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The Pursuit of Excellence: A Call to Arms

This is the full text of the 4th annual Lufthansa Lecture, presented at the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music at St John's Smith Square, in London on 20 May 2012.   It was delivered by Andrew Manze, former baroque violinist and Artistic Director of the English Concert and now Principal Conductor and Artistic Director of the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra and Associate Guest Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

Today I will be reading this lecture to you. Normally I improvise from bullet points but this talk will also be published on the Lufthansa Festival website, so if I don't read it to you there is a grave danger that what I say today bears no relation to the talk as recorded for posterity, which would be ironic given that the topic is historically informed performance, a musical field for which text is important.

This also has been a serious test of my typing abilities. In a first draft I found a stray 't' had found its way into our host's name which therefore became the Lufthansa Bartoque Festival. That would join those other early music misprints such as the review of Handel's Water Music played by Ton Koopman's Amsterdam Barge Orchestra, or the poster advertising two of early music's most distinguished singers: Michael Chance the counter-tenor and Rogers Covey the crump-tenor.

I am honoured to be invited to speak today. This lecture is a spin-off from the inaugural festival lecture given three years ago by Nicholas Kenyon, a brilliant, succinct summary of the past, present and potential of the whole early music movement. Please note, however, that what I call early music is extremely limited at one end - I am not qualified to comment on any repertoire before the violin came of age in 1600 - and unlimited at the other, because I see no date where music stops being early. The same questions about performance practice apply to all pieces, old and new.

As a teenager I was lucky to have a violin teacher, Rosemary Rapaport, who encouraged her students to play the music of Bach and Handel. A great friend of hers was the by-then former Principal of the Royal Academy of Music, Sir Thomas Armstrong, and I still vividly remember playing Handel sonatas in village concerts to the thunderous, thrilling, Victorian accompaniment of Sir Thomas on a jangling piano. At university I met The Cambridge Musick, the gambist Mark Levy, recorder player Robert Ehrlich and harpsichordist Richard Egarr, now director of The Academy of Ancient Music. They all encouraged me to try the baroque violin. Actually, forced is a better word for it. They borrowed an instrument on my behalf from the Music Faculty (because I was a classicist, not a music student) and showed me a poster with my name on it for a concert the following week. I am now very grateful to them but I'm not sure I was at the time. The baroque violin was painful to play and excruciating to listen to. We called that instrument 'the Airfix violin', because it was more glue than wood. My next violin was 'the Lawnmower', so called not so much because my father found it sticking out of a lawnmower in the Portobello Road but because certain combinations of notes set up extraordinary overtones so that I sounded like I was cutting the grass.

Anyway, I survived all that - and everyone has their story of how they saw the light with period instruments and performance practice. Nowadays, it is all much simpler. In an early music context, h.i.p.p.y is a respectable acronym: historically informed performance practitioner. Gone are the days when 'modern' musicians, by which I mean normal, conventional, mainstream performers, referred to h.i.p.pies as 'pondlife'. Early music has struggled its way to the very heart of the establishment. Young players today have no idea how hard it was for those pioneers, my teachers, whose efforts were often met with ridicule. We all owe them a huge debt of gratitude and my own long list of benefactors includes Simon Standage, Ton Koopman and Christopher Hogwood.

Three other musicians were of particular importance. The Leonhardts, Gustav and Marie, were inspiring, encouraging and demanding and they generously gave to young musicians, who seemed to be genuinely interested, access to a huge cupboard in their kitchen that was filled with thousands of pages of manuscripts, copied laboriously (and beautifully) during many months they had spent in dusty libraries and archives. Nowadays it is easy to get hold of facsimiles or clean modern editions and recordings of almost anything. Even that aspect of the struggle has gone.

Another important figure for me was Reinhard Goebel. Goebel's musical imagination can elevate second-rate music to the level of masterpiece, which is a necessary skill with much baroque repertoire; in the 1970s and 80s his obsessive attention to phrasing, nuance, bow speed, intonation and ensemble sounded revolutionary. It took what was achievable on period instruments to a new level. And Goebel was of course famous for his avant-garde tempos. Nicholas Kenyon mentioned in his Lufthansa Lecture the 1986 concert of the first three Brandenburg Concertos. It took about forty-five minutes and everyone present will have vivid memories of that concert. Mine include the way that the acoustic of St James, Piccadilly, enabled us to hear simultaneously the scurrying of the semiquavers as well as the Schenkerian slowness of Bach's large-scale harmonic structures. And I will never forget the bulging eyes of the viola player in that bit in no.3 (which you know about if you play the viola), or the horrified faces of some of the audience.

