Historically informed performances

“To perform in public is the most frightening thing I know. And yet to
 hear my works brought to life in a wonderful performance in accordance 
with my intentions – that I cannot resist” – Edvard Grieg

The initial impetus behind this project, what really fired it off in the first place and made it a reality, was the ever increasing feeling that many important and sometimes essential features found so richly in performances in our early recording history have been lost, or at the very least, disappeared from ’mainstream’ classical music performance. Sometimes the shadow may remain, but often without its teeth, with little of its former complexity and substance.

This of course begs an important question before we go any further; So what, isn´t this only an example of natural development, the inevitable evolution over time? The survival of the musical fittest if we use this form of musical Darwinism. Are we not always the children of our time and interpret a work accordingly? Clearly, over this time period our perspectives as performers have changed and expanded. The world has got smaller over the last century, both in physical travel and the sharing of ideas; so too in music. We simply know more (or we think we do), about everything from the individual works, their historical setting and style. 
All this seems irrefutable, and certainly one could effectively argue that when we look at the greatest music of any period the rigid, idiosyncratic approach of certain authentic fundamentalists seems rather meaningless, as if the music itself needs help rather than illumination. On the other hand, we feel it is important to recognise that mixed up with all this new found knowledge is a almost certain and tragic loss. Moreover, what has been lost are fundamental features of a performance tradition we can still clearly hear in these early acoustic recordings, if we take the time to really listen. And what makes this so important, is that these features of the performances are not at all decoration and interesting detail, but fundamental elements, essential to the way we perceive the music itself, in many cases actually serving as a premise for the composition. 

Of course the best of research into historical performance practice is all about just that.

Generally speaking, historically informed performers and researchers have been approaching periods of music history earlier than the period we are approaching. Originally centred on the Baroque and further back, and gradually moving into classicism. This research has certainly revolutionised our approach to both the baroque and classical music over the last decades.

However, researching into performance history prior to the turn of the 20th century does have a major weakness. Its Achilles heel is in the fact that the source material is almost exclusively written, either in performance descriptions or musical notation. Only with the invention of the phonograph, a decade or so before the turn of the 20th century, arises the possibility of a lasting, audible evidence of a performance practice, however imperfectly captured. Obviously, no one today or in the future can ever hear Bach, Mozart or Beethoven play. We can only piece together a rough idea as to how they played, based on the information we have. There are of course many detailed descriptions of how various great composers or performers played, but those of us seriously engaged in music know how far apart verbal statements and the actual practice can be. And most important of all: we simply lack a terminology suitable or capable of conveying the rich nuance of a great performance – far from it. Experiencing a truly great musician in full flight makes one realise what we all know, that at its deepest level great art, with all its nuances and facets, cannot ever be fully explained.

 The development of the first phonograph into a practical usable tool (1889 is a good date for that) is thus a truly historic milestone. From then on it went from strength to strength as it was developed and improved, capturing many of the great composer-performers of the time, a list that includes such luminaries as Johannes Brahms, Edvard Grieg, Camille Saint-Saëns, Fritz Kreisler, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy. They all 
made recordings which are still available, giving us musical evidence of inestimable value and a documentation that we believe is still not taken seriously enough.

In fact, there has always seemed to us to exist a curious anomaly between the way most performing musicians and musicologists approach the available written and aural source material to a work they are studying. Something has always seemed a little out of step here. In our time we tend to approach any written material, particularly the musical notation contained in the score, with a veneration often bordering on the biblical. A new manuscript or a new reading of a well studied one, can yield changes to published editions that make the existing ones largely ‘unusable’ even though these changes may be relativity minor. We all, and we include ourselves in this, bow long and low to the god of the ur-text.
On the other hand we are surprisingly cavalier when it comes to approaching what is the real reason for all that notation, music as sound when it is created by the composers themselves. We doubt any of us would disagree that in the mind of the great composer a piece is first born as imagined sound (or actual sound if they compose on the piano), and that this evolving sound image is then given some form of permanence in the very imperfect recipe we call ‘the score’ (‘more or less inadequately’ to quote Bartok ). But when the score is in its final form, it inevitably assumes the role as primary source object, 
even when the composer was an acknowledged performer and recorded. Rachmaninoff did for example record a very substantial amount of his own music, and often recorded pieces more than once over a long period of time.
There are however good reasons why this anomaly between the written and the sounded exists, some are technical and are to do with recordings themselves, and some are to do with what is going on in our heads. We are attempting to address both these areas in our project working with Grieg’s recordings from 1903.

In studying the historic recorded material, we are challenged on a methodological level: How can we obtain knowledge and understanding from these recordings in addition to the very personal listening experience? We are not talking about the obvious things, such as the actual notes which are being played, the number of trills in the ornament, how fast or how loud to play, etc. We are talking about understanding the principles of the unfamiliar tempo treatment, small scale and larger scale form, and other features such as musical gesture, ‘swing’, etc.

Performance recreations is a new approach to this; a simple idea in principle, and something which every musicians has practised at some level, certainly in a teaching situation. We have taken this principle to the extreme, and developed a method in which we systematically re-create or copy a historic performance in order to understand all aspects of the performance, identifying key principles of the performance style and trying to reveal how the various elements of a performance work together in time.