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PERIOD PERFORMANCE – KNOWN AS HIPP - Have you a view?

May 5, 2012 at 9:45 AM

PERIOD PERFORMANCE – KNOWN AS HIPP

Why is it that I have a certain dislike, maybe almost a disdain for Historically Informed Performance Practice? Before it became gradually mainstream from the 1970’s I never even thought about it.

But now we are assailed by recordings of this performance style on radio and TV - and even some “normal” performers are being “polluted” by some of its techniques. We can’t seem to escape from the fact that it is pervading our lives.
So what is it that I do not like?

Listening to HIPP makes me feel depressed because it is usually a very dead, and in my opinion I hasten to add, miserable sound, and it kind of levels off the dynamics. Also the phrasing, especially in slow music leads to surges and pear shaped notes from string players (is this the influence of the period bow?) The sound, with its lack of vibrato – or very sparing vibrato – is very dead. It does work in very fast music – but it often requires the boosted sound of the recording media, and in real life live scenarios it often then fails due to lack of any punch.

I had better not mention the situation where the performers’ intonation is often rather approximate.

The non use of vibrato in the right place and for the right reasons is of course not new, and groups like the old Borodin String Quartet used it effectively in the Shostakovich recordings in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It was used as a means of contrast for certain fairly short sections of the great string quartets of Shostakovich and others.

Do feel free to disagree with my opinions – but if I felt that there were any worthwhile ideas to be gained from HIPP then I would be only too keen to benefit. Perhaps one area where we can usefully be influenced by HIP performances is in the use of short notes – as long as not taken to ridiculous extremes.

Can anyone point to areas of HIPP that may make me feel a bit more positive towards it?


From Jim Hastings
Posted on May 5, 2012 at 11:18 PM
At first, I didn't like it, either. I thought to myself: "Well, while we're at it, why not go back to period outfits, period transportation, period lighting, period heating, period audience behavior" -- you get the idea.

Now I have a live-and-let-live attitude toward it. I don't avidly seek it out and have no ambitions to take up baroque violin or baroque bows, but I can now listen to HIPP without feeling disdain or prejudice. As long as my friends and I can hold on to our modern instruments and bows and tune to A-440, I have no problem with HIPP players.

Still, my first choice, for sound, is that of modern instruments, since I grew up with them. The real stumbling-block for me in HIPP is baroque tuning -- largely because I grew up on A-440 and have so-called perfect pitch. From what I've read, tuning was actually quite erratic in the baroque period itself -- not always the A-415 that many of today's HIPP groups have settled on.

From researching v.com, I find that a fair number of today's baroque players do, in fact, tune to A-440. One roadblock to this is having a period piano in the ensemble. You can't tune it to 440; the strings would break.

When I listen to an A-415 group, what helps me is simply to think of the piece as having been transposed down a half-step; e.g., a piece I know in F now plays in E. I can live with that. What I find harder to deal with is a tuning somewhere between 415 and 440. Then, to me, it's too low for the key of F but still too high for E.

I know -- players with perfect pitch can be a pain sometimes -- although players with indiscriminate pitch must be even harder to have around.

From Parker Duchemin
Posted on May 5, 2012 at 11:18 PM
May I suggest listening to Andrew Manze's recordings of the Biber Violin Sonatas (Harmonia Mundi 907134.35); or to Rachel Podger's recording of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas, or her performance of Vivaldi's La Stravaganza. I think you might find much to recommend in their playing that overthrows the stereotypes of HIPP. Nothing dreary or banal in these performances. There is no excuse for bad intonation or lifeless playing whether it's historically informed or uninformed, A415 or 440, or whatever. The ear quickly gets used to the lower A415pitch if the music is well played. It gives a warmth to the sound of the instrument which can be a very welcome change in our shrill contemporary sound-scape. We have all become accustomed to the brightness of modern instrumental sound that carries well in large halls, which is exhilarating and thrilling, but we may also have lost something of the intimacy that went with the older set-up and lower pitch. Is it worth trying to regain? I think so. It doesn't have to be our only way of hearing the music -- I enjoy both styles quite thoroughly. Though I play with a modern violin and set-up, in the approved modern fashion, because this is how I was taught, I have learned a good deal about older music from listening to performers who are attempting to interpret the music with an historically authentic technique and style. I am fascinated by the baroque bows, and I'd love to try one out on a Bach partita to see how it plays with the old music, by contrast with my modern Peccatte-style bow.
From Brian Hong
Posted on May 6, 2012 at 12:44 AM
All I can say is that you have obviously been listening to terrible performers. I am a huge fan of Andrew Manze, Giuliano Carmignola, Fabio Biondi, John Holloway, Manfredo Kraemer, etc, and they are incredible, accurate, free, precise, and artistic musicians.