Although I have never met Reinhard Goebel, I have had the great pleasure of hearing and making music with many wonderful h.i.p. musicians and orchestras around the world. Experienced listeners will be familiar with the characteristic sounds of different ensembles. National stereotyping is always a clumsy tool, and different ensemble directors usually have more of an impact on sound than nationality per se, but there is something you might call an English sound; also French, German, Flemish/Dutch and Italian, just to speak of Europe. The different approaches and attitudes one encounters are fascinating. In Germany, for example, orchestral musicians regularly quote treatises at one another - Bach, Quantz, Mozart, Tromlitz - treatises which their English counterparts likely as not have not read for years, if ever. On the other hand, German violinists would think nothing of using modern shoulder pads or chin-rests with which the English would not be seen dead. There are many such differences within the world of early music, some running so deep that they remind me of the schisms in the early Church. You would hardly know they were worshipping the same God. But they are, of course, sharing the commonsense approach to music-making that we now call historically informed performance practice.

In recent years I have mostly been working with modern orchestras, where I see at first hand the positive ways in which the early music movement has changed mainstream practices. When I say modern, you know what I mean, though it would be more correct to say that historically informed, period-instrument ensembles are the newer, more modern phenomenon, whereas many so-called modern ensembles have been preserving old habits and traditions, some of them for generations. To a non-musician it probably seems incredible that anyone was ever not playing music as the composer intended, using appropriate styles, techniques and instruments. In that sense, the ideas behind the h.i.p. movement are entirely logical. Some of these logical practices have been adopted by modern orchestras. You quite often find a mixture of instruments, for example, period and modern, played side-by-side. Natural trumpets and horns, narrow bore trombones, small timpani, wooden flutes, which never died completely but nowadays raise no eyebrows. You sometimes spot gut strings and the occasional baroque or classical bow.

At first, I was not sure about these hybrid orchestras but I have been persuaded of the logic of it by the players themselves. Trumpet players, for example, tell me that natural instruments mean that they can play a greater dynamic and expressive range in baroque and classical repertoire without ever being too loud. It is also more of a challenge, more fun and much more difficult, so they can bring that edge-of-the-seat excitement back into a part that, on a modern instrument, is simple to play. Many orchestras have reverted to the old-style seating plan, with second violins opposite firsts. In fact, some orchestras are reluctant to sit any other way and I have found a few particularly resistant to the idea of putting the violins back together again for repertoire that really needs it, such as Britten and Tippett. Some orchestras and conductors have made the change from dog-eared old editions to the new scholarly urtexts of standard repertoire which have been published in the last two decades.

Progress is still slow, however, when it comes to the question of text. One problem, even when good editions are used, is that, as rehearsals proceed, information is scribbled into orchestral parts. This is a relatively modern problem because musicians simply did not have pencils two hundred years ago - and they would never dream of writing on the music! In rehearsals nowadays, layers of information build up, mostly only of temporary, local relevance, some of it conflicting, most of it not just useless in the long term but downright destructive as far as the original text goes. This is one way that so-called traditions build up. Charles Rosen has called 'tradition' a synonym for laziness. I would not go that far but I would say that to work out how to distinguish between a valid tradition going back to the music's inception, in the music's favour, so to speak, and what is a bad habit that changes its essence, remains as difficult as ever, with both h.i.p. and modern ensembles. These layers easily enter the music but it is nobody's job to remove them.

And they build up fast. I remember seeing this happen in a rehearsal. The music was by Bartók, a composer who knew what he wanted and expressed himself more clearly than most in his scores. The conductor, who has probably never heard of the early music movement, turned to the violins and said, "I need more sound. Please break the slurs and use more bow." Reluctantly, the players did what he asked. (Orchestras function a little like armies: they had no choice.) "I need more sound" - one of the ugliest things I heard a musician say. I would challenge every word of that statement as well as its overall sentiment. There was no reflection on the part of the conductor: "What is the problem here? Why am I not getting enough from the violins? Is the tempo wrong? Or the prevailing dynamic? Or the balance of the orchestra as a whole? Is it my expectations which are at fault?" But no: "I need more sound. Change the text." And the change was made, Bartók's immaculate phrase was altered and it will probably stay that way for players using those parts until a conductor like me turns up and begs the musicians to revert to the original.

