Period & modern instruments – the best of both worlds

The UK has a thriving period instrument scene and is one of the leading centres for historically informed performance. Period instrument orchestras, which at first specialised in performing only Baroque and Classical music, are now broadening their repertoire, exploring performance practices of pieces written in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For example, this season the OAE performed Mahler’s Second Symphony and, last season, soloists such as Viktoria Mullova and Isabelle Faust played Brahms and Mendelssohn concertos respectively on gut strings. Two worlds once so distinctly separate, have begun to merge.

Together with the Rautio Piano Trio, I have been performing 18th and 19th century repertoire on historical instruments for some time now. Bringing this music to life in such a way is always a fascinating and wonderful experience and we recently recorded a new disc of three Mozart trios with a fortepiano.

Today’s audiences are generally more accustomed to the sound of a concert grand piano and string instruments equipped with high tension metal strings and powerful bows. In comparison, an instrument such as the fortepiano, lacking an iron frame, thick strings and a sophisticated soundboard, generates a much more fragile, mercurial sonority which, in my opinion, is an entirely appropriate and beautiful sound for Mozart. Finding a good quality fortepiano isn’t always easy, but for our recording we used a particularly fine instrument that had belonged to the late Christopher Hogwood. Naturally, compared to a modern piano, this was a challenging adaptation for our pianist Jan Rautio: the touch of the keys is vastly different, he had to deal with a knee levers instead of pedals and the keyboard was significantly smaller. However, fast scales, trills and coloratura passages are easier to rattle off on a fortepiano, and such musical devices are to be found in great abundance in Mozart’s piano writing, whereas slow legato playing is more of a challenge. Hence, sustained melodies are best given to the strings.

For the string players, adapting to the timbre of the fortepiano becomes a catalyst for creating a more intimate quality to the music-making. Textures are transparent, allowing a greater range of articulation and phrasing nuances to shine through. The balance between strings and piano is quite the opposite in contrast to the modern set-up. This is reflected in the scoring: the cello supports and reinforces the left hand of the fortepiano (with only an occasional solo permitted!) and the violin writing is sensitive to the keyboard’s sonic qualities. It was a revelation having to take care not to overwhelm the clarity of the melodic material in the right hand of the pianist.

As we grew accustomed to this sound world, we felt we developed a renewed clarity in our understanding of this style, of the voicing and the intent behind the instrumentation. Naturally, returning to the same repertoire on modern instruments has changed the way we perform it. The historical approach has enriched our playing; it has encouraged us to develop a distinctly individual soundscape for each composer, be it Mozart, Haydn or early Beethoven, to name but a few.

When I graduated from the Royal Academy of Music, I felt a sense of pressure to choose between the ‘period’ and the ‘modern’ camps. Ten years later, I feel better equipped to appreciate the profound impact that the achievements of the early music movement pioneers had on today’s musical world. Their work, and the work of the next generation of musicologists, continues to pave the way for fascinating historical performance exploration. We look forward to playing Brahms, Chopin and Elgar on authentic instruments, and to finding out how this will fuel our imaginations.

By Jane Gordon, Published 2016 Gramophone Magazine

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