Friday, November 10, 2006

It ain't what you've got...

Double the usual number of visitors yesterday, following the mensh in the Lebrecht column, so here's a meaty topic to consider, something about which I have a considerable bee in the bonnet.

The other day I had an email from an e-friend on the other side of the world that began 'I know you don't like original instruments, but...'.

Ah, no. Not true. Thing is, it's not the instrument that matters, it's the musicianship. What upsets me is that third-rate interpretations deemed 'historically correct' - whether or not they really are - so often win recommendations ahead of others that may be profound, original and inspired, but happen to be played on a Steinway or a modern-set-up Strad. If a great musician is performing and the spirit shines through, that's what creates exciting music. An instrument, by itself, is really nothing more than a means to an end at best and a curio at worst.

Some absolute geniuses are playing original instruments. I'd go anywhere anytime to hear the fortepianist/harpsichordist Andreas Staier, the counter-tenor Andreas Scholl or the master of classical improvisation Robert Levin. These guys could make magic out of a tin can. (OK, I know Scholl's voice isn't an 'instrument', let alone 'original', but he's an inspirational interpreter of early music and that's the turn-on.)

Violins? More difficult, because producing a fine sound and accurate intonation while using no vibrato, as the 'authenticity' movement still seems to demand, is extremely challenging. How intriguing that in his book, written before little Wolfie was born, Leopold Mozart provides exercises for practising 'tremolato' [= vibrato] that any kid learning the fiddle would recognise. Hard to accept no-vibrato directives as correct when that's staring you in the face. Incidentally, for the total sound-spectrum of all that a violin can do, with vibrato applied as it should be, as an expressive device, albeit not exactly in early music, there's nobody finer than Hungarian Gypsy supremo Roby Lakatos. Meanwhile the best non-vibrato Bach I've heard comes from Ilya Gringolts, who's supposedly still 'modern'.

Perhaps the increasing number of superlative musicians in the early music field, and those beyond who are effectively beating them at their own game, will help to show up the over-celebrated botchers, half-bakers and candle-stick wavers at last.