I don't think a rehearsal or even an hour of rehearsal goes by without my asking the players to do what the composer wrote. Usually most problems of tempo, balance, ensemble, phrasing, nuance and often intonation melt away instantly. The h.i.p. ensembles have the advantage of starting from the intention to play what was written. The problem then shifts to the next level: understanding what is meant by what is written. There are at least two ways in which I have found modern orchestras have the advantage over period-instrument ensembles when it comes to playing early music. Firstly, they can easily juxtapose repertoire from different eras to make interesting programme combinations: a 'Brandenburg' Concerto alongside Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks; Purcell next to Britten or Dowland next to Per Nørgård, as I do next week. A second advantage is the overwhelming sense of joy and adventure modern ensembles bring to early music. Any orchestra can sound jaded playing its core repertoire. Handel's Water Music with a period orchestra or Beethoven's Fifth Symphony with a modern band can be difficult to get off the ground. Exchange the repertoire and you have a different story, which perhaps accounts in part for the huge and deserved success the h.i.p. orchestras had with Beethoven symphonies in the late 1980s. There were musicians there who had perhaps thought that they would never get to play Beethoven, so they were better able to communicate the thrill and the difficulties experienced by the first musicians who played those symphonies.

For similar reasons, some of the most exciting orchestral Bach and Handel I have heard in recent years was from modern orchestras. This is why it rather saddens me that, although the h.i.p. world has resulted in far more opportunities to hear baroque and classical music than fifty years ago, the number of musicians performing it is still rather small. H.i.p. ensembles have been hugely successful commercially, touring and recording - and all credit to them - but an unintended consequence of that success was to exclude many mainstream musicians who simply avoided repertoire before 1800. I often meet wonderful performers on modern instruments who apologize to me when they play Bach or Haydn, as if they somehow lack qualifications the music requires. They perhaps think that h.i.p. specialists have their noses in books all the time. Musicology has indeed been an important part of the early music movement but few performing musicians, even h.i.p.pies, actually read the stuff. Their argument is that you will not learn how to become a performer of anything by reading a book, just as you will not learn how to swim or drive a car. I know I am not typical but I think it a pity that, to quote Charles Rosen again, musicology is of about as much interest to musicians as ornithology is too birds.

Modern musicians have perhaps another advantage over their h.i.p. counterparts in that they are generally more familiar with the process of performing new music. Several h.i.p. ensembles do commission new music but, when it comes to old music, it can be hard to recapture the original spark, which is one of the early music movement's manifesto aims. My own encounters with living composers have only confirmed an approach I usually use with dead ones: if (let's say) Vivaldi was to walk in to a rehearsal of The Four Seasons, and if we were to ask him about tempo or sound or ornaments and so on, I believe he would answer, "I know how I do it but you are playing it not me." Baroque and classical composers trusted performers, expected them even, to bring their own ideas and personality into the music. This was factored in to the music. As Quantz said, though I am paraphrasing him, "it's the way you tell 'em." I find most composers today are delighted when performers meet them halfway. There are exceptions, of course, but that indefinable contribution a musician inevitably brings to every piece cannot be notated. Western musical notation is anyway notoriously poor at expressing much at all, but the majority of markings in pre-1800 music are meant to be helpful not prohibitive, expressions of trust which are sometimes misinterpreted as diktats.

This brings me to one of my favourite composer quotes. Actually it is an alleged quote but, even if it's not true, I still love the idea it encapsulates. When he heard Leonard Bernstein's recording of his Rite of Spring, Igor Stravinsky is alleged to have said, "Wow!" Should h.i.p. performances be trying to get a "Wow" from the composer? Better that, I would argue, than what happens with some h.i.p. performances that sound like they are aiming not for a "Wow!" but for a "Yes, well done", or are merely trying to avoid a "No, not like that". One of the less attractive results of h.i.p. awareness has been the creation of a false impression that there is a right way and many wrong ways to do things, that we know the right way and you don't. I could not disagree more with the small number of h.i.p. fanatics who say that early music should never be played except on period instruments. To me, what is going on between a musicians' ears is far more important than what instrument he/she is holding. Some of the most moving solo Bach I ever heard was played by marimba and vibraphone players at the Oslo academy. All those h.i.p. trappings - correct text, stylistic awareness, appropriate techniques, sensitivity to the instrument's capabilities and so on - all those do contribute to meaningful performances of early music but as a supplement to, not a replacement of the performer's innate musical instinct. The little h.i.p. learning I have acquired serves to educate my musical instinct. In concert, however, I follow that instinct rather than the memory of something I read in a book.

