Time was when music journalists were obsessed with the fashion for “original instruments” or the “authentic approach” in early music. Now that this trend is (fortunately) losing steam, musicians can be judged on how directly and memorably they communicate, regardless of their or their instruments’ so-called “authenticity.” In a concert at the Metropolitan Museum on Wednesday May 9, some remarkable early music specialists performed, including the French harpsichordist Pierre Hantaï and Jordi Savall, the Catalan player of the viola da gamba.
The lean, bespectacled Hantaï (b. 1964) physically resembles a young Rudolf Serkin. His performances of excerpts from J.S. Bach’s Second English Suite made trills into microcosmic explosions in a way unmatched among contemporary harpsichordists; he probably has no equal other than his mentor, the Dutch legend Gustav Leonhardt. His recital partner, Savall—a veteran musician and mainstay of Europe’s concert circuit—played quirky, characterful works by baroque oddballs like Tobias Hume, a British-born professional soldier. In Hume’s strangely vehement A Souldiers Resolution, Savall’s pizzicatti flowed softly and naturally. A bearded, grave figure, Savall has the stage presence of a seasoned actor and is clearly willing to take any technical risk to convey the meaning of the oft-neglected music that he performs.
To seek further insights into this kind of artistry, I tagged along the day after the concert on Hantaï’s visit to the Metropolitan Museum’s fabled instrument collection. There, Hantaï tried his hand on such rarities as a 1720 fortepiano made by the Florentine craftsman Bartolomeo Cristofori. (Hantaï is a master technician, as well as a harpsichordist: he spent most of the intermission on May 9 onstage, bent over the harpsichord rented for the occasion by the Museum, fervently trying to tune it, leaning in deeply to hear the subtle variations in tone.) As Hantaï raced through chunks of demanding pieces like Bach’s Italian Concerto and Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, museum visitors stopped with their jaws agape, as if Bach himself was playing the Metropolitan’s old instruments.
Performers like Savall and Hantaï, idiosyncratic though they are, offer needed, insightful views into the essence of Baroque music. Hantaï has recorded a dozen of the best CD’s of harpsichord music by Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, Girolamo Frescobaldi, Georg Telemann, and many others, most recently for the excellent small label Mirare; Savall has recorded works by Marin Marais and François Couperin, as well as an excellent anthology of early European music. The old question of authenticity becomes completely irrelevant when confronted by musicianship of this quality.