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Towards a revival of period dentistry?

This is the text of the inaugural Lufthansa Lecture, commissioned by the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music, and delivered on 14 May 2009 at St John's Smith Square, London, by Sir Nicholas Kenyon, Managing Director of the Barbican Centre.

Good evening ladies and gentlemen and welcome to this 25th-anniversary Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music. Among the many distinctions which this festival enjoys though you may not be aware of it is, that it's the only festival whose enlightened sponsor is so long-running and so embedded in the festival title that it is enabled to call itself by the name Lufthansa even on the august airwaves of Radio 3 - where usually quite extraordinary lengths are gone to (as you'll know if you ever listen to the opera broadcasts from the Met) to expunge sponsor's names from the air. Even a festival which changed its name to include its sponsor in the title wasn't allowed to use that title on air, and Choir of the Year might still be on TV today if the BBC had allowed to be called by its real title then, Sainsbury's Choir of the Year.

Instead I rather want to look back over some of the seismic changes in performance that have occurred in recent decades and see how far they represent a change in our whole understanding of musical tradition and development. And I thought we could situate the whole change in perception by referring back to that classic remark by a critic in Gramophone magazine, whom we can now identify as that highly cultured man Robert Layton, writing in the early days of the period instrument revival, who said that "we need a revival of period strings as much as we need a revival of period dentistry". And there was that famous cartoon that graced several Radio 3 notice boards of a group of threatening surgeons around some poor patient on the table saying "we perform operations using original instruments". That is to say (in the sort of management terms that I've now become familiar with) that it was all a threat rather than an opportunity.

Why was the period instrument revival thought of as so undermining? Well, initially because it appeared to undermine a whole generation's way of making music, a whole generation of players' approach to earning a living apart from anything else. There was the assumption, honestly voiced by Raymond Leppard but shared by many others, that you went into period-instrument playing because you would have a hard time of it making a career in the real musical world. Whereas the reality was very different: the struggles of those players to create a new style while making a living were considerable, and we owe them a lot.

So by the time the Lufthansa Festival arrived in 1984 featuring then the young St James Baroque Players and Ivor Bolton, we were already (I would suggest) into the second phase of the revival here, with a cohort of second-generation players, a newly assured style of performance, and a total confidence that here was an acceptable and accepted style for the recreation of baroque music. Some visitors came to the festival from abroad with new and stimulating styles, like Musica Antiqua of Cologne in 1986 with their high-speed and high-energy Brandenburg Concertos (blink and you'd missed them), but the core of the festival then was St James's Baroque, their succession of performance of the great Bach and Handel masterpieces that have always been at the core of the repertory here, as tonight, and the fertile group of players who were now busier than ever in the recording studio and in live concerts recreating baroque music.

But WAS it the recreation of baroque music? This became the 64-thousand-dollar question in the 80s and 90s. For it was just as this style was becoming established and popular that the loudest questions began to be asked about the historical faithfulness and indeed the philosophical premise of the early music movement, a debate around authenticity which as the noted American musicologist Joseph Kerman notes was even fostered by the magazine Early Music, which I then edited and has now for many years been under the extremely sharp editorial guidance of Tess Knighton, co-founder with Ivor of this festival. This is not the place to recall the enormous arguments around the word authenticity, which as Kerman noted is "a baleful term which has caused endless acrimony", but it is worth trying to unpick what has happened in terms of performance.

That's how developing tradition works, you absorb or you react against, and a new version of tradition is born. But it is essentially continuous - it cannot be totally discontinuous. And I think the truest thing ever said about WHY this happens was said by one of our great thinkers about tradition, T.S.Eliot, when he wrote that "sensibility alters from generation to generation in everybody, whether we will or no, but expression only altered by a man of genius". So that is surely why the vague feeling of increasing dissatisfaction that we had with the Vienna Philharmonic or whoever swimming through creamy characterless Mozart and Beethoven with Karl Bohm, or Lorin Maazel, or whoever, was suddenly galvanised by Harnoncourt and Norrington when they came along with an alternative world-view. That world-view of performance in the 1980s coincided with the rapid rise of the CD, with its thirst for new sounds and renewed interpretations of the classics. The period instrument movement was a perfect match. Just as after the war the Philharmonia had been created by Walter Legge with a silky vibrato-laded sound that suited the new medium of the LP, so I am sure the glassy, transparent, rhythmic and exciting clarity of the period instruments perfectly suited the sound-world of the new CD.

So what were some of the elements of continuity and discontinuity in the early music revival in this country? Before he founded the Academy of Ancient Music, Christopher Hogwood had done a great deal of work with the modern instruments of the Academy of St Martin-in the-Fields and Neville Marriner, for instance working together on their Messiah in the 1970s before Hogwood did his own in 1980. Marriner himself had been something of a baroque violin pioneer back in the early 1950s experimenting alongside Robert Donington, though had then taken his own route into the modern chamber orchestra with spectacular success. But the success of one in the public's ears surely led to the other. Marriner used Thurston Dart to advise on his Brandenburgs. Marriner, one of the most recorded artists of all time, had an uncanny sense of how to make a recording. A third memory from this hall, coming to interview him when he was recording Schubert 9. They'd finished early, and that marvellous record producer Erik Smith suggested they fill in the time with Mozart's Adagio and Fugue in C minor. They didn't waste any time. Without as far as I could tell any preparation at all, they just played it through and recorded it. Then Marriner came back to the control room there, heard what it sounded like, made 3 or 4 notes about how to knock it into shape, went back out, told the players, recorded it again, took a couple of points from Erik Smith, and hey presto that was it. It certainly showed you British practical music-making at its height.

