(Musica Viva)

Nevermind Pre-Concert Talk

(Articles & Program Notes)
Published – 22.10.2019
(Writing)

Let’s talk about being hip. I’m hip, you’re hip, but what does it mean to make Handel hip? It takes a lot of specialist knowledge, I can tell you that much! What I mean when I say hip in relation to the works we’ll be hearing tonight, is the term Historically Informed Performance Practice, or, the art of making music as close to the way it would have been made in the period in which it was written. A mouthful! And a really historically interesting concept. I’ll give you the bigger picture before we get into the nitty-gritty – it’s taken a huge amount of musicological research into early music to even be able to make a sound educated guess about how things might have been performed in the time, say, Handel was writing. We don’t have recordings, we don’t have copious notes, we don’t even really play the same instruments anymore. In Baroque music, our focus tonight, so much was improvised and unrehearsed when it was performed: the way a musician in the 1700s performed a trill naturally if asked to do so by a clear indication on the manuscript, is most likely different from the way a musician now would make more or less the same gesture while looking at the exact same piece of paper. So, a bunch of work has been done, investigating how things would have been played, which requires research into a lot of other important parts of socio-cultural history, as well as practical questions like, what materials would have been available to make these instruments and what did the actual spaces this music was being performed in mean for the tuning of different types of strings?
The idea of Historically Informed Performance started, in many ways, because of a guy named Arnold Dolmetsch, who was a French-born musician who spent a lot of his life in England working on instrument-making and reviving a widespread interest in early music. You and I possibly know him best as the person responsible for why we all played the recorder in school, for better or worse! He recommended it as a great place to start for English schoolchildren, and the rest is squeaky history. What I’m getting at now though, is from the very late 1800’s he was dabbling in lute making, because of his interest in earlier music, and went on to try his hand at clavichords and harpsichords; this experience turning into a well-known book The Interpretation of the Music of the 17th and 18th Centuries, which was published in 1915. Across Europe, other interested musicians were exploring the return of the viola da gamba from as early as 1920, but it all really got popular after the second world war. In Germany in 1954, the first permanent period-instrument orchestra was founded by the West German Radio in Cologne and still exists today. Here’s that ensemble, the Cappella Coloniensis, performing the first movement of Haydn’s Symphony No. 102 under Bruno Weil. I want to play enough that you can hear two distinct sides to the orchestra – their ability to play slowly, together which takes a huge amount of control, especially on instruments wherein the tuning is quite temperamental, and their fun, brisk side.

Other ensembles across the rest of Europe followed suit quick smart, and as the audience grew, the interest in knowing more about the sound world, the context, what was happening around the music grew significantly. It was no longer enough to get your musical mates together and play what was written on the page by Bach, for example, on the instruments you had on hand. It was about recreating the entire experience. We don’t just want the notes Bach wrote, we want to hear it exactly as he intended it to be heard. So began the dissecting of each piece of music – how would this ornament have sounded? What pitch would this have been played in? Should we explore harpsichords or organs? And as time has gone on, as we’ve moved into the 21st century, where our capacity for research is growing steadily stronger, and our capacity for instrument making is getting better and better, the questions are getting more and more specific.

And then, of course, with any idea, there are the critics! We grapple with ideas of authenticity and creativity – can Baroque music truly be imitated entirely when our current schools of music teachings focus entirely on recreating the manuscript or text and don’t delve into the historically accurate practice of improvisation and invention? When one is so focused on the perfection of a score that cannot necessarily be rendered perfectly through live performance, are we focussing on the right things? It’s a challenging space, but one that allows us to delve into the most important questions regarding music-making in its most basic form. Why do we perform? Why is live or recorded music important to listeners and to music makers? Historically Informed Performance Practice is changing and has been for a while – the core of matter remains pure and relatively untouched – but there is increasingly a sense of freedom around what rules can be bent. In a group like Nevermind, this is possibly at its most evident. Here are young musicians playing at an exceptionally high level of musicianship, of technique and skill, but without the fuss of Historically Informed Performance Practice as it was revered at the turn of the 20th century. There is a sense of fun here, perhaps even more historically informed than it ever has been, because Baroque music, at its heart, is about invention and creativity and discovery.

To get a feel for Nevermind before I speak about the instrumentation and the works we’re listening to tonight, here’s an excerpt from their CD “Conversations”. The record features two almost totally forgotten French composers, Jean Baptiste Quentin and Louis-Gabriel Guillemain. This is an excerpt from Quentin’s Concerto à Quatre Parties.

