Monday, January 30, 2012

Croissant Français review

For anyone interested, you can find a review of Thursday's concert at the Mozarteum, Croissant Français, here. My own German is quite poor, so I don't understand it all, but it seems positive!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Rhetoric in French Baroque Musical Thought

So, I mentioned in my last post that I'd written my thesis (well, technically it was a 'research paper', but basically a short thesis) on rhetoric and French baroque music. Then I thought, why don't I let everyone have a look? So, here it is!

Keep in mind, this was a university paper, so it was necessarily limited in scope, and of course there will be some holes in my research and so forth. I acknowledge that it is not perfect! But it is interesting, and if you're into this sort of stuff, hopefully you'll learn something.

And of course, the bibliography is a good spot to look for some sources on French baroque music!

Croissant Français: An Internal Critique

On Thursday, I took part in the end of semester project for the early music department at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, a concert of French baroque music entitled Croissant Français. The program featured movements from Lully's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, Charpentier's Sonate à huit, a Boismortier chamber concerto, Saint-Colombe's Concert "Tombeau Les Regrets", and Rebel's Les caractères de la dance. It was quite a large project, involving some 22 performers from both within and outside of the university, and masterminded by the newest addition to the Mozarteum's early music department, the brilliant gamba player Vittorio Ghielmi.

Let me begin by saying that the concert, as a whole, was an overwhelming success. The audience enjoyed it very much, everything came off without any major hitches, and we even managed enough applause to get to our encore piece, the entrance of Les Sauvages from Rameau's Les Indes galantes. But as a performer, it was clear that many (including myself) were not as happy as they could have been about the final result. I don't wish to belittle the achievement of getting this concert together in any way, but I think there are lessons to be learned from the way the project was handled, and I think it would be useful to anyone attempting a project of a similar scale to discuss some of the issues involved.

First, and most obviously, all of the rehearsals were bunched up into the three days before the performance. The overall amount of rehearsal time was pretty good - we really did use the whole days - but there was no time to consolidate what we had rehearsed, so many of us went into the performance very uncertain of which edits were correct, or at least which ones we actually had under our fingers. I think it's very important, where possible, to spread the rehearsals out, at least with a day between each one when doing full-day rehearsals, so that everything has time to settle.

Of course, that's easy to say, and not necessarily easy to do. Vittorio is constantly travelling, teaching and playing in different cities, and can't always commit to longer rehearsal periods. In this situation, perhaps some preliminary rehearsals could be delegated to an advanced student, not necessarily to work on the nitty-gritty details, but to at least work through the overall shapes of the pieces with some general instructions. With the exception of the Rebel in this instance, which is really all about the details, I think this could have saved a lot of time and left us feeling much more comfortable on the day. And, of course, it would be good experience for the students!

There was also an issue with differing understandings of the style. French music creates possibly more arguments among early musicians than the music of any other nation when it comes to interpretation. The information provided from the period can be both vague and contradictory, and sometimes seem completely irrelevant - as in several movement of the Charpentier, which seem far more Italian than French in most respects. But the bigger problem in this instance was the number of students who really knew nothing about French style at all, apart from a vague idea about inégale (usually too far on he pointed side, rather than a relaxed swing), and the overture-style over-dotting.

The solution? Well, as I discussed with Dorothee Oberlinger, the head of the department, we really need to have seminars on aspects of style associated with these projects, so that everyone involved has at least a certain minimum level of understanding going into them. Perhaps some easy, helpful readings and recordings should also be recommended, or dispersed by email. We did have a workshop with a French historical dancer in December, but that really only looked at how to approach dance movements, and even then it often seemed very vague as to how we should associate it with the music.

Of course, there will always be some disputes - having written my Honours thesis on rhetoric in French baroque music, I often disagreed with Vittorio's interpretations, based on findings from my own research. And perhaps with more time, some of these alternative interpretations could have been discussed. As it was, I had to content myself with knowing that there was not enough time to argue these finer points, and just get on with the job. In professional life, one gets used to this. But in an educational setting, it seems to me that having the extra time to do this really could be to the benefit of everyone involved.

