Archive for January, 2012


The wisdom of Gardiner

Having just posted about John Eliot Gardiner and the ORR, I’m prompted to write another small post about what he had to say during an interview about the recent Beethoven concert at Carnegie Hall.

The entire concert was rebroadcast by my local classical station today, and between each piece, we were treated to snippets from Gardiner, as well as from the local host, Allison Young. Young naturally spent most of the time talking about the ORR, rather than the music. Period instrument ensembles, while gaining popularity, are still new to most casual listeners. Young characterized the ORR’s sound as “brittle.” And Performance Today host Fred Child, when the concert was originally broadcast, said of their Beethoven 7 that it was “not the cleanest performance.”

I think Young and Child are simply unaccustomed to the sound a period instrument ensemble makes (which is a little disturbing; they are professionals in the field of music).

You can hear the individual parts much better when a piece is performed on period instruments. The fact that it doesn’t all melt together into a homogenous blur of sound is a good thing! I want to hear that voice-leading! And Gardiner said as much when it was his turn to speak. He called the sound of period instruments more “raw”, more “vivid”. He said that while modern instruments have the advantage of allowing greater technical fluency and projection of volume, a price is paid in that they also “soften the edges of the music”; they lead to the homogenous blur I mentioned above.

Plus, period instrument ensembles are typically composed of musicians who are also music scholars. Their musicianship is not confined to technical facility.

If you’ve never heard a really good period instrument ensemble, do yourself a favor and go hear one. The brass instruments, especially, are exciting and have lots of bite! Here are a few appetizers:

Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists performing the opening chorus from Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium

Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque performing the opening chorus from Bach’s Cantata 140

Rudolf Lutz and the Bachstiftung St. Gallen performing the opening chorus from Bach’s Cantata 26 (note the corno da tirarsi)


You can’t judge a book by its cover. CDs, on the other hand…

The once popular but now defunct classical music blog Proper Discord used to feature, from time to time, CD covers judged by the author to be ugly, or silly, or in some other way ill-advised.  These features were titled: “What were they thinking?”

I was reminded of this while perusing iTunes for recordings of Robert Schumann’s symphonies.  I came across the recordings made by John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Revoutionnaire et Romantique, which are astoundingly good (of course, I usually prefer period instrument ensembles, so I may be biased).  I thought the cover was a little on the silly side of snooty.  “Gardiner must have a rather high opinion of himself,” I thought.  But my immediately ensuing thought was “who cares what’s on the cover?”  The image on the cover will not alter the quality of the recording.  Besides, if any conductor deserves to have an ego, it’s Gardiner.

Yet, as Proper Discord illustrates, quite a lot of people do allow what’s on the cover to influence their opinion of a recording.  “But” you say, “PD was just having a bit of fun!  Loosen up, musicalbeef!”  That may be.  But the frequency of the feature, the large number of recordings indicted in a feature, and the popularity of these features, as demonstrated by the number of comments they accrued, indicate to me that superficiality really is the name of the game these days.