MUSIC / And the song remains the same: Worrying trends in current approaches to historical performance practice; plus Chinese musicians and dancers in concert

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The Independent Culture
At some point last year the momentum of the early music revival seemed to falter, but this clearly had more to do with the temporary closure of the Wigmore Hall than a falling- off of interest. With the Wigmore reopened and a new concert series at the South Bank, 1993 has got off to a good start and London has retained its status as a major centre for early music. There are not many European cities where you could hear programmes of Morales, Monteverdi and Dowland within the space of four days - and all with capacity audiences.

So everything in the garden is rosy - or is it? These three concerts, though they were of the highest standard, provoked some disturbing questions about where the revival is headed now that it has become such an established part of musical life. All of these groups - the Tallis Scholars, the New London Consort and the Consort of Musicke - are long- serving members of the 'establishment' and have contributed, however unconsciously, to the development of a new orthodoxy. The positive aspects of this are the technical levels that have been achieved and the care and scholarly imagination that consistently go into programming. The Tallis Scholars (at St John's, Smith Square, last Wednesday) set works by the Spanish Renaissance composer Cristobal de Morales alongside those of some of his Franco-Netherlandish contemporaries; the Consort of Musicke (at the Wigmore on Saturday) followed John Dowland's career on a tour of Europe at the turn of the 16th century; and the New London Consort (at the QEH on Friday) offered choreographed versions of three dramatic madrigals by Monteverdi. Full marks to the directors here: our appreciation of all these works was undoubtedly enriched by such well thought-out presentation.

Yet - and here lie the thorns - over the years these groups have become almost alarmingly predictable in the way they approach whatever music they perform. This is not merely because their respective 'soundprints' are so readily identifiable, though this emphasis on consistency of sound probably has much to do with such a homogenised approach. The 'compare and contrast' programmes by the Tallis Scholars and the Consort of Musicke highlighted this problem. Morales was sung in exactly the same way as Clemens or Lassus; Dowland was performed exactly like Caccini. These composers may, as Anthony Rooley pointed out, share an expressive approach to the poetic text, but the means by which that was realised is different.

This raises all sorts of still thornier questions for the historical performer: are we to assume that, as Dowland travelled round Europe, he encountered a universal singing style? Morales worked for many years in Rome, where several contemporary diarists commented on the distinctive vocal qualities of the Spanish singers serving within the papal choir. This would suggest that, while the polyphonic idiom of the Renaissance was basically a common European language, there were distinctive regional approaches and even timbres.

Perhaps it is too much to ask British singers (mostly trained in that peculiarly British tradition, the cathedral or college chapel choir) to attempt such distinctions, but directors should not rely on the often exquisite beauty of their sound to reveal everything about every piece they sing. The danger is not just orthodoxy but complacency.

Lurking here, too, is another well-worn tenet of the historical performance movement: that, given the right force, and the appropriately clean, vibrato-less textures, the music should be allowed to speak for itself. The New London Consort's performances of Monteverdi madrigals served as an all too common example of this laissez-faire interpretative stance. Superficially polished, at times brilliantly so, at a deeper level these were understated accounts of music the very aim of which was to stir the emotions. Even in the Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda there was little sense of pacing or development. John Mark Ainsley sang the role of narrator beautifully (though why he was not distanced on stage from the instruments, as Monteverdi suggested, is a mystery - there were moments when the harpsichord alone drowned him), but needed to bring more overt passion to the concitato passages.

If the musical rhetoric was reserved, Timedance's performance in Tirsi e Clori and Il Ballo delle Ingrate was almost perversely passionless. True, it is perhaps harder for a modern audience to appreciate stylised gesture in movement than in sound, but it is difficult to believe that all human emotion was banished or, at least, masked in this way. Again, is this British reserve, a preference for the cool and the polite, or, another great British tradition, lack of funding for sufficient rehearsal time? It would, of course, be pure heresy to suggest that there might be other ways to approach the music of Monteverdi.

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