Classical: Contemporary music, but with period sounds

A new work by John Tavener commissioned by The Academy of Ancient Music? What's going on? By Nick Kimberley
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The Independent Culture
Yesterday's heresy is today's orthodoxy, not least when it comes to how we perform and listen to music. In the case of period instruments, for example, initial resistance has given way to an acknowledgement that if you play Bach, Mozart or Beethoven on the instruments the composers knew, with the techniques they recognised, you may get closer to what they wanted, which may also sound better to contemporary ears. These practises now occupy the musical mainstream, which they certainly didn't in 1973, when Christopher Hogwood founded the Academy of Ancient Music, long recognised as one of Britain's (and therefore the world's) leading period-instrument orchestras.

Paul Goodwin, who in the early years played oboe with the Academy, became its Associate Conductor in 1996. For him, period-instrument performance embraces an acceptance of recurring change, reflected in the history of his own instrument: "The baroque oboe works beautifully as a solo instrument, it can play as subtly as a flute or as loudly as a trumpet. After the baroque era, the demand for what was called Harmoniemusik required a wind section, which necessitated an oboe with a different sound to blend with bassoons and horns. Then 19th-century chromaticism made extra keys necessary, which in turn meant changing the wood of the instrument so that it didn't crack, and that changed the sound still further. The orchestra gets bigger, the pitch at which it plays goes up, so you need instruments with a more penetrating sound. There is a continuum of development, and it is only in the last 50 years that what we think of as the modern oboe has become standardised. It is not a question of pluses and minuses but of horses for courses."

Thus the oboe embodies a symbiosis between aesthetics and technology. Although few practitioners any longer claim definitive authenticity, the movement has changed the way we hear "ancient" music. And as time passes, the "ancient" comes ever closer: Brahms and Mahler, Elgar and Holst have all received period-instrument performances. Now, in a further twist, contemporary composers have heard what period instruments can do, like what they hear, and have started writing for them. The Academy of Ancient Music has commissioned a new work, Eternity's Sunrise, from John Tavener, its recording of which appears this week on CD: thus ancient becomes modern.

For Paul Goodwin, this confirms that "an orchestra of early instruments is an orchestra of today. Of course, there are technical limits. Early instruments can't scream all over the place, they can't play really loudly. Those are things that modern instruments do better with their fantastic intonation, their ability to make very clear sounds within complex textures, and to zap around serial lines. The sort of music that avant-garde composers have written makes use of the extremes that are available to modern instruments. Early instruments offer a different palette, greater flexibility in certain areas, in some cases an ability to bend the notes more, and there are virtuosic early-instrument performers who can do all sorts of wild and wonderful things."

As a composer famously resistant to modernity, John Tavener might be expected to feel at home with the baroque, but he confesses: "In artistic terms, the high baroque is not my favourite period: Austrian churches, Brompton Oratory, all of that I find hideous. What I love, though, is Bach, more than any other Western composer. I try to listen to one Bach cantata every day. I love the way he uses baroque flutes, the baroque oboe, so I was excited by the possibility of those instruments. They have a more sober sound-world than their modern equivalents. I didn't, though, feel it was a question of adapting my music. What I used in Eternity's Sunrise was two flutes, two oboes, lute, bells and baroque strings, with one voice, Patricia Rozario, who has sung a lot of my music. I love the lightness in her voice: I don't want to mention names but I'm not keen on some specialist baroque singers who sing completely without vibrato. That I find uninteresting, dead."

The piece takes its text from William Blake ("... He who kisses the joy as it flies ... lives in Eternity's sunrise"). The composer recalls: "I've always loved Blake's concept of this world being a mirror of the divine, with man having mucked this paradise up so that we're hardly fit to live it any more. Music is one of the few things that can heal that situation, although I'm not sure for how long." Tavener began to think about using the text shortly after the death of his father; then Goodwin suggested that he might use old instruments: "Paul came to see me in the week of Princess Diana's death, and I sensed a kind of synchronicity, so I dedicated the piece to her memory." (Tavener's Song for Athene was performed at Diana's funeral.)

Paul Goodwin is delighted with the results: "From the beginning, John was keen that Eternity's Sunrise should work for these instruments, and if you heard it played on modern instruments, I don't thing it would be as successful. It needs the veiled sound of gut strings, the less focused, woody timbres of baroque flute and piccolo, and that haunting quality you get from a baroque oboe. Although it could only ever be a small part of what we do, I'd like to commission a new work every year. What interests us is to see how someone might write for those sounds today, but we're not interested in any kind of pasticcio. Wouldn't it be fantastic to present a complete concert of new music written for period instruments? I can foresee that happening. So often with new music, the premiere is also the derniere. What we want is pieces, like Eternity's Sunrise, that will go into our repertoire."

The success of period instruments in their "natural" repertoire make it logical that composers, who work with what is available so as to imagine what isn't, should embrace them. While some deride this as post-modern, pre-millennial delirium, in which history disappears up its own fundament, others will welcome these antique timbres into the modern sound-world.

The Academy of Ancient Music's recording of John Tavener's music is available on Harmonia Mundi HUM907231