I have also performed baroque violin on From the Top, and my violin teacher is a baroque violinist as one of her main professions, and I can tell you that there is nothing "approximate" about the study nor the execution, and that the artistic standards are just as high.

But sorry for the pollution.

From Seph Hutchings
Posted on May 6, 2012 at 5:00 AM
Dear Peter,

I hope I can be of some help to turn you onto HIPP, as you call it. It seems you're mostly talking about baroque HIPP (as opposed to classical HIPP or renaissance HIPP, etc.).

First, let me respond to some of your points--

level dynamics/lacking punch: It's true that baroque players have a smaller dynamic range than modern players simply because of the lower tension of the strings and the period bow. But you must remember, music back then wasn't played by a single soloist in huge halls. Even concert music was played in a chamber venue. A good baroque player still has a wonderful warm sound in close quarters, whereas most good modern players either don't sound as warm or sound too harsh.

intonation: Modern players use what amounts to a modified mean-tone system with just intonation where possible. This is what most people are used to and what sounds good to the ear. However, we know that way back when, quarter-comma mean-tone was the tuning du jour. It goes out of its way to make thirds pure, but compromises fifths in the process. For a string instrument tuned in fifths, that means your open strings aren't purely in tune with one another. Of course, a good baroque violinist works around this as necessary.

With those things said, I have to admit I've heard a -lot- of badly played baroque music. Perhaps you have too, which might explain your stance. A lot of "baroque" players are actually modern players who try to moonlight as baroque players without realizing everything is totally different, including the physical mechanics. A necessity for an outstanding baroque performance is an outstanding continuo player. Unfortunately, outstanding baroque cellists who imbue the music with energy and pulse are quite rare.

My suggestion is not to fault HIPP for not having modern sensibilities that our ears are attuned to. Try to go in expecting things to sound differently. Secondly, if it sounds poorly played, it probably is. That's no more a reflection on HIPP than hearing a crappy modern amateur sound bad is to modern performance practices.

So what is great about HIPP? (When played well) The sound is warmer and there's a much greater variation in bow articulations which simply cannot be performed on a modern bow. In theory, the smaller groups play much more together. The music ends up feeling intimate like modern performance string quartets.

Perhaps you would be amused to know that many HIPP players are equally bothered by "normal" players (as you call them) who dabble in HIPP techniques. Even great "normal" players end up butchering it and inadvertantly turning people off to HIPP.

Here are some youtubes of excellent violin oriented baroque HIPP that I hope you can appreciate:

Uccellini Bergamasca:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hQywhloSBlE

Matteis Diversi bizzarie sopra la vecchia:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mkfQ-eSTNOU


Cheers.

From Scott Cole
Posted on May 6, 2012 at 5:57 AM
"There are as many ways to play it now as there were in the 18th century."

-Stanley Ritchie

From Peter Charles
Posted on May 6, 2012 at 8:05 AM
First of all let me say thank you to eveyone for very intelligent and informative posts in reply to my blog.

I'm pleased that this is not turning into a war - those for against those against.

Let me say what I should have said, and that is I may have over-exagerated the "not so good" players. I have of course heard some very good HIPP players but they are very much in the minority. Over say twenty years maybe I've heard half a dozen.

Now for the disagreeing bit of my reply! I'm afraid I do not count Andrew Manze as a very good example of HIP performance. I find his technique lacking - his sound poor - his intonation bad - and well, generally his musicianship leaves me cold.

Rachael Podger is better in my opinion, although once again I find her a bit precious.

Personally I don't in general find such performances as we hear to be warmer than modern playing. The sound is at times, and I say it with some hesitation, slightly more transparent, but also at times spikier than modern. That's probably no bad thing. I suppose it comes down to personal taste and preferences.

I'm not totally a Philistine, as I do have a Baroque recording of a Handel opera which I quite like, although I haven't listened to it for a long time.

I have to admit that I don't know much about the differences between Classical, Baroque, and other styles.

I do believe that there are some very good Baroque (or early music, HIPP, whatever) players out there, it's just that they are very, very small in number. I would also agree that there are some pretty bad players who were bad on modern instruments and who are probably even worse on old instruments. I remember about 30 years ago some pretty tacky orchstral players joining the HIPP bandwaggon simply because they might get more work!

