With the double hit of both Handel and Purcell anniversaries this year, many baroque orchestras must be wondering what's hit them. The anniversaries (Handel died 250 years ago, Purcell was born 350 years ago) are certainly timely, as the varied, delectable music written by both composers is arguably more popular than ever, with recent recordings such as Danielle De Niese's delightful collection of Handel arias proving major sellers. Around the world, ensembles are dusting off their harpsichords, retuning their viols and polishing up their recorders for an unusually thorough re-examination of their work, some of the best ever vocal music written in English.
But what is the correct way to perform their scores? Interest in working out exactly how these pieces sounded to their original audiences has surged since the 1960s and shows no sign of abating just yet. Standard bearers for what is dubbed the "authentic performance" movement, ensembles such as the Academy of Ancient Music and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment have had phenomenal success in overturning previously unquestioned ideas about how baroque and early music should be played. Long-neglected instruments such as recorders and viols have crept back into orchestra pits, musicians have altered their playing styles and singers have reined in their vibrato, all in the name of returning baroque music to its original state. Such has been the impact of this movement that baroque recordings given the authentic-performance makeover now crowd the market. Meanwhile, singers who have returned to supposedly more authentic baroque styles such as Emma Kirkby and Julianne Baird have attracted large, passionate followings. But while this rejigging of baroque performance has helped boost the music's popularity, the authenticity mavens have also attracted sharp criticism from people who find that claiming to know the true sound of 17th-century music is ludicrous. Without recorded music from the period, how could we ever know? Improvisation was far more commonplace in the period and many manuscripts lack the concrete -dynamic and stylistic markings -expected in later music. It was often up to players themselves to decide on such matters as ornamentation and pace, which rarely crystallised into a single definitive version. -Under these circumstances, attempts at reviving baroque playing styles are exposed to accusations of being pure conjecture. But although original 17th-century CDs might be thin on the ground, at least we have plenty of original instruments from the period to help reveal how different music must have sounded. Instruments of the period were mere cousins of the 19th-century models still typical of most classical orchestras. Baroque violins, cellos and basses had strings made of gut rather than metal, producing a tone that was earthier and softer. Oboes - sometimes as numerous in baroque -orchestras as violins - were considerably less cluttered than the modern instrument and required players to breathe harder to go up an octave (as they still do on a modern flute). The -piano, meanwhile had yet to come into wide use, and the most popular keyboard instrument remained the harpsichord, where the keys pluck the strings (instead of hitting them with a hammer) creating a shorter, sharper note with no dynamic control. Meanwhile, wooden recorders still often performed the function allotted to flutes in the modern orchestra. Though the transverse (eg sideways) flute was swiftly coming into vogue, it was also made of wood, meaning that the woodwind section still -deserved its name, creating a sound that was softer and well just more woody. Trumpets and most other brass instruments were still valveless. Given how markedly different these instruments sound, Authentic-performance devotees insist that performing baroque music with late-19th-century-style hardware is about as appropriate as playing a Beethoven symphony on the kazoo. But authentic-performance goes beyond the instruments themselves. Playing styles seem to have also been quite different - though this is where the authentic-performance movement runs into -accusations of basing their ideas on conjecture rather than evidence. While a proper quavering vibrato is the rule rather than the exception for classical musicians nowadays (especially string players), in the -baroque era it seems to have been a far less common embellishment, with musical writers of the period (and up to as late as Mozart himself) criticising its overuse. The lack of lush vibrato in -authentic performance makes the sound crisper, and just occasionally slightly harsh in slower sections. Baroque singing seems to have been a different bag too. It arguably sounded far more flute-like and sweet than the powerful operatic styles of the following centuries, where singer's voices needed to carry right up to the top tiers of the large new opera houses. In the 19th century, an interest in dramatic emphasis in opera and the far louder noise made by classical orchestras altered singing conventions, helping to -develop a vocal style that sometimes valued expressive punch and intensity over total harmony and clarity of note. Baroque singers, however, had less need to project to be heard over their -quieter -accompanists and generally sang in smaller rooms or churches where carrying the voice might be less of an issue. They seem to have restricted themselves to a far crisper, more legato style, with their vibrato never getting so intense as to mask the clean note behind it. If the differences between -classical and baroque singing detailed above don't make sense, it's worth browsing through the many clips on YouTube to get an idea of exactly how performances varied. The site hosts multiple versions of Dido's Lament from Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas, a beautiful, intensely moving swansong that remains, with justification, the most celebrated moment from any British opera. The wonderful version of the piece sung by Anne Sophie von Otter reveals a restrained contemporary opera style, tuneful and well-judged but with an intense vibrato and a powerful sense of projection. The version by Kirkby, a soprano celebrated for her interpretations of baroque and early music, is -markedly different. While her quieter delivery might struggle to fill, say, the auditorium at the Scala, Kirkby's exquisitely tuneful, mellifluous voice and more restrained use of -vibrato suit the piece well, -creating an impression that is slightly -sweeter but still not lacking in emotional impact. While such attempts to raise -baroque music from the dead are interesting, they also provoke tricky questions about authenticity. We don't expect Shakespeare to be performed in reconstructed -Elizabethan accents, so should we really expect music to be improved by being played on arguably obsolete hardware? The classical violin and piano, for example, became popular because they proved more versatile and resonant than the more primitive instruments that preceded them. Should musicians stick with the limitations of a -given period just because we suspect them to be historically accurate? The obvious answer to this is that the characteristics of these -supposedly more primitive instruments are exactly what baroque composers had in mind when putting pen to paper. Take the -harpsichord as an example. An -instrument that started out in drawing rooms across Europe, it ended up as a museum piece once the -piano finally booted it out of vogue in the late 18th century. With a crisp, hard note that sounds roughly halfway between a harp and a loud glockenspiel, harpsichords were still the dominant keyboard instruments in Handel's time - indeed Handel himself used to lead orchestras from the harpsichord and was admired for his nimble--fingered, improvised embellishments on his own scores. While the harpsichord is a delightful, powerful instrument at the best of times, the sheer versatility of the piano pretty much blew it out of the water. A harpsichord's keys pluck the instrument's strings, making it hard for a note to reverberate for long and preventing any variation in volume. A piano's keys, on the other hand, activate felt-muffled hammers that hit each string, a mechanism that creates far more dynamic variation and the possibility for longer, more resonant notes. By comparison, the harpsichord's notes - always at the same volume as their neighbours - can sound brittle and tinny. So why would we want to listen to keyboard music played on an instrument which is patently more limited in its expressive scope? The revivalist's answer is that -baroque keyboard music just sounds better this way. Listen to, say, a Scarlatti sonata played on the harpsichord and the instrument's bell-like percussive vigour is electrifying, with a music-box brightness and twang that is both cruder and rawer than a piano. Play this music on a modern keyboard and it lacks the same rumbling intensity (though being able to play loud and soft might add subtleties unavailable in Scarlatti's time). Perhaps a more pressing danger of an obsessive search for authenticity is that it can value correctness over interpretation. When orchestras are straining to recreate "what Handel would have heard", the need to re-imagine each piece afresh with every performance can get shunted to second place. This runs the risk of creating a culture that is less about the one-off glory of a concert hall recital and more about recording the definitive version of a piece for permanent record on CD. As live performance is still the lifeblood of art music, this definitely matters. But despite question marks over the authentic performance movement's historical accuracy, rediscovering period instruments and performance styles has blown the cobwebs off the baroque repertoire, awakening listeners' excitement and opening their ears anew to the huge range of the orchestral repertoire. A good thing, surely?