Settling old scores: The English Concert have been stuck in a time warp for the last 20 years. Mark Pappenheim reports

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The Independent Culture
As a catchphrase, 'More of the same' doesn't exactly make for headline-grabbing news. But that's basically what the English Concert is looking forward to as it celebrates its first 20 years of period performance with an all-Mozart gala concert in London on Wednesday.

While other old instrument revivalists seem intent on carrying the concept of continual revolution forward to ever more recent reaches of musical history - with authentic Beethoven, Berlioz and Brahms already things of the past - the English Concert, under the schoolmasterly eye of its director-cum-harpsichordist Trevor Pinnock, seems quite content just to go on playing the same old tunes.

Pinnock admits it doesn't make for great publicity. But then, he doesn't have much time for the music industry's marketing machines and their constant need for manufacturing new angles. 'People are always being encouraged to ask, 'What's the new trend here?' It's not a suitable criterion for judging music.' So unwilling is he to play the publicity game that he can't even pretend that the Concert's current 20th-anniversary celebrations afford a particularly good opportunity for reflecting on its past and looking forward to its future. 'It's not so much birthdays that make us do that,' he says, 'as people.' In the Concert's case, the real cause for self- examination has been the arrival of a new leader, in the person of Peter Hanson, formerly of the Hanson String Quartet.

Unlike some other early instrument groups that appear to dip in and out of the same pool of period players, the English Concert has always had a relatively fixed personnel. Even given the inevitable changes that have come with the years, its character has remained remarkably constant. 'Listen to any of our recordings over the past 20 years,' boasts Pinnock, 'and you will hear that it is clearly the same orchestra.' Much of that is down to Pinnock's own pivotal role as director; much to the fact that it's not really an orchestra at all, more a chamber group of orchestral size.

For Peter Hanson, coming in from outside (although, as he says, he was brought up 'in an authentic household of harpsichords and recorders' and has been working with the Concert for about three years), 'it feels just like a big string quartet. There are only five first violins: we all know each other, we all know where we sit, we're all playing with a very close, very precise sort of sound, not with lots of vibrato. So everybody has to be very sensitive in a chamber music way rather than in an orchestral sense.'

Unlike a quartet, however, the English Concert does, of course, have the extra dimension, not just of having more players, but of having a director in their midst. Pinnock, who increasingly leads a double-life as a conductor of modern instrument bands, sees the two activities - conducting and directing - as quite distinct. Both aim to unify the body of musicians around them, but where a conductor is always out there in front, a good director needs to perform more of a disappearing act. 'The greatest art of direction,' says Pinnock, 'is having more control by having less.'

'That's the fantastic thing about Trevor being such a great harpsichordist,' says Paul Goodwin, the Concert's oboist. 'He'll set up the parameters of the performance in the rehearsals - that's where a lot of the control comes in. But then, when it comes to the performance, he jumps on to the harpsichord and just puts in this enormous energy. And that, in itself, then gives all of us the chance to be the soloists that we all are.'

The desire to preserve this particular chamber-like character - what Pinnock styles 'the close-knit nature of our musical family' - inevitably dictates the Concert's maximum size and that, in turn, imposes its own restrictions on repertoire.

As Pinnock confirms, 'We're bound by, let us say, Purcell and Mozart. For the late Mozart works we can expand on our core, and that would serve us also for the later Haydn symphonies. But the basic nature of the Concerto Grosso-type orchestra - the court orchestra, as it were - does give us certain limits to our repertoire, which we happily accept.'

But while the English Concert is never going to go in for novelty for novelty's sake, Pinnock stresses that there is more to its repertoire than might meet the eye. 'I don't consider ourselves experimental, in the sense that we must delve the whole time into the furthest reaches of the repertoire, and I would certainly feel undernourished were we not to take as our basis the Concerti Grossi, the best works of Corelli and Handel. But I do think, because of the strength of our core repertoire, and because it does necessarily dominate our work, especially on record, that people don't always see the whole picture.'

He cites a recent newspaper article that commented, 'What a pity the English Concert doesn't do something exciting like the Telemann Suites.' 'That article came out just a matter of weeks before our first record of Telemann Suites was released' - to ecstatic reviews. 'And then there have also been things like Purcell's King Arthur or indeed what we've just been taking on tour, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's String Symphony . . . The gilt may have rubbed off the publicity aspect of the old instrument movement, but not, I hope, off the music-making.'

The future may hold only 'more of the same' but Pinnock still sees it as 'a voyage of discovery'. And while other ensembles may be content to skim the surface of a wider range of repertoire, the English Concert intends to go on trying to plumb the depths of its own more limited waters.

That, for Peter Hanson, was one of the chief reasons for joining the orchestra - 'the idea of taking a great work and doing it until it gets right into everybody's system'. As he observes, in the string quartet world, while there may be a few novelty merchants like the Kronos, 'the famous masters - the Amadeus Quartet, the Smetana, the Vermeer, the Janacek - don't consider they can play a piece properly until they've done it for several years'.

So the Pinnock philosophy of constantly playing the same old tunes really appeals: 'I have a lot of respect for people who like to try very wacky rep, but I prefer the profundity of this sort of music-making.' And, of course, the deeper the players can penetrate into their particular stylistic territory, the greater the interpretative freedom they can enjoy.

Ultimately, it's all a matter of educated taste. As Paul Goodwin observes, historical research is vital, but as a basis for performance, not as an end in itself. He contrasts the Concert's approach with the more source- bound Dutch school 'where you sit on stage and you play as it would originally have been done and you bring the audience to you - as opposed to the English Concert school, where we get out there and we zap the audience with the way we play it'.

Still, a birthday is a birthday, and Pinnock is entitled to a wish. After two decades at the forefront of period performance, and a discography that stretches from Bach Brandenburgs and Corelli Concerti Grossi to 'Sturm und Drang' Haydn and the complete symphonies of Mozart, his hopes are characteristically modest: 'I think we've done our apprenticeship now. And I feel we're well on the way to doing the really great works of the Baroque - the really massive works of Bach, for example, which I was in no hurry to do. But now I feel that we could sit in them quite comfortably and make them worthwhile.'

The English Concert plays Mozart (Ouvertura in E flat; Symphonies Nos 35 & 39; 'Exsultate, jubilate' and 'Bella mia fiamma' with Barbara Bonney, soprano), Wed 7.30 St John's Smith Square, London SW1 (071-222 1061)

(Photograph omitted)