From Sam Choi
Posted on May 6, 2012 at 8:35 AM
I don't mind HIPP in baroque or even classical repertoire or I should say actually like it. But please do not invade the romantic era. It basically robs the emotion from the music and becomes sterile, white, bland, and yes, dead like a corpse.
From Peter Charles
Posted on May 6, 2012 at 8:44 AM
I’ve now listened to the group called Apollo's Fire Uccellini Bergamasca, and there were things I liked and things I did not like. The sound I found to be a bit too much the same overall, and a lack of colour. Also, I found the absence of any vibrato a little tiring. I liked the inside violinist the best, the other I thought had a rather rasping tone and not such good intonation. The cellist was good – but even here a bit of colour and vibrato would have been an improvement in my opinion.

The second group Palladians/The Palladian Ensemble were much more to my taste, and the playing was OK. I found the music a bit repetitive and maybe stuck in a groove, but lots of later music suffers in this way too. Not bad, but would I still go out and buy it, or go to a concert? I’m not sure.

Maybe the whole concept of the performance style and the sound generally is not to my taste. I don't on the whole object to HIPP singers as they seem to be not far removed from modern singers, certainly in the lieder style even if a little more so from some of the "over the top" operatic performers.

From Peter Charles
Posted on May 6, 2012 at 8:51 AM
Sam

Yes, I really agree with you there!!

From David Rose
Posted on May 6, 2012 at 11:24 AM
You know, one great reason to be at peace with period ensembles is simply that one has access to so much more music, and so much of it is really good, and is not being recorded by modern ensembles.

Some of the discs put out by Jordi Savalle (viola da gamba) are stunning and beautiful. The Purcell Fantasias come to mind. Amazing pieces.

Someone mentioned the violinist Guiliano Carmignola. If Manze isn't to your taste, check him out. A great imagination, and a real poet. He studied with Szerying.

Aside from soloists, some of the ensemble work of period groups is thrilling. If you haven't, check out anything by Herreweghe - but especially Bach (the B minor mass, St. Matthew passion, etc.)

The phrasing, unanimity of sound and style is wonderful. The choir is out of sight.

David

From Parker Duchemin
Posted on May 6, 2012 at 12:20 PM
I think there is something quite wonderful about a movement that attempts to understand and recreate, to the extent that it's possible, the way things sounded in an earlier era. It's somewhat like travelling to another country, learning about other manners. (Who said that "the past is another country- they do things differently there"?) I don't like being stuck entirely in the dominant contemporary way of seeing or hearing things, it makes one, dare I say, complacent. And as for modern performance, who hasn't heard a lot of dull, unimaginative playing, and not just from amateurs, but too often from established professional soloists or ensembles. We don't normally blame it on the fact of modern technique or instruments however.

Admittedly we can only attempt to recreate older music in, say, the Baroque style, from our own contemporary position, with modern ears, and unfortunately there is no way to go back in time to verify the results. To attempt it with integrity requires considerable discipline and scholarship as well as imagination and musical talent, but it seems to me a thoroughly admirable project. And the results are often magnificent.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on May 6, 2012 at 12:53 PM
The responses to this post have been very good. The thing to remember is that there is nothing magic about HIPP any more than there is anything magic about the way these pieces were performed before HIPP. It is another way of performing the piece, and the interpretation of the performer, an educated guess about how it might have been performed during the baroque period, may or may not give new insight into the piece. And, ultimately, you have to decide what interpretation speaks best to you. My relative, Wanda Landowska, who is probably as responsible as anyone for the popularization of HIPP, once famously said to Casals in a discussion of trills, "That's fine dear. You play it your way, and I will play it [Bach's] way." There is no right or wrong, only two or more ways of playing something, one of which will work better for you or me than the others. Keep an open mind, and listen to some of the better, recent HIPP recordings.
From Parker Duchemin
Posted on May 6, 2012 at 1:39 PM
Well said, Tom! I couldn't agree more. Wanda Landowska first opened my ears to this new - old way of interpreting Bach. And I think it has had a profoundly beneficial effect on contemporary performance of ancient and baroque music. It has helped us, for example, to break away from the romantic interpretation of Bach, and to bring his music alive again in new ways. In a sense there is nothing more modern, more contemporary, than the so-called HIPP movement. (Such a hideous and trivializing acronym.) I hope we can get away from prejudicial and dismissive attitudes to it. Contemporary soloists, like James Ehnes, Hillary Hahn, Isabelle Faust, etc., owe a considerable debt, which they haven't been afraid to acknowledge, in their otherwise modern-performance recordings of the Sonatas and Partitas.
From Peter Charles
Posted on May 6, 2012 at 2:08 PM
David, Parker and Tom

Thanks for the interesting feedback and you are making a very good case for HIPP. I'm interested myself in the sort of phrasing thy sometimes use, and certainly in getting more articulation.

I would say that one of the problems as I see it of the modern symphony orchestra and many modern emsembles these days is that the style and the sound has become rather uniform, and in many cases can only be described as mush.

