Shfl Guide: Early Music on Period Instruments

The term “early music” is a bit ill-defined, but is commonly used to refer to European art music of the medieval, Renaissance, baroque, and early classical periods, ranging roughly from the years 500 to 1700 (and mostly between 1100 and 1700, given how little we know about music prior to the second millennium). During the medieval and Renaissance periods, instruments were commonly used that later fell out of favor: these include wind instruments like the shawm, crumhorn, and dulcian, and stringed instruments like the rebec, viola da gamba, and lira da braccio. Some of these are precursors of instruments commonly used in later baroque and classical music – for example, the modern oboe is a direct descendant of the shawm, which emerged in the 12th century – while others simply fell out of fashion and disappeared from the musical scene for centuries.

Classical instruments that have either persisted or evolved throughout the centuries have, in many cases, changed somewhat in construction. For several centuries, stringed instruments were strung with animal gut and had slightly shorter necks than modern ones; longer necks and steel strings were added in response to changing musical styles and the need for greater volume and projection. Similar changes took place with wind instruments, which originally had open fingering holes and were designed to play mainly diatonic melodies; as Western classical music became more harmonically complex, keys were added to facilitate chromatic playing. Keyboard and percussion instruments evolved over the centuries as well, as did vocal performance technique.

While baroque music never lost its place in the classical music scene entirely, the music of the medieval and Renaissance periods fell into a period of neglect during the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries in both Europe and the United States. But in the late 1950s there was a resurgence of interest in the music of those periods, led by musicians and scholars including Noah Greenberg, David Munrow, Christopher Hogwood, and Frans Brüggen. These and others not only resurrected long-neglected compositions and brought new attention to composers whose work had not been performed in many years, but also researched the performance techniques of earlier periods and revived the use of instruments from those eras, creating an approach that came to be called “authentic” performance practice. The word “authentic” in this context came with some controversy, of course, since the likelihood of actually recreating a fully “authentic” musical experience from 300 years earlier will always be questionable. For this and other reasons, terms “period instruments” and “period performance practices” have become more commonly accepted.

The early-music or period-instrument movement gained significant momentum in the 1980s, and has since become the dominant force in the recording and performance of music from the medieval to the baroque periods. While it is still common to hear the music of Bach and Handel played on modern instruments, it has become unusual to encounter recordings of other baroque-era composers recorded in that way, and vocal ensembles that specialize in music of the medieval, Renaissance, and baroque periods are almost always deeply informed by historically-researched performance practice.

Musikalisches Opfer; Die Kunst der Fuge cover

Bach was such a prolific composer and wrote so much chamber music that it can be difficult to know where to start, and good arguments can be made for any number of starting points: his violin sonatas, his solo keyboard partitas, his trio sonatas. Two particularly good points of entry, though, are these monumental studies in the art of counterpoint, of which Bach was perhaps Europe’s greatest ever exponent. Shifting between various combinations of instruments, Musica Antiqua Köln present both the Musical Offering and Art of the Fugue with a perfect blend of German precision and emotive intensity, demonstrating not only Bach’s technical mastery but also his unique ability to touch the heart while expounding a set of rules.

Buxtehude: Trio Sonatas cover

Dietrich Buxtehude’s contemporary reputation is based largely on his organ music — and on the famous story of a young J.S. Bach walking 200 miles in order to hear Buxtehude play. But his chamber music is absolutely delightful as well, and this recording of his trio sonatas by the Boston Museum Trio (playing historic instruments from the collection of that city’s Museum of Fine Arts) brings the works brilliantly and effervescently to life. The interplay between the husband-and-wife team of violinist Daniel Stepner and viola da gamba player Laura Jeppesen is particularly enjoyable to hear.

A Feather on the Breath of God cover

Hildegard was a 12th-century abbess in the German city of Bingen. She was also something of a Renaissance woman — though well before the Renaissance period. She was known for her spiritual visions, which she recorded by means of poetry, drawings, and musical compositions, which were performed by the nuns in her abbey. This recording of her music was released in the early 1980s and ushered in a global resurgence of interest in Hildegard, which eventually resulted in many recordings and performances of her music. This one, with its spare and ethereal textures and which features the stunning soprano soloist Emma Kirkby, is the place to start.

Missa aeterna Christi munera cover

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was the towering figure of 16th-century European choral music, and his reputation continued to be impressive well into the baroque era — Bach is reported to have hand-copied the entirety of Palestrina’s first book of Mass settings. Depending on how one counts, he wrote somewhere near 100 Masses, so it can be hard to know where to start. I recommend this one, in this performance by the Westminster Cathedral Choir. Not only is the music itself gorgeous, but the choir’s tone is like listening to the sound of ice cream melting.

