How HIP is your classical music, Part Two



Last time out, I presented a brief description of HIP, or “historically-informed performance,” referring to performances of musical works that apply research into the sound and aesthetic of the time and place from which the works came, in order to recreate them as faithfully as possible.  First becoming known to most listeners in the late 1960’s and early ’70’s, HIP fit in with the era’s emerging counter-culture and its questioning of authority, and with the search for “natural” and “alternative” lifestyles and their yearning for pre-industrial times.  There was something redemptive, even purifying about the rerturn to the music and instruments of older, supposedly more idyllic times, and the nomenclature employed by HIPsters reflected it.  “Natural” tunings, “natural” (i.e., gut) strings,  “natural” (i.e., valveless) horns and trumpets — you’d almost get the idea that such things really existed in nature, or accorded any better with nature than their improved successors do.  Little wonder that HIP was widely derided at the time as an earthy-crunchy cult, not to mention as a refuge for inferior musicians who couldn’t make it in the “real” classical world.  

And you know, these barbs, however nasty, were not entirely unfair at the time.  Yes, there was something cult-like in the HIPsters certainty of purpose and rectitude, and in their denegration of those who didn’t follow their one true path.  And yes, some of the supposedly revelatory performances of the time were much scruffier than should be accepted from professionals.  But you’ll hear much less from this musical culture war now.  Not only have later generations of HIPsters really stepped up their skills, their ideas have also penetrated the mainstream to the point where hardly any middle-aged-or-younger classical musician would fail to show their influence.  That’s what made a recent outburst from renowned violinist, violist and conductor Pinchas Zukerman so strange and so sad.  But in music as in other pursuits,  there will always be bitter and resentful old-schoolers among us, refusing to let go of or even alter their outdated ideas.  By the way, have you heard any revelatory or even relevant Pinchas Zukerman performances lately?

But HIP, however hip, ain’t nothing new.  Like other aspects of early music, HIP has roots that go down through at least a hundred years of music history. In the early-to-mid 20th century, instruments that had been silent for centuries came to life again, thanks to such pioneers as multi-instrumentalist and instrument maker Arnold Dolmetsch (top), harpsichordists Wanda Landowska and Ralph Kirkpatrick, and composer and violist Paul Hindemith, who dabbled in such instruments as viola d’amore and viola da gamba.  That’s Hindemith just above, on the left holding a viola d’amore, on the right conducting an early music “Collegium” of the kind that popped up at many universities in the 1960’s and ’70’s.  

In the 1950’s and ‘60’s, record collectors could hear lutes, viol consorts and other antique sounds on albums by countertenor Alfred Deller (third from left in left photo above), whose voice-range itself was a throwback to a bygone era.  They could hear Neville Marriner and the Academyof St. Martin in the Fields do Italian Baroque concerti by Corelli, Vivaldi and the other “ice-cream” composers (in Sir Neville’s tasty description), played on modern instruments, but more stylishly and with smaller performing forces than was the norm in the bad old days of Romanticized Baroque.  They could even buy recordings on such authoritatively antiquarian labels as Deutsche Grammophon’s “Archiv Produktion” (above right) or Telefunken’s “Das Alte Werk,” assured what one bought offered the last word in research and authenticity.

Funny, though, how quickly what is once regarded as definitive becomes outdated.  Listening back on the above artists and recordings now, while still admiring their artistry, one could fairly conclude that the earlier a performance of early music, the less authentically early it sounds.  The voices, compared to our present standards of authenticity, positively ooze vibrato (which many of our modern HIPsters avoid like the plague, but that’s for a later post).  The harpsichords, far from making the sweet and delicate tones we expect today, make a loud, buzzy clatter.  The early Baroque recordings of the Academy and other chamber orchestras might have been stylish for their time, but compared to what we’ve become used to, they now sound heavy and stodgy.  As for the authoritatively authoritative authority of those Archiv and Das Alte Werk albums — let’s just say that we’ve learned a few things about how this music sounded since then.