Finally, I should mention the necessity of maintaining a goal-focussed approach in rehearsals. This is the only criticism I really must level at Vittorio. Often, we would endeavour to work on a small, specific section, but would end up just rolling on halfway through the piece, wasting valuable time that really needed to be spent on getting those individual sections right, before they all got pieced together. It's not that there's anything wrong with just playing through - indeed, it's a necessity for having a good sense of the piece, and being able to play the whole comfortably - but in a situation with limited time, it is important to know what you are working on, to get it to a level you're happy with, then move on.

This time issue also ends up creating other problems: rehearsals on particular works going well over time, people hanging around for ages waiting their turn to play, not enough rehearsal on works scheduled for later in the rehearsal period (the Charpentier and Boismortier were really neglected, and it showed in performance), and general frustration and exhaustion from both the players and the conductor. Clearly structured, focussed rehearsals are really important in any project, but particularly with this many players involved!

One more thing: the biggest musical issue in rehearsal was, in my opinion, everyone staying in time with each other. Inégale and typically French cross-rhythms can make timing very difficult, but it also means it's incredibly important. Vittorio recognised this - we talked a lot about it, and he got rather riled up about it at times - but I think he could have gone further in making the beat clear. Why not bring in a drum? Or, even better, bring in a Lully-esque staff, to keep time on the floor! If they needed it then, when the style was so well known to them, how is it that we think we can do without it now? We needed that strong beat that we could actually hear - conducting for this kind of music can be very unclear!

But if you do get such a staff, do be careful not to stab yourself in the foot. We don't want you ending up like Lully, do we?

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Some Shameless Self-Promotion

In case anyone is interested, I'm on YouTube!

At this point it's just bits and pieces from my recitals during my studies in New Zealand, but over time I hope to add more recent videos. Well, as soon as I get myself a Zoom Q3 HD!

That could be a while ...

... so if anyone's wondering, yes, I will play for weddings and other social gatherings. For money.

Note for a (possibly ex) Friend

Just a quick link here; my dear friend Eva was the winner of the 2011 Moeck/SRP Competition in London, and she made the mistake of posting a link to a profile article on Facebook. Hooray for complicated and convoluted privacy settings!

She'll probably kill me for putting it up here ... but if your German's okay, it's worth a look to check out one of Europe's rising recorder stars (yes, Eva, that's you). Complete with some audio snippets from her prize-winning performance! Have a look!

Album review: Buxtehude | Reinken

As I was perusing the instruments of one Monsieur Philippe Bolton in Vienna (see my earlier post on Resonanzen) I noticed a few CDs sitting by the recorders on his table. I thought that perhaps they were albums featuring his instruments, but it turned out that they actually featured his daughter, Florence Bolton, a viola da gamba player, with her group La Rêveuse. Always on the lookout for new and exciting ensembles to listen to, I asked Philippe to recommend one of the four albums on offer. What I ended up with, after a quick listen on his iPod, was an album featuring Buxtehude's three sonatas for two violins, gamba, and continuo, and Reinken's Hortus Musicus I and IV. I won't go into the group's (impressive) biography, because you can quite easily find that yourselves via a quick internet search. Or, if you're feeling lazy, you can click here.

Let me start by saying that I know little about Buxtehude, except that he was known as an incredible organist and wrote some beautiful cantatas, and I know even less about Reinken. Fortunately for me, the liner notes are very detailed! It turns out the two men, who were most likely of about the same age, were possibly the two greatest organists before the turn of the eighteenth century, and were also extremely close friends. Indeed, the concept for the album is based on a painting - part of which is displayed on the album's cover - in which Buxtehude plays the viol as Reinken accompanies on the harpsichord. It is likely this painting was based on a real event, as it is known that Reinken often received Buxtehude, who was based in Lübeck, at his home in Hamburg.