Vespro della beata Vergine cover

Claudio Monteverdi is probably the most important figure in the transitional period between the Renaissance and baroque periods, and you can almost hear the stylistic changing of the guard in this big, celebratory, powerful vocal-and-orchestral celebration in honor of the Virgin Mary. Horns play cascading fanfares, choirs sing repeated chords at the top of their lungs, and then everything drops to a hushed plainchant or a motet for solo voice. There are several psalm settings, as well as a setting of the familiar Magnificat text. This recording by René Jacobs leading The Netherlands Chamber Choir and Concerto Vocale would make an excellent introduction to this work, and indeed to the music of Monteverdi generally.

Symphonies, op. 2 cover

If you’ve never heard of William Boyce, you’re not alone; although he was an influential figure in English baroque music, his fame didn’t persist for long after his death, and it wasn’t until the 20th century that the world began paying attention to his music again. This wonderful recording of his overtures to various odes and theater works (called “symphonies” according to the usage of the day, although they aren’t symphonic works as the term is currently understood) shows clearly what we’ve been missing by neglecting his music for so long. Lilting melodies and lush arrangements are everywhere, written in a variety of danceable time signatures. The Academy of Ancient Music have a particular affinity for English music of this period, and this is among the group’s most attractive recordings.

The Piano Concertos cover

In Mozart’s time, the modern pianoforte was not yet fully developed, and its precursor, the fortepiano, was the instrument most widely used for large-scale concert music. A growing interest in historically-informed performance over the past few decades has led to several comprehensive recordings of Mozart’s piano concertos using period instruments, including the fortepiano, and this one featuring Malcolm Bilson is among the best of those. The softer and less dramatic tone of the fortepiano lends itself to a more balanced dynamic in its interactions with the English Baroque Soloists orchestra, and conductor John Eliot Gardiner elicits outstanding performances on the part of all involved. The recording quality is excellent as well.

Telemann: Complete Tafelmusik cover

Georg Philipp Telemann’s Musique de table (or, in German, Tafelmusik) is exactly what its name suggests: a collection of instrumental pieces for varying ensembles written to accompany a dinner or feast. It consists of 18 sonatas, trios, quartets, and concertos organized into three “productions,” and on this very fine recording by the Freiburger Barockorchester it fills four CDs. Telemann’s trademark expressiveness and melodic invention are on full display here, and the group plays beautifully. This is by no means challenging or particularly innovative music — though the pieces written for quartet are somewhat forward-looking — but it is consistently highly enjoyable.

Messiah cover

At the time this recording was released, there weren’t many period-instrument performances of Handel’s magisterial Christmas oratorio Messiah on the market yet. Now there’s a bumper crop of them, and many are outstanding, but this is the one I keep coming back to. Hogwood leads the choir of Oxford’s Christ Church Cathedral and his own Academy of Ancient Music orchestra through a joyful and powerful performance, and the singing by featured sopranos Judith Nelson and Emma Kirkby is especially impressive. A balance of lightness and power is particularly essential for this music, and Hogwood and his players and singers manage that balance perfectly. The recorded sound is excellent as well.

C.P.E. Bach: The Complete Solo Flute Sonatas cover

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was the most accomplished and celebrated of Johann Sebastian Bach’s many musically gifted children, and also the most stylistically adventurous and experimental of them. After his father’s death, C.P.E.’s reputation was, for a time, actually greater than his. This outstanding recording finds flutist Jed Wentz, cellist Job her Hair, and keyboardist Michael Borgstede performing all of C.P.E. Bach’s sonatas for flute and continuo; all are playing on period instruments, and Borgstede switches off between harpsichord and fortepiano, to excellent effect. This is wonderful music that anticipates the transition from the baroque to the classical era.

Thomas Tallis: Spem in alium cover

Thomas Tallis was, arguably, England’s greatest composer (after William Byrd) — and even by his high standards, the motet Spem in alium is an astonishing accomplishment of musical architecture. It was written for 40 vocal parts, divided into eight choirs that were intended to be spread around a cathedral space. It sounds like nothing else you’ve ever heard. And who better to perform it than the choral ensemble named after him? The program also includes fine performances of several of his other Latin motets.

Flute Quartets cover

Mozart’s quartets for flute and string trio are among the most heartbreakingly lovely of his chamber works, and the Kuijkens — basically the first family of early music during the 1980s — produced what may be the most limpid, delicate, and powerful recording of them on period instruments. Flutist Barthold Kuijken remains one of the world-leading exponents of the baroque flute, and his rich, woody tone is the centerpiece here not only in terms of the composed music but also with regard to pure sound: the vinegary timbres of gut-strung baroque violin, viola, and cello create a sonic jewel box for Kuijken’s smoothly flowing melody lines, and the whole listening experience is simply marvelous.

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