Then again, as smarter commentators than I have pointed out, the sound of HIP performances owe as much to the tastes of the performers’ and audiences’ times as to how the music really sounded in its time.  In particular, the brilliant musicologist Richard Taruskin has written voluminously over the years of the selective historicity of early music, including HIP.  Take a look into his essays collection “Text and Act” if you want to get deeply into this issue.  But you don’t need to be an expert to hear what I’m talking about.  Listen, for instance, to almost any Baroque choral work in recordings led by the renowned early music conductor John Eliot Gardiner.  Sir John takes great pains to get the music right, even traveling to Venice’s St. Mark’s Basilica for his recording of Claudio Monteverdi’s great “Vespers of the Blessed Virgin” to recapture the acoustic Monteverdi had in mind.  But the vocal style he employs in composers as diverse as Monteverdi, Bach, Handel and Mozart is exactly the same, not to mention 100% modern English.

Do you want an example?  Check out below the opening of the “Magnificat” from the Monteverdi Vespers in Gardiner’s recording.  Now, I wasn’t around in early 17th-century Venice, so can’t say for sure how Monteverdi’s original all-male choir sounded, if the work was indeed even performed  at the time.  But I would venture to guess that it didn’t sound much like Sir John’s Monteverdi Choir, whose ultra-bright and very British voices typify what is now widely, if anachronistically, accepted as the authentic “early” choral style.  Of course, we have a lot more surviving instruments than surviving singers from previous centuries, so getting vocal styles right requires more guesswork.  But that doens’t mean that we should let Gardiner off the hook for not even trying to approximate Monteverdi’s vocal style, if he’s going to tout his performances as authentic.

And that’s my problem here.  There doesn’t have to be anything wrong with what Gardiner has done with Monteverdi’s Vespers, which is indeed lovely and enjoyable, and in his many other fine Baroque performances — if only he and many of his peers would stop making extraordinary and unsupportable claims for their superior authenticity.  Gardiner has done it before, and to judge from this review of his new book on Bach, he’s done it again.  Reviewer Michael O’Donnell may be impressed that Gardiner uses period instruments and employs fast, dance-like tempos when conducting Bach.  But these have been standard elements of HIP performances for at least a generation, as can be heard on literally hundreds of other Bach performances in the CD catalogue.  For Gardiner, writes O’Donnell, there’s “an important difference between period musicians imbuing Bach’s music with fresh energy and purpose and symphonists dutifully sawing away, hitting the notes but missing the point.”  Good grief!  This “battle for  Bach” was fought and won by the HIPsters long ago, and the kind of Bach performance Gardiner inveighs against here barely exists any more.  That Gardiner’s still fighting the battle, and still giving congratulating himself for doing so, is as sad as the Pinchas Zukerman screed I cited above.

But while neither Gardiner nor Zukerman is alone in still engaging in this mud-slinging, their words no longer carry much meaning.  I mean, why listen to them attack each other when we can instead spend our time enjoying the likes of violinist Janine Jansen‘s new CD of Bach Concertos and Sonatas?  Singing, swinging, sprightly, flexible, undogmatic and joyous, this superb album reveals Jansen to be one celebrity “modern” violinist who knows how to go Baroque while remaining herself and without putting on airs of authenticity.  And you know the best part?  There are a lot more musicians like her around now than old grumps like Gardiner and Zukerman.  Just among today’s violinists, I’d also name Alina Ibragimova, Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Rachel Barton Pine, Giuliano Carmignola, Richard Tognetti and Thomas Zehetmair among those artists who move comfortably between “modern” and HIP styles, and retain the best of each no matter what kind of violin they play.  These are the musicians I’m keeping my ear on for the future.  And next time out, I’ll recommend some of their best, as well as other exemplary CD of modern HIP. 



  1. Anonymous says

    Perhaps we can head this one off at the pass, as it’s emblematic of many of the exaggerated statements that paint an unrealistic picture of modern versus period performance style. You wrote, “The voices, compared to our present standards of authenticity, positively ooze vibrato (which many of our modern HIPsters avoid like the plague, but that’s for a later post).”