But I digress. I don't want to go into the historical details here (that's Wikipedia's job), but to tell you about the music! I ask that you remember here that I am not a music critic, but a performer of early music, so what I will give you here is my reaction as a performer. None of that ridiculous hoity-toity nonsense you'll find in the arts pages. So, here goes nothing.

It would take me a very, very long review to write something about every piece, so I will try to be a little more general, with a few specifics to demonstrate my points. Let's start with Reinken. The sonatas of Reinken's Hortus Musicus are written broadly in the French style, each with an opening Sonata reminiscent of the French Ouverture, and then broken into a number of typically French dance movements. All of these sonatas use the same movement structure: SonataAllemand, Courant, Saraband, and Gigue.

And the ensemble's treatment of these two sonatas is indeed very French, including their use of French ornamentation, inégale treatment of scale passages, and over-dotting in the opening movements. The justification for this treatment seems to be based solely on the French movement titles; at least, no additional justification is given in the liner notes. Personally, I like this interpretation very much. It creates a beautiful flow both within and between movements, a sense of grandeur in the opening sonatas, and a real sense of the dances in the other movements. I would be very interested to know, however, if there is any other historical reason for this type of treatment. I know there are plenty of scholars and performers out there who believe that even Bach's French-style movements, for example, should be treated in this way. But I would be interested to know if Hamburg, or Reinken himself, had any French connection, or if this was a style embraced by musicians in Hamburg at the time. If anyone has thoughts, please feel free to comment!

I do have a couple of criticisms of these performances, though. They lack space. It feels sometimes like the sound is full all the time, with no room to breathe - which, as a recorder player, I think is very important! The sound is gorgeous, to be sure, but sometimes I just wanted a bit more rhythmic definition. These are dance movements after all, and dancers need space in the music for rhythmic clarity. Having just played in a concert of French music in which this was constantly stressed (more on that later), it feels to me that the group chose beauty of sound over, for want of a better word, 'danciness'. This, of course, is their decision to make, and it can go either way, depending on what you want to emphasise. But it did end up with the allemandes and courants sounding remarkably alike, because there wasn't a clear recognition of where the steps in the dances would be.

That said, it's just beautiful music, beautifully played, and if you want your heart-strings pulled you should definitely give it a listen.

There are also three sonatas of Buxtehude on the album; for those who want the details, they're BuxWV 271, 266, and 269, as well as an arrangement of his chaconne BuxWV 159 for two organs. The strength of these interpretations is definitely in the slow movements. Buxtehude's adagios are perhaps not so deeply moving as Reinken's, at least in my humble opinion, but rather they have an exhilarating beauty about them, which the group add to with a wide palette of tone colours and incredibly dynamic ensemble, each player reacting to the actions of the others, creating some really thrilling harmonic movement out of potentially dull moments. Not that Buxtehude should ever be dull, but they really do know how to work with his material in the best possible way. There is still a mild sense of French style, but primarily the execution feels quite Italian, which makes sense; in the liner notes, they acknowledge that the diversity of style found both within these sonatas and within each movement is closely linked with the stylus phantasticus, and this approach is clear.

The diversity is definitely shown off to greater affect in the Buxtehude than the Reinken, each section and movement with its own clear and individual character. However, I do feel that some of the allegro movements could have done with a little more punch. On the whole, they just seem, for my taste, a little too "nice" - especially if we're really talking about the stylus phantasticus. They're still very enjoyable to listen to, but they just all felt a little too measured. The presto in the second sonata on the album just passed as a presto, but with its very clear Italian influence, it just felt like I ought to have been on the edge of my seat. I mean, it was quick, and it was more rhythmical than the Reinken, but still a little more bite wouldn't have hurt.

