The composer 'in my way'
It is only rarely that an HIP practitioner can meet the composer of a performed piece. Baroque composers, despite not having been around for several hundred years, enjoy an honourable status in HIP. Their scores are in good hands. Many HIP devotees would give their lives to defend the authenticity of the composers’ intentions, the original score, the authentic instruments and the way they should be played, the conditions of the first performance, and all the rest that belongs to being historically informed (Dreyfus, 1983; Kivy 1995)!
The day came when I received the solo part of the Vivaldi concertos from the composer himself (I mean, K. Å Rasmussen)! As Concerto Copenhagen’s composer in residence, Rasmussen found it natural to “re-compose”, or re-new, or re-contextualise one of the most famous pieces of the Baroque period, if not of classical music at large: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
As soon as I turned the first page of music, I realized that this was going to be complicated. To whom was I supposed to be true? Vivaldi, or Rasmussen? Who was the composer here? And further, who is the interpreter? What is the role of the performer in a score which in itself is an interpretation of a score?
As much as HIP honours the composer (in memoriam), it would be an extremely scary thing to meet one. The story of the Big Inquisitor in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov comes to mind. If Bach would ever dare to come to a modern-day concert of his St. John’s Passion or a violin concerto, HIPs would have a word or two with him to straighten out a couple of issues!
Bach has never shown up. But it is as if he is constantly hovering above the performers’ heads; they will ruminate and debate on every little slur or dot in the music, comparing different editions with the facsimile, and hope that Bach will whisper the occasional advice or solution in their ears, such as ‘play the appoggiatura from above’ in case they have doubts about the execution of a trill. I do not here attempt to undermine the importance of a 'correct' reading of Bach’s texts. But sometimes the distance can be short between an understandable reverence for historical information and speculation on the details of often missing information. A feverish adherence ‘can sound oddly theological: 'Thou shall perform the music in accordance with the composer’s intentions, for this is (H)is will'. Authentic renditions, it appears, are ethically superior to inauthentic ones’ (Dreyfus, 1983, p. 298).
Concerto Copenhagen belongs to the group of period ensembles known for their creative approach to historical performance practice. The historical information is the means to an end, not the end itself. Rather than playing the information, the performer must reach beyond the information and evaluate its contribution to the logic and expressivity of the performance. If the historical information does not make any musical sense, there is no reason to apply it.
Having a composer in residence gives yet another signal about Concerto Copenhagen’s approach to musical interpretation as a living and creative process that cannot be limited either by tradition or historical rules. We were very excited while awaiting the upcoming Rasmussen/Vivaldi project. Having Vivaldi’s Seasons in our bodies, will we be able to incorporate a new, modernized reading of the concertos? How will the sharing of composer agencies by Vivaldi and Rasmussen influence the process of constructing the interpretation? What will be a decisive factor in the interpretative discourse: expertise in the historical performance practice (performers), or practical compositional skills (Rasmussen)?
The project turned out to be a great success, with a tremendously positive critical response. Rasmussen’s compositional skills were manifested in a clever musical deconstruction of Vivaldi’s expressive devices. Obviously, the aspect of surprise played a crucial role in the performance. Altered rhythms, unexpected harmonies, ingenious melodic imitations, and so on, effectively trick the expectations of the audience based on their knowledge of Vivaldi’s original Seasons. Thus, apart from the compositional skills, the new version of Seasons also demonstrated great communicative power in performance.
Nevertheless, the increased complexity of the musical structure, that was intended to enhance the intelligibility of Vivaldi’s score, challenged some HIP performance practices. In the next section I will address the paradoxical situations that occurred in the rehearsals and performances.