    Interestingly, most baroque music singers today use significantly more vibrato than “modern” singers around 1900 who were simply performing according to the standards of the day. Have a listen to Nellie Melba singing “Porgi Amor” from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, or Adelina Patti singing  “Ah, non credea mirarti” from Bellini’s La Sonnanbula. Logically, singers trying to re-create baroque style would be using even less, not more vibrato than these singers.  In other words, noticeably heavy and almost constant vibrato is a relatively new thing – it wasn’t by any means just dropped on top of music in 1800 as romanticism got underway. (As well, gut strings were in prominent use in the early 20th century.)

    In order to break apart another unfair accusation against period performance musicians, the reality is that more period performance musicians, singers and instrumentalists alike, use quite a bit a vibrato (and not all modern players use it constantly either). It’s just that they use it different, not so much to generate the tone as to enhance or color it.


  2. John Montanari says

    Compare the use of vibrato by the Deller Consort, or of Bruno Turner’s Pro Cantione Antiqua, with that of almost any historically-informed vocal group of the present day.  Point made, enough said.

  3. Anonymous says

    Dear Mr. Montanari,

     It’s true that early music vocal ensembles today generally use much less vibrato, as compared to groups such as Collegium Musicumat Yale in the 1950s, founded and conducted by Paul Hindemith. Concurrently, numerous chamber choirs that focus on newer repertoire also use very little, if any, vibrato. Therefore it may not just be the early music crew leading the way.

     The reason for the scaled-back use of vibrato by early music performers has as much to do with tuning as aesthetics. Early music ensembles generally use just intonation or, when instruments are involved, some form of unequal temperament, in which tuning pure thirds (as much as possible) becomes incredibly important. In other words, for us f-sharp and g-flat are two different notes. And that distinction enables us to engage more actively in the overtone series, giving harmonic sonorities greater ring and expansionin the music. Vibrato, which alters the pitch slightly (or sometimes not so slightly), makes it much harder for a pure sonority to lock into place.

     As an active baroque string player, I first make sure the harmony is well-tuned, and then, depending on other factors, I often will add a touch of vibrato to warm and essentially ornament the sound afterward. But I never do so in a way that would muddy or jeopardize the harmony I play a role in creating. Also, early music instrumental ensembles tend to use much less vibrato, whereas solo players often use quite a bit more.

     It’s also true, however, that in soloisticearly music, e.g. baroque opera or oratorio arias, even when a period instrument ensemble is playing along, singers today — with some exceptions, such as Dame Emma Kirkby– tend to use much more vibrato than the singing stars of the turn of the century (19th to 20th) did in repertoire by Verdi, Puccini, Strauss, and so on.

     I do think, therefore, saying that those in early music avoid vibrato like the plague is over-reaching, though, again, if this is specifically in reference to early music choral ensembles, then its essentially true. But not so for other types of early music performers.

    All best wishes,

    Mark Bailey, artistic director

    American Baroque Orchestra

  4. John Montanari says

    Mark, I appreciate your comments.  And quite right; the vibrato index has risen and fallen over the years, as recordings attest.  Also,  vibrato is on separate tracks in vocal and instrumental performance.  Yet I think I’m justified in my opinion that some performers’ unwavering opposition to vibrato leads to questionable results.  This especially struck me (and in part led to this series of blog posts) when listening to and broadcasting the Chiaroscuro Quartet’s recent recording of Schubert’s “Rosamunde” Quartet.  It’s partially available on Spotify, if you care to listen.  Check out the second movement.  Could this really be the sound Schubert had in mind?  To me, whatever the justification, their straightness of tone sounds imposed onto the music, rather than naturally implied by it.  (And by the way, the Chiaroscuro include “modern” musicians who also do HIP, especially their first violinist, Alina Ibragimova.)  I hear a “we’re too HIP for vibrato” aesthetic at play here, and a quartet of musicians tamping down their natural musicality in service of a belief.  What do you hear?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>