La Rêveuse do say that their specialty is finding the poetry in early music, and bringing out its rhetorical aspect. This they do brilliantly. It really feels like everything is being sung rather than played. And I know that these works were likely to have been written for use in church, and could therefore not be too "frivolous". But guys, the dances still need to be danced to! A bit of lightness and space, please - yes, I'm talking to you too, basso continuo!

The last sonata on the album feels the freest and most relaxed to me, and in general a lot more exciting. The soloists certainly take plenty of liberty in the three solo movements, but this is in keeping with the style. There do seem to be times, though, when they are speeding up in that wonderful, Italianate manner, ready to display their fantastic virtuosity in these harmonically rising patterns, but the tempo just seems to stop increasing to early, before I as the listener am really satisfied with their display of brilliance. This is a matter of taste, for sure, and maybe I have listened to Il Giardino Armonico and other such virtuosic Italian groups one too may times. But that also seems to be the style they are trying to emulate in some of these movements, and they just don't create the same level of tension. They do create some, of course, and for many it may seem like more than enough. Just not as much as I'm used to, perhaps.

Overall, this is a beautiful album, well presented, and very cohesive. You can listen from beginning to end, and feel that you have really been moved somewhere deep in your soul. You can just imagine being in a French baroque cathedral, revelling in the waves of sound washing over you, basking in the constant sense of tension and release. But don't expect all of the dance movements in the Reinken to make you want to dance (unless you really like slow-dancing - the sarabands are to die for), or the fast movements to get you on the edge of your seat - though the tension of the harmony might! The style presented is, for the most part, about sound rather than rhythm. Which is great - so long as you recognise that this is where the recording is coming from. They do have their moments though, which make for the occasional pleasant surprise.

This album is readily available; you can find it on iTunes, or order the CD from Amazon. And despite my criticisms, I would say the album is definitely, definitely worth listening to. As much as I would like a little more excitement at times (and there is perhaps a little more than I give it credit for), I really just can't get enough of that sound!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

R.I.P. Gustav Leonhardt (1928-2012)

On Monday, one of the greatest harpsichordists of modern times, Gustav Leonhardt, died in his home in Amsterdam. He was 83. Leonhardt was an inspiration to generations of early musicians, and even those who did not know him, perhaps had not even heard his performances, or maybe even disliked his playing style or interpretations, respected him deeply for his contribution to the field. I won't go on at length; if you want the facts, you can find them in the New York Times article here, or on Wikipedia. Or just Google him.

I was lucky enough to see Leonhardt perform in Amsterdam, albeit many years ago, when I was just 9 years old. I was on a trip with my mother, travelling around Europe. I can't even remember what he played, except that it was a solo recital, and it featured a lot of Bach. But I do remember the absolute sense of presence, the clear understanding of what he wanted as a performer, and the complete reverence of the audience. It was a surreal and humbling experience for a budding young performer such as myself, especially given both of my parents are also harpsichordists; I had been told for many years that this was the man to listen to. Indeed, he remained so until his death, and will through his recordings for years to come. And nowadays, of course, we can see even some of his earliest performances with ease through YouTube.

Rest In Peace, Gustav. You will be sorely missed.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Early Instruments at Resonanzen In Wien

For those of you who aren't in the know (as I wasn't until recently), there is an early music festival in January of each year entitled Resonanzen, which is held in the Wiener Konzerthaus, which is (obviously) in Vienna, Austria. Now in its twentieth year, this year's festival boasts an impressive lineup, including such celebrated ensembles as Europa Galante, Concerto Italiano, and my personal favourite, Le Concert des Nations. Not to mention the many renowned soloists, and various associated films; the complete program for the festival can be found here (at least for the next couple of weeks).