Now to a thorny issue Nicholas Kenyon referred to in his talk, the opinion which used to be voiced quite often that instrumentalists turn to early music because they are not able to 'cut it' in the modern world. You do not hear this said publicly much any more, because the commercial success and the polish of h.i.p. ensembles cannot be denied, but it is often voiced in private. And when I look at my own career, I admit that there is a lot of truth to it. On my baroque violin (not the lawnmower I hasten to add) I played all over the world, doing recitals and concertos at some of the most prestigious venues. This would not have happened if I had played exactly the same on a modern violin. It was the early music, h.i.p. context that enabled me to do much of what I did. There was one small drawback: the h.i.p. performer faces the judgement of professional critics on two fronts: first, was the concert/recording any good? second, was it h.i.p. enough? But this is nothing compared to the searing heat of scrutiny modern performers face. A New York Times article last year pointed out that for concert pianists today faultless, dazzling technical perfection has become de rigueur. The same could be said of all modern instrument soloists. I know of very few h.i.p.pies who can match the virtuosity routinely expected of modern soloists.

But it is not just about the concerto players at the sharp end of the pyramid. In modern orchestras the technical level of principal and rank-and-file playing far exceeds that usually found in h.i.p. ensembles. But - and there must be a but after my saying that - technical perfection is not everything. We can be more moved by a folk singer with zero technique than a top operatic diva, by a child fiddling a tune than a chart-topping classical superstar. I personally find that perfection can even deaden a performance, whereas a dose of imperfection can enhance it, make it more human. I give as an example one area of performance of particular importance to early music where technical perfection is an actual impediment, an area in which h.i.p.pies should shine but often do not: improvisation. Perfection and improvisation are incompatible unless you happen to be a Mozart or a Bach. Perfection remains the unspoken, misguided goal of most conservatoire curricula despite it being unattainable, whereas improvisation, a truly creative art, is rarely taught or recognized in schools. By improvisation I do not mean simply playing notes other than those written on the page but the huge territory ranging from the notes to the magical things that can happen in a performance as a result of circumstances, the nature of the venue or of the audience, the mood of the performer, or the unexpected arrival of a bolt of inspiration.

The earlier you go when looking at repertoire, the more improvisation is a necessary, integral part of the music's make-up. Firstly, playing notes not written on the page: let's say that Corelli walks in. His famous Op.5 violin sonatas were republished during his lifetime with his own ornaments. Having recovered from the shock that we are still playing his music, I think he would be amazed that so many violinists slavishly reproduce these ornaments in concert. He wrote them as guidance, to help amateurs, to help lost causes sound like the real McCoy. Looking across the whole repertoire, he would be shocked, and the h.i.p. community ought to be ashamed of itself, at how little genuine improvisation goes on, even today after all these years of specialization. (Playing more of the treasure trove of seventeenth-century repertoire, a grievously neglected century, would do a lot to remedy this.) The ability to improvise is not a God-given gift. It is a technique like any other that needs study and thought and practice. It also needs a dose of courage but no more than any performance. Years ago I remember eaves-dropping on Robert Levin, the scholar and keyboard player famous for his ability to improvise cadenzas and fantasias in various styles. He was practicing cadenzas for that evening's Mozart concerto concert. "Aha!", I thought. "I caught him out." More fool me! That evening he invented totally new music. He had, of course, been practicing the art of improvising. I have never heard him play the same cadenza twice. And I cherish the memory of Gustav Leonhardt improvising on a spinet in the kitchen while the kettle boiled, avoiding a perfect cadence until the coffee was ready.

As an example of the other end of the improvisation spectrum, I share something that happened to Richard Egarr and me. We prepared a programme of Biber's 'Rosary' sonatas and went touring with it. The 'Rosary' sonatas are pretty serious stuff so you can imagine our surprise when one day we walked on stage to face an audience made up predominantly of children. And then the very next day, same programme, we walk on and find a hall full, and I mean packed full of hundreds of Catholic nuns and clergymen. Same music, totally different performances.

