall, it is probably not the crossing of boundaries that left the most enduring impression on listeners’ minds. Instead, for example, an “old-fashioned” festival such as the Regensburg Early Music Festival stubbornly refuses any flashiness or trendy stagings for their concerts, focusing single-mindedly on the quality of their music. Yet – or because of that – audiences overwhelmingly approve of concerts such as the Dresden Chamber Choir’s electrifying performance of Schütz’s magnificent “Psalms of David” (Director Hans-Christoph Rademann won the 2016 German Record Critics Award for his complete recordings of Heinrich Schütz’s works). At the Salzburg Music Festival as well, a concert stood out for its recollection of historic performance methods: Biber’s Missa Salisburgensis was performed by Václav Luks and the Collegium 1704 in the place for which this monumental work had first been composed, the Salzburg Cathedral. A few days earlier, Jordi Savall had given a moving speech remembering both the victims of terrorist attacks and the many migrants who have perished in the Mediterranean. The concert brought together his ensemble Le Concert des Nations with guest musicians from Greece, Armenia, and the Orient, a true mixing of cultures. This was perhaps the most hopeful example of the crossing of musical boundaries in a highly eventful 2016.