So of course the early music pioneers learnt from their predecessors. I've been looking recently at the career of Roger Norrington, to see how complex were the inter-relationships and influences in those early years. I've mentioned Norrington as a Beethoven conductor, but of course he got there through his formation of the Schutz Choir in 1962, just before John Eliot Gardiner started his Monteverdi Choir in 1964, both focussed around key neglected figures of the baroque. (For all their subsequent rivalry in the same arena, it's amusing to learn that Norrington, who is older, tutored John Eliot as a schoolboy, and Gardiner sang in some of Norrington's earliest Schutz concerts.) Norrington was late into this field because he was originally a musical amateur, promoting the New English Bible for OUP, before becoming a professional singer and studying orchestral conducting at the RCM with Adrian Boult. It's been great looking through his meticulous diaries, for all the time he was creating a reputation in the early music world he was supporting himself with all manner of freelance singing work, oratorio solos with pioneers like John Tobin in the Bach Passions, or in professional choruses for Klemperer or Giulini. Here he is in December 1965, always a peak time of year. On 18 December he rehearsed Berlioz's L'Enfance du Christ with Colin Davis and the ECO, in which he had a small solo, in the morning. In the afternoon he rehearsed Handel's Messiah with Raymond Leppard for a concert the next day in the Odeon Swiss Cottage, and then did the Berlioz concert with Davis in the evening. The next day he rehearsed Messiah again in the morning, re-rehearsed L'Enfance for a TV relay in the afternoon, sang Messiah in the evening, and then the next day off to Ely Cathedral for the Berlioz recording. Ah the wonderful freelance world!

The process by which the influence of early music has seeped back into mainstream performance is one of the most interesting things for historians to study, and I hope it will be studied closely. A few years ago at the start of this decade I tried to characterise what was happening as a dual movement from opposite ends of the spectrum, and this was quoted by Robert Philip in his excellent book, which I really recommend, called Performing in an Age of Recording. I said then "On the one hand you have the early music movement rushing, as fast as it little messa di voce legs will take it, away from the idea the idea that there was a single historical style to which everyone had to conform. But on the other hand there has been the extraordinary spectacle of our most traditional musical institutions wanting desperately to get up to speed with what is going on and the use the insights of the early music movement to rejuvenate themselves".

Both these things have gone on happening, true, but I think I'd put it another way now because the traditions are now intertwining in the most odd way. Can you tell which of Claudio Abbado's recent recordings with his Orchestra Mozart are made on period instruments and which on modern instruments? Just this year Viktoria Mullova wrote about her approach to playing the Bach sonatas and partitas on a baroque violin as an unfinished journey of discovery starting from an intense dissatisfaction with the Russian principles of Bach playing in which she had been trained. "They were based on a widely-held approach of the time that combined a standardised beautiful sound, broad, uniform articulation, long phrasing, and continuous and regular vibrato on every single note" Her playing of Bach she suggests became "stiff and monotonous" until colleagues opened her eyes and ears to the possibilities of the baroque style. Compare the rather more direct approach of Rostropovich when he decided to completely re-learn the Bach cello suites: he said "for 20 years I play it one way. Now I will play in another" and took himself off into a hotel room to study with 10 Glenn Gould CDs and a bottle of vodka. Or perhaps it was the other way round.

The liveliest conductors in the world today are interested in what period instruments have to offer, whether or not they have been brought up in that tradition: it's no coincidence at all that a recent successful conductor of the OAE has been Ed Gardner, the brilliant young music director of English National Opera, and next week it is Robin Ticciati, the even younger conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. If this is the future I'm up for it. Then there are the veterans like the wonderful Charles Mackerras, continuing to freshly re-invent pieces like the last Mozart symphonies which they have performed for years. There is Abbado, from an entirely different tradition, putting his toe in the water. And then almost most intriguingly there are those like Chailly, or Bernard Haitink, who have not worked with period instruments but whose style has been fundamentally influenced by them; perhaps this is the most hopeful sign of all.

None of this means that there won't be a continuing place for specialists, the advance guard of research and performance. It's been fascinating for instance in recent years of baroque music performance to see the European stylistic impetus passing to Italy since the formation of Il Giardino Armonico with their wonderfully vital Brandenburgs, Rinaldo Alessandrini who has worked here quite a lot, and other groups like Ensemble San Felice who have been to this festival, and Zefiro who close this year's festival. There will always be a place for experiment and adventure - though the question of how this gets supported in an age of radically reduced resources from record companies and broadcasters remains to be seen. Surely our academic institutions, with their increasing commitment to support research which is applicable to the real world, should be looking to partner early music groups in their research and development.

A festival like Lufthansa celebrates the primacy of performance. And that leads in two directions, to a respect for the value of different performance styles, so that modern pianos are allowed to play Bach - which has even happened in the Lufthansa festival - and radically alternative performance styles can co-exist in our minds. And it also leads to this need to study performance, to find ways of talking about it more than anecdotally as most of us do.

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