These improvisation techniques I am describing stand at the opposite pole from a phenomenon which I feel has dogged early music interpretations for a while now, a sort of interpretative shortcut. It's a technique I have heard well described as 'pencil music'. A musician puts his/her instrument aside, picks up the score and a pencil and decides what to do to the music. Loud here, soft there, long and short notes, slow here, crazy fast there, now scratch a bit: that'll sell some records! This is where some musicians are trying too hard to get a "Wow!" from the composer, or from anyone. The pencil music approach is not a major crime, although it easily leads to the (for me) greater crime of being boring, because performances designed by pencil tend to get locked in and reproduced unthinkingly, regardless of the acoustic, audience or context. Actually, pencil music can have some entertaining results, but there was a time when it was so rife that we needed an international moratorium on recordings of certain pieces. The 'Brandenburg' Concertos and The Four Seasons were two prominent victims. Maybe you saw that CD cover showing a bullet shattering a violin? That picture said it all. Interpretations started sounding competitive rather than creative. Vivaldi's storms were all apocalyptic, Spring was high on speed and that slow movement dog had become a hound of hell. I am glad to say, things have calmed down a bit recently. Not that the music itself cares a jot. However much we abuse a piece today, it is still there tomorrow, pristine, patiently awaiting the next round of abuse, like Prometheus' liver. I take comfort in that.

Musicians are lucky that they can do no permanent harm to their material compared to the irreversible damage inflicted on the plastic arts, as reported by the ArtWatch organization for example. So what, you might ask, is the difference between 'pencil music' and the improvisation techniques I just talked about? They both mean doing something to the music. One man's abuse is another's delight. Yes, fair point. I can only give my own opinion, my own solution to avoid the dangers of pencil music, which is that the interpretative decisions we make, whatever we do to the music, should come from within the music itself, should be inspired by the text. Every piece has harmony, rhythm, tessitura and context and that already offers the performer countless interpretative possibilities. The way to learn what to do with a Corelli sonata is to study not just that sonata but Corelli's eighty-odd other pieces, and then play the hundreds of Italian sonatas written in the decades before and after. You will soon find the music making its own suggestions about how it should be played. Again it is a case of educating your instinct so that you can follow it. No need for a pencil at all!

Music-lovers familiar with the h.i.p. approach and comfortable with its cerebral side might be amazed how many modern musicians rely almost wholly on instinct. Forget musical text and context, the instrument's capabilities, questions of style, technique and so on which are so important in the hi.p. world: for those musicians, instinct, tradition and the realities of the performing situation are virtually all that matters. As one famous conductor put it recently: "The notes are just signs." And there we would all probably agree with him. But then he went on, "You have to go behind [the notes] and see what your fantasy tells you." There is a whole stage missing there, between notes and fantasy, which the h.i.p. approach supplies.

I know I sound judgmental - and I do not mean to. In fact, I rather envy those musicians who are untroubled by h.i.p. practicalities, who are comfortable armed with little more than their own convictions and inherited solutions. And I envy the musicians who were performing before the early music movement started its archaeological digging. In fact, I end with a confession, which I will illustrate with two short extracts from a Mozart violin concerto, chosen to represent a pre-h.i.p., old-fashioned approach, and the modern, historically informed, period instrument way.

Musical examples 1 & 2

Someone with my early music credentials should be rather disapproving of the first recording, lovely though it clearly is. It breaks many h.i.p. rules: a metal-strung violin with a modern set-up and long, heavy, modern bow, anachronistic bow strokes and fingerings, inappropriate vibrato, the orchestra too big, a totally unnecessary conductor, the pitch is wrong, the edition wrong... I could go on and on. The second recording on the other hand ticked most of those h.i.p. boxes, so my vote clearly ought to go to that. But herein lies my problem. It is not simply that I like the first recording. I love it! It was the very first record I ever owned: Christian Ferras, accompanied by the French National Orchestra with Carl Schuricht conducting. I love its flaws as much as its virtues. Even I, a confirmed cannot rid myself of an attachment to tradition. But that's not my biggest problem. My biggest problem is that the violinist on that second recording, supported by the excellent English Concert, is myself, but I still cast my vote for Ferras!

The h.i.p. approach too often puts knowledge above instinct, intellect above wisdom, head above heart. I know I am generalizing to a dangerous extent and that there are many wonderful things being done within the world of early music, but, rather than complementing the natural musical impulse, the h.i.p. approach sometimes sounds as if it has displaced that impulse. To sum up, I have touched on some of the challenges that face the world of h.i.p. performance: to raise standards, recognize and act on the trust placed in performers by composers, dare to experiment with the repertoire's inherent freedoms, freedoms the repertoire itself demands and, instead of sounding like the real thing, be the real thing.

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