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HIP or square – musing on authenticity

(First published in the Sydney Morning Herald)

It was a disaster,” says Roger Benedict, principal viola of the Sydney Symphony.

He’s referring to a famous concert which took place in Vienna on 22 December 1808, featuring four hours of Beethoven world premieres, including Symphony No. 5 and 6, conducted by the composer. According to contemporary accounts, the orchestra was under-rehearsed, the hall freezing cold, Beethoven frequently cursed and ordered his band to start again, and many in the audience laughed, walked out, or both.

Nevertheless, it has not only gone down in the annals of classical music, but has also been recreated a number of times by modern performers. In fact, on August 10, 2003, the Academy of Ancient Music and their director Paul Goodwin re-enacted the 1808 program in the very same theatre, on instruments of the period. And on March 3, 2005, it is the turn of the Sydney Symphony under artistic director Gianluigi Gelmetti to present this historic marathon to an antipodean audience for the first time.

They’re not the only ones indulging in a spot of time travel this week. On March 4 the Australian Chamber Orchestra go into ‘full historical mode’. They’ve acquired the necessary equipment, including gut strings, specialised horn crooks (“at vast expense” according to artistic administrator Katherine Kemp), and as many ‘transitional’ bows, of the kind Mozart might have used, as possible, in preparation for their program of classical favourites including Mozart’s ‘Paris’ Symphony, Beethoven’s 7th, and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto.

Meanwhile, Sydney’s historical specialists, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra lead by artistic director Paul Dyer, are presenting their another old warhorse, Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, enticing audiences with the promise that “to hear them played on period instruments is to fully experience their extraordinarily rich descriptive and emotional power”.

Three concerts in as many days, all claiming to be historically-informed, but all radically different in approach. Who’s right, who’s wrong, how do they know and does it matter anyway?

While the powers that be differ widely in style they all agree on one thing: that the word “authentic”, often used to refer to the historical approach, is a complete furphy.

“I hate the word ‘authentic’”, says Dyer from behind a large table laden with suspiciously antique-looking scores, “because you can’t be authentic.”

Benedict agrees. “You can’t recreate what was really happening because you can’t recreate how people felt about music and how people felt about their own lives and their own mortality.”

Likewise, Kemp rejects any notion of authenticity in historical performances: “The audience is vastly different, the halls are vastly different. Even the humidity’s different. You can’t actually recreate. But,” she adds, tantalisingly, “you can go on this imaginative journey.”

So much for authenticity. What about rights and wrongs? At this point, the experts diverge.

Benedict: “There is this belief that there’s a right way and a wrong way of playing Classical music. And the right way is a kind of generic authentic interpretation and the other way is not. I’ve done both.”

He describes his experiences of playing the complete Beethoven Symphonies with Nicholas Harnoncourt, one of the big names in Early Music in Europe, and then with Lorin Maazel, an old school traditionalist. “And some of those performances worked and some didn’t, but not because they were either in one camp or another. The performance that works is the one that captures the spirit of the music and the essence of the music.”

Kemp: “You set a parameter and then you work creatively within that.” She points out that the ACO have just finished a concert tour with internationally renowned pianist, Angela Hewitt, playing seventeenth-century composer J. S. Bach. On a modern piano. Brilliantly.

So while an informed approach has to benefit the musicians’ understanding of a work, for the ACO it is still only a jumping off point for an individual interpretation.

“Does it sound lovely to listen to and invigorating and all those reasons we get up there in the first place? That’s what we’re about at the end”.

Dyer is more circumspect. “In terms of what the eighteenth-century person would see, there are rights and wrongs. They talked about good and bad notes. Specifically, the treatises that we have say “Don’t do this…”” He expands on some of the finer points of technique and articulation, a musical hot potato amongst the scholars. And then there’s the ‘v’ word.

“One thing that does disturb me is when I hear variation in pitch. Vibrato.” He goes on “…it was used as an ornament, for a special reason.”

It’s a widely-held view with passionate supporters, including Sir Roger Norrington, influential founder of the London Classical Players, whose article on the widespread overuse of vibrato in orchestral music was recently published in the New York Times. For his part, Dyer directs musicians to avoid a blanket approach to vibrato, instead using it expressively, or to as a means of adding colour to specific notes.

Dyer is also keen to point out the huge differences between playing modern violins (like the SSO), violins restrung with gut (as the ACO will do), and authentic baroque violins. “A baroque instrument is two thirds of the length,” he explains. “The construction of the bridge is very different. The construction of the bow is very different. The pressure on the bow, the amount of hairs on the bow… all these things make it very different to play.”

“So let’s not say that one’s right and that one’s wrong but…” He pauses, choosing his words carefully, “let’s say it’s easy to disguise those things”.

Historically-informed, recreated, original or just plain ‘early’. It’s clearly an area fraught with difficulty for anyone in pursuit of anything approaching “authenticity”. But it shouldn’t stop audiences from enjoying this week’s performances from Sydney Symphony, the ACO and the ABO.

As Benedict says, “It doesn’t matter how you play it. It matters what the effect is. …I look at [Beethoven’s World] as an amazing contemporary music concert. We take this music for granted. I think, hopefully, it makes [the audience] reassess the whole thing.”

For once, it seems, history won’t decide.