But I digress. As much as I would have liked to be, I was not there to listen to the festival's marvelous offerings on the occasion, but rather to attend the historical instruments exhibition that has become a regular feature of its opening weekend. I myself was looking particularly for an early baroque alto recorder and a high baroque soprano recorder, but I made sure to try out various wares from all the makers represented (excepting the big brands such as Mollenhauer and Moeck), and to take lots of photos for your viewing pleasure. So, in the spirit of musical inquiry, here are my findings!

The maker with whom I spent the most time was the only Frenchman represented, Monsieur Philippe Bolton, a lovely gentleman who was very generous with his time, and very forthcoming with his thoughts on recorder styles and building techniques. The recorders you can see at the front of his collection were of particular interest; the sopranos are modelled from a mid-seventeenth-century extant instrument in Edinburgh, made by an Englishman-turned-Dutchman, Richard Haka. The altos behind them are an enlarged version of the same basic design. Philippe believes Haka created this instrument to match the visual style of older instruments he discovered after moving to Holland, as it does appear closer to many late-renaissance instruments, though the sound, in my opinion, has the brilliance and sweetness typical of early baroque recorders. I spent substantial time testing the alto, and found it to be very capable in all registers, with greater evenness of volume and tone than the more typical Ganassi instruments. The only small issue on the alto model is the greater stretch required of the little finger, because the instrument is slightly narrower and therefore longer than most. However, for my larger hand size this actually proved to be an added incentive. I will certainly be ordering one of these for myself when I am able.

For those interested in more 'alternative' recorder playing (requiring amplification and so forth), you may be interested to know that Philippe has also developed in many of his recorder models a system for adding an internal mic to the recorder, allowing you to perform without being stuck behind a mic stand! You can find details of Philippe's recorders on his website, here. He will also be taking classes on recorder building in the 2ème Academie de Musique et de Danse Ancienne, part of the Festival du Baroque du Pays du Mont Blanc, in July. The courses there are typically only in French, but Philippe has told me that he is more than happy to accommodate English-speakers! Details of the festival are available on his website.

As a side note, the CDs displayed on the left are albums featuring his daughter, Florence Bolton, and accomplished viola da gamba player, and her group, La Rêveuse. I purchased one of these, and was highly impressed. A review will hopefully follow in the next few days!

The next maker that I feel deserves a mention is Ralf Netsch, a German maker from Schleiz, a small town south of Leipzig. On the surface, Ralf's recorders simply look amazing. The carving on one of his baroque alto models (see the inset) is absolutely beautiful, and his wood combinations create fantastic colour contrasts. But after playing all of his models, I can say that he is quite simply a wonderful maker. His recorders consistently have a full, open tone, and all have a very accessible high register without sacrificing the low, something I personally take as the mark of a real perfectionist, an important characteristic in an instrument maker! I was most impressed with his use of ebony in Ganassi alto construction; these recorders typically use a lighter wood, but his variation creates a very bold, very present instrument that sounds absolutely superb, more than making up for its extra weight in pure resonance. His 'Van Eyck' model is also among the best of this type that I have come across, with the perfect light but brilliant tone for early baroque solo soprano repertoire. Both of these are now on my 'to buy' list!

Netsch does not have a website, unfortunately, but if you would like to see his price list (including colour pictures of all models) you can email him.

Now we come to Doris Kulossa, another German, this time from Bochum, west of Dortmund. Apart simply being a lovely lady, and a very, very good recorder builder, Doris makes one particular model that caught my eye (and my ear): an early baroque soprano instrument by an anonymous Italian maker of the late seventeenth century. This instrument has a much greater clarity in the high register than I am used to in instruments of this period, at least without splitting an eardrum, with the added bonus of a low end that's nearly as flexible as a good Ganassi, and much more in keeping with the tone of the rest of the instrument.  It also has greater volume flexibility that most recorders, without sacrificing pitch accuracy. Her own Ganassi's were also among the best on offer, and her high baroque altos modelled after Steerbergen, not one of the best known styles, provide a very deep and complex tone, and once again a good balance of accessibility in the high register versus volume and roundness of tone in the bottom end.

