Tuesday 27 September 2016

Classical: The good tunes old fiddles can play

Published 09/08/2015 | 02:30

Recreating ancient music: Christopher Hogwood
Recreating ancient music: Christopher Hogwood

The search is on for a new piano. It's not that I'm giving up on the trusty upright that has seen me through from my first fumblings up and down the scale to whatever level of proficiency I've managed to maintain at this advanced stage of my musical journey. No, it's a combination of circumstances that permits me now to pursue an ambition of very long standing - the acquisition of a baby grand.

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Things aren't quite as simple as they seem. Do you go for new, or a reconditioned model with a pedigree and a history? The basic instrument may not have changed that much since the Scot John Broadwood, then his son James, in London, and Sébastien Érard in Paris, were masterminding the evolution of the harpsichord around 200 years ago, but manufacturing techniques most certainly have.

These musings sent me off on another path, a consideration of how the tools at the tunesmith's disposal have left their mark on the kind of sounds that could be made. It's not just the music that's evolved over the ages, it's the means of making it.

From propellers to jet engines, from heavy leather footballs to the modern variety, what is achievable depends very much on the available means of production. Music is no different.

There are many ensembles who factor this in, and thanks to their efforts, we have the opportunity of appreciating things as they were first heard. Period instruments are deployed so the music can be placed in its historical context.

John Eliot Gardiner has already featured in this space. He founded not one, but two bands, not to mention a dedicated choir, to recreate the soundtrack of centuries gone by.

His Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique aims to make the period from Beethoven to Brahms come alive exactly as it would have been heard. It was inspired by an earlier venture, the English Baroque Soloists, formed to partner the Monteverdi Choir, which John Eliot had set up in 1964 while a history student at Cambridge.

Another student, a couple of years ahead, was one David Munrow, another early music enthusiast. He put on a concert, performed on his own collection of ancient instruments, and it went so well, he set up another period group, calling it the Early Music Consort. Christopher Hogwood was its keyboard player. He would become the third Cambridge graduate to create a vehicle to give the works of Bach and beyond an authentic sound.

Hogwood formed the Academy of Ancient Music in 1973, but he continued his collaboration with the Early Music Consort until 1976 when the group was disbanded following the death of David Munrow. Its recordings are still available on various labels.

Christopher Hogwood remained as director of the Academy of Ancient Music until 2006. He passed away last September. His orchestra continues to thrill audiences using gut instead of steel for the strings, and wind instruments without valves, producing a singularly crisp sound, described in an appreciation in The Financial Times as "transmitting the kick of an energy drink".

It's a phrase that captures perfectly the effect when you combine committed players with the means that produced the music at the time it was written.

Try the English Baroque Soloists performing Handel's Arrival of the Queen of Sheba (on Music for the Royal Fireworks, Philips, 4341542). Or the Academy of Ancient Music's album of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos - particularly the final movement of the third - (Decca 455 700-2). You'll hear what I mean!

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