Something I’ve been thinking about for some time is the aspect of interpretation in baroque music. Todays big stars are conductors, directors, singers and musicians – all interpreters of baroque music. But how different this is to the 18th century! There were singers and musicians who were stars of course, but the famous directors of the 18th century also wrote and performed their own music. They didn’t have to ‘interpret’ it, they just played it!
With today’s famous directors and conductors we hear countless different interpretations (what’s more we have recordings of these interpretations) of the same repertoire. 17th century opera in particular is, in my opinion, a real victim here to the pursuit of interpretation, where it’s almost taken for granted that directors will add extra instrumental ritornelli etc. to the existing music. In my experience Cavalli tends to suffer more than others – people particularly like to add instrumental parts to sections of recitative (one particular Belgian gentleman with a penchant for the recorder comes to mind).
By adding ritornelli and composing extra instrumental parts as well as by devising ever increasingly elaborate continuo scorings there seems to be a desire to create the ultimate ‘interpretation’ of a piece of music. I even played a Händel opera once where the director had even written extra viola parts for some of the arias!
I think this approach is out of place in any genuine pursuit of historical performance.
Let’s imagine a performance of a Cavalli opera in 17th century Venice. A small wooden theatre with several singers and a band composed of 2 violins and a bass violin, 2 theorboes and 2 harpsichords (we know from records that Cavalli used on many occasions a band just like this). The violins played the ritornelli. The theorboes and harpsichords accompanied the singers who just sang the music and doubtlessly added some (bad-ass) ornamentation.
In other words, they just played – and sang – the music.
Surely the ultimate goal of the historical performer is to try to recreate the music as it was heard in its original context?! If that’s the case then why do we so rarely hear Cavalli played with appropriate instrumentation in all it’s glorious unadulterated form?
I guess I’m talking about a kind of interperative-minimalism here. Get the right kit, get the right technique, play the music and see what happens! Take a step back and enjoy the music for what it is. Let Cavalli speak as vividly to us today as he did in the 17th century. Let’s forget big egos and new recordings of Händel’s Messiah. Hey, let’s even forget our preconceived ideas about what the music ‘should’ sound like!
Baroque music just needs good musicians to come alive – interpretation as in the 17th and 18th centuries could be added in the form of ornamentation, let’s not re-write the music to suit our ideals.