Doris has a website which is currently available in German, French, and Italian, but it appears to be in the process of being translated into English and Spanish as well.

These were the three makers who impressed me most as makers, and I must say, they were also the three that simply seemed happiest to be makers! I suppose there's nothing like loving your job to get you working at your best. But there were a couple of other makers that I think also deserve honourable mentions for particular instruments.

Luca de Paolis, a maker from Italy, makes absolutely wonderful, deep, resonant voiceflutes after both Bressan and Denner, and his tenor, though a little on the heavy side, displays similar qualities. His real skill, however, seems to be in his early 'Praetorius', cylindrical, and transitional recorders, all of which had beautifully open tone and were very easy to play. Luca also makes a number of rare models, including the evasive 'fourth flute' (in both B-flat and A, between soprano and alto recorders), and the cylindrical 'bassetto', available in both G and F. You can find Luca's website here.

Francesco Li Vighi (who unfortunately kept wandering around, so I never managed to get a photo of him) makes one of the best Stanesby altos around in my opinion, nice and open without requiring too much air, and with just a slight hint of huskiness that is more typical of the narrower Denner models. He also makes a fine voiceflute after Bressan. But most impressive were his sopranos, which had the most accessible high register of any of the instruments I tried, and which were generally very sweet sounding. His sopraninos also deserve a mention; apart from simply being good instruments, these slightly longer, narrower sopraninos are some of the few useable by someone with abnormally large hands, such as myself! Francesco can be contacted by email.

Finally, I would like to mention the Köllner-Dives instruments. I had the pleasure of meeting Heinrich and Maria when they came to Salzburg a couple of months ago, so this was my second chance to try out their instruments. Personally, I feel that their baroque instruments, early and late, while often very good, are quite inconsistent in both tone quality and precision of tuning. However, if you are interested in early renaissance and medieval instruments, theirs are absolutely fabulous. In particular their early tenor instruments create some simply breathtaking sounds. You can find information about their instruments and workshop on their website.

There were of course a number of other makers at the festival, and not only of recorders. There were several harpsichord makers, a cornetto maker, makers of all kinds of early string instruments, guitars and lutes, organs, even early percussion was represented. Not to mention the vast array of sheet music on offer, including a lot of music and treatises than can be difficult to find, several volumes of which ended up coming home with me. There is no doubt that many (though certainly not all) of the makers here are not yet so well known and trying to make their mark. Famous makers have no need of events such as these; they already have waiting lists several years long.

But that's exactly why I found this event so appealing. I was learning about makers I didn't already know about, making the choice for myself as to what I liked and disliked about the instruments of particular makers, rather than relying on the word of my teacher or the recommendations of others. I feel that I discovered some truly great makers at this festival. And you know what? I would rather buy an instrument from someone who takes the time to come to an event of this type, who I can talk to about the instrument, try it out in front of them, give them direct feedback, than put myself on a waiting list with someone I've never met, no matter how good their instruments are supposed to be.

Well, unless it's a Schwob or something. I don't think I could pass that up.

Welcome, Welcome! (To the Muses' Feast)

Welcome All to my new blog, the 'Early Bird Extra'!

For those of you who stumble across this page randomly, as unlikely as that might be, here's a little background: I'm an Australian recorder player currently living and studying in Salzburg, Austria. I am also attempting to learn cornetto, have some experience with the harpsichord, and for some reason have a politics degree, which at the very least has taught me to write quite well.

This blog is intended to be both interesting and entertaining for all the folks interested in early music out there, as well as an educational experience for me: I will be reviewing books, CDs, DVDs, concerts and other events, and perhaps occasionally ranting about the state of the historical music world. With any luck, I will be doing so reasonably regularly.

If this sounds like your cup of tea, please read on!

And if you have any suggestions for books, CDs, or DVDs you would like me to review, please feel free to ask, either here or on twitter.