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)