So, I will try and listen with new ears and when some period playing really grabs me try and work out what they do. If they can improve over some of the shortcomings of the modern style, then that can only be good.

Just on a slightly negative point though, I started listening to one of our period orchestras here in the UK, in a live broadcast the other night. It was the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (a slightly pretentious title I always feel!). However, I was not at all impressed and when the soloist in the Mozart G major concerto started off in the same way, I'm afraid I switched off!

Thanks again for your collective insights, and I will check out Guiliano Carmignola.

From Peter Charles
Posted on May 6, 2012 at 2:44 PM
Oh thanks!! I've just discovered Guiliano Carmignola. A violinist after my own heart, gutzy sound, plays at A=440, great intonation, uses vibrato, and has great articulation. I can't believe he's HIPP!! (wink)

I notice from the photos that he uses a modernish bow, and the fiddle looks modern (although it may be old) the only difference seems to be a shorter fingerboard. But the kneck length looks about the same.

Now if I had heard him "blind" I might have thought he was a modern player! I will certainly follow him up with some CD's. His mozart and vivaldi is excellent.

From Parker Duchemin
Posted on May 6, 2012 at 3:09 PM
Thanks, Peter, for kicking off such a great discussion, and thanks for your openness to hearing the other side of the argument!
From Congwen Wang
Posted on May 6, 2012 at 4:54 PM
As a casual listener, I listen to music mainly for enjoyment, so my criterion is simple: does the music speak to me? With the HIP performances, it's the same with the modern performances - I like some, and dislike some others.

One thing I quite like about HIP performances is their often fast tempi. Or rather, the less embellished style allows the performers to take the piece faster without sounding rushed.

For example, Sigiswald Kuijken finishes From Congwen Wang
Posted on May 6, 2012 at 5:38 PM

Sorry, I messed up the hyperlink in a way that I couldn't even edit my last post... So I guess I'll have to post it again:

As a casual listener, I listen to music mainly for enjoyment, so my criterion is simple: does the music speak to me? With the HIP performances, it's the same with the modern performances - I like some, and dislike some others.

One thing I quite like about HIP performances is their often fast tempi. Or rather, the less embellished style allows the performers to take the piece faster without sounding rushed.

For example, Sigiswald Kuijken finishes his Chaconne in just 11:30, but to my ears, he doesn't sound that fast. There are blemishes in the playing, but I still like it a lot. There's enough room for the music to breathe, and the fast tempo really brings this dance to life.

In comparison, I find some modern interpretations unbearably slow. They sound too calculated, too mannered, without the free spirit that I would like to hear in a dance. Feel free to disagree: I personally find Hilary Hahn's Chaconne a pain to listen to - her vibrato makes every note sound like a struggle between life and death; and the slow tempo just makes the piece go on and on and on... And on. I know she's a great violinist, but I guess this is just not my cup of tea.

By the way, I recently heard Viktoria Mullova's Bach Sonatas and Partitas with a baroque bow and gut strings. It's sort of a hybrid of A415 and some modern expressive techniques (she definitely uses vibrato). I think it sounds elegant, refreshing, and beautiful.

Another thing I like about some HIP performances is the improvisation. As David mentioned, Jordi Savall is a great HIP performer, and he improvises a lot, which I think is great.


From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on May 7, 2012 at 3:56 PM
The venue does make a difference. This weekend I heard a great performance of 17th and 18th century music from Spain, Mexico, Peru, etc., for viola da gamba, baroque violin, harpsichord, and baroque oboe. It was held in a very small venue with the audience just a few feet from the performers. It comes across much better this way. Those instruments were never made to fill Carnegie Hall.

I think it's easier to accept less-familiar repertoire on period instruments, too. With something like the Brandenburg concerti, that we have all known and loved for decades there's an immediate question of whether the HIPP version adds to or subtracts from what we are used to. When listening to little-known church music from Bolivia and Peru it's easier to approach it fresh.

From Scott Cole
Posted on May 8, 2012 at 3:29 PM
People who don't like period performance tend to have a stereotyped view of it. Like not using vibrato and going waa-waa-waa with the bow. There's more to it than that.

What I've found is that those who are really knowledgeable about period performance are also more informed in general about the subtleties of articulation, phrasing, the use of dissonance, and metrical importance. People who are not tend to slop through baroque and classical literature.

Period performance and the use of the baroque bow should be required at the conservatory level. It improves baroque concept and performance on modern instruments as well.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on May 8, 2012 at 4:41 PM
Lisa - your point about venues is important. Most of the great violins of Cremona's glory period were instruments for playing in the smaller venues of that period. They were almost all modified during the 19th century to sound/project better in the larger venues that were beginning to come into fashion.

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