I want to quickly return to those two questions we asked earlier – about the materials of instruments, and the idea of tuning being different because they give us a good jumping-off point for the work that musicians operating in this space are now doing: they’re playing on different instruments, with different parts. Tonight, we hear four instruments, which are either relatively rare on modern concert stages or significantly changed from the way we traditionally know them. The flute, which we all know well to be a shiny silver instrument, is made of wood. The violin has gut strings, made from animal intestines – a practice more recent music gave up in favour of strings made from metal or synthetic material. The viola da gamba, an instrument closest to our cello, is on show, having first appeared in Europe in the late 15th century and developing quite significantly by the time the Baroque period rolled around. And finally, the harpsichord, which we do still see occasionally in orchestral contexts, which is similar to the modern piano in many ways, but rather than a hammer striking the strings as notes are pressed down on the keyboard, strings are plucked which brightens the sound and makes it slightly more percussive. A harpsichord also has no sustain pedal in the way a piano does, so it is up to the performer to create a legato sound when necessary. On the Recital stage here tonight, you’ll see a French double-manual harpsichord made by Marc Nobel in 1989, which is described as being “based on the Ravalement by Henri Hemsch in Paris in 1763”. Indulge me for a moment, because in researching this talk I went down a pretty significant harpsichord rabbit hole. Ravalement doesn’t actually mean build, it means to restore or rebuild, specifically in regard to modifying and extending the range of a keyboard instrument – a process that happens quite sometime after the actual build of the instrument. Within this category, a grand ravalement requires the instrument to be disassembled and reassembled, with new soundboard material and case construction to allow for extra notes within the instruments’ range. In a petit ravalement, where the case need not be modified, the actual keyboards and strings are altered or replaced. In building harpsichords for a modern-day, but within a historically informed performance context, makers like Marc Nobel look to the 18th-century ravelement’s, and copy those changes to get the best possible work out of the new instrument, while keeping with the traditions developed between the 15th and 18th centuries. I find this utterly fascinating and am now completely obsessed with the harpsichord, and the differences between English and French instruments, but that’s a talk for another time. Considering we’re hearing a bit of Telemann tonight, and I wanted to share a work here that showed off clearly the different sounds you’ll be hearing tonight playing together, I’d like to just listen to a quick fugue by Telemann, performed by Nevermind. You should be able to follow each of the instrument’s lines through to the end of the piece.

Now I’ve chewed your ear off significantly enough about the harpsichord, let’s get to tonight’s music! This program is different from the one being performed on Tuesday night, so if you’re a mad Bach fan like I am, there will be some JS next week, but what we have tonight is a little more varied, and I personally think you’re in for a treat. We’re walking through the early music world chronologically – beginning with Marais, moving through Couperin and Telemann, and finishing with Quentin and Guillemain, the two composers featured on Conversations, the album I referenced a little earlier. Basically this program takes you from 1656 to 1770 – so basically the entirety of the era, give or take 50 years!

We begin with Marin Marais, and his Pieces en Trio, written in 1692. In tonight’s performance we’ll hear selections from Suite IV in Bb major, so here’s one for you now that won’t be played live to give you an idea but no spoilers! It’s nice and short so we should be able to get through the entire excerpt.

Marais is probably still best known for his solo viol music, but actually he was the first person in France to publish a collection of these trios. He learnt from Lully, working as his assistant at the opera, and then taking over from him after Lully’s death. Each of Marais’ trios are incredibly crafted little pieces, but are quite virtuosic – as virtuosic, I’d say, as his solo works. Moving right along to 1726, and François Couperin’s L’Espagnole from Les Nations. These are 10 miniatures some as long as 8 minutes, others as short as 2, working through a selection of dances. Here’s the third – a courante, which is a 16th-century court dance consisting of short moves forward to your partner and then away. If I was better prepared I’d get us all to dance.

After the interval, we’ll hear some Telemann: this time the Sonata no. 2 in G minor from the composer’s Paris Quartet no. 4. The Paris quartets were a set of two compositions, each consisting of six works each, the first published in 1730, the second in 1738. Telemann was German but became incredibly famous across Europe by the time this first set of quartets were written, mainly because of the expansive publication of his printed music. He was invited, because of his previous material, to visit Paris and work with four musicians of tonight’s instrumentation – flute, violin, gamba, and harpsichord, and it was for this trio that he wrote the whole set of quartets. Here’s a little taste of Telemann’s Paris Quartet.

Finally, on tonight’s program, two works that feature on the group’s album, Conversations: Jean Baptiste Quentin and Louis-Gabriel Guillemain. The first, a quartet-sonata in A minor written in 1740 by Quentin, the second, Sonata no 3 in D minor from the very well named Six Quartet Sonatas or Galant and Amusing Conversations. I’ll leave you with a quick snapshot of Guillemain.

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