[By Steve Hicken.]
It seems sometimes that music fans, of whatever genre, are searching for something new, as long as it’s not too new. Recently in the realm of concert music (I don’t use the term “classical music,” because in the profession it denotes a specific era and place, namely from about 1775 to about 1825 in Vienna), this desire for the not-too-new has frequently manifested as an interest in early music. This makes sense in a way, since music written before the 17th Century is not tonal in the same way that music since that time is (very broadly speaking), but its modality is close enough that the way it moves through time is on the familiar, if exotic, side.
Add to this what is now referred to as Historically Informed Performance (HIP) practice, where results of musicological studies are used to create performances that might sound like what the composer would have heard. Aspects of HIP include the size of ensemble, the use of period instruments (either original instruments or reproductions), and the use of contemporaneous performance techniques, such as vibrato or the lack of vibrato, and the kinds and number or ornaments added to the singing or playing of a melody. Previous to HIP, pieces of older music were played by the same forces and in the same way as the 18th and 19th Century music that made up the bulk of the repertoire.
The period instrument group Seraphic Fire, with the Western Michigan University Chorus, has released a historically informed recording of Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine (Vespers of the Blessed Virgin, 1610) that illustrates very well the appeal of early music for 21st Century listeners. The music itself has a foot in two eras—Monteverdi saw himself as the completion of the High Renaissance music as well as an innovator who helped usher in a new style, and we tend to hear his music in that style, which culminated over 100 years later in J. S. Bach. This excellent performance, with its pared-down vocal and instrumental groups, allows us to hear everything with clarity, as Monteverdi might have heard it, rather than as the wall-of-sound monument it has become over the years.
Highly recommended for novices as well as for those who already have an interest in HIP.