And indeed, in old music we can find a much better ratio of good to
bad quality than in modern music. I'm not saying that all music written
centuries ago was good, by no means! The fact is that in all times
most musicians have produced poor quality, and massively so, while a few
have turned out some masterworks. But it's also a fact that of the music
composed in past centuries, almost all the bad has been forgotten and lost,
while the good, the raisins out of the cake, has been preserved! Time itself
did its selection work! And this collection of raisins, picked by
time, is what nowadays is called "classical" music, generating much confusion,
as it is not nearly limited to music written in the classical epoch of
It's a common problem for musicians who follow the traditionalistic route to find themselves lacking a certain instrument. When Bach calls for a dulcian, or one of so many old composers specifies a viola da gamba, then those are still easily filled requirements. But what can a musician do if a composer specifies an instrument that no one has even heard of in the last two hundred years? Many instruments came out of fashion very quickly. Here the choice is either playing that music on modern instruments, not playing it at all, or... well, step forward, take the long route, learn about that instrument, build it from scratch, make it work, improve it, learn to play it, and then perform the music in a historically more authentic way!
Fortunately, many musicians nowadays specialize in some old-style instrument,
and this has enriched the musical panorama by an enormous amount.
Human voices can be divided broadly into men's, women's and children's
voices. The three kinds are very different indeed! And within each group
there are many more differences. But a large problem arises: A fourth group
of voices used to exist for several hundred years, and is now basically
extinct: The castrati voices. It's easy enough to decide that a part originally
written for a boy choir 300 years ago, should be sung by a boy choir even
today, but what can we do with parts composed for castrati? There are almost
none nowadays! And the few there may be, are by no means able to satisfy
the demand! Here we are forced, for good or for bad, to replace them by
some second choice. In some cases, mostly church music, highly trained
boy's voices can replace them in a more or less convincing manner. In other
cases, like classical opera, women with strong voices can usually do the
job quite well. But a lot of music remains, specially baroque opera, which
has been rendered basically impossible to perform in original style, since
it uses the special and inimitable characteristics of these now extinct
voices as the main building block! Here we have no choice but to resort
to women voices, in the clear understanding that what we are listening
to is by no way the original music.
In some cases countertenors or falsettists sing castrati roles, but I have never found them to be convincing. Faced to this dilemma, I prefer women's voices.
But the case of the boy's voices isn't trivial either. Since the ban of female singing in churches, almost all church vocal music considers boys at least for the soprano line, and in the case of continental Europe, usually for the alto line too, while English music usually employs countertenors for the alto line. Now there is really no shortage of boys in our modern world, but there is a catch: For some reason that is unknown to me, puberty nowadays happens several years earlier than it used to. History is full of remarks about boy treble singers employed by churches until they were 15, 16 or even 17 years old, by which time they were discharged because their voices were breaking. In our times, a treble is happy to reach his 13th birthday with an unbroken voice, and really few do it until 14. This gives them much less time to mature musically, before they are no boy singers anymore.
On the other hand, this problem can be offset in a large part thanks
to modern, more effective training methods, as the many church choirs,
and other boy choirs all over the world, convincingly demonstrate. The
wide availability of recorded music exposes a modern child to much more
listening experience than a 17th century kid may have enjoyed, and this
surely helps speeding the development of musical understanding and performing
And even if we knew exactly how it was done, in many cases a really true performance would be a disaster with the listeners! In the late 19th century, which is really not that long ago, the usual singing style included attacking any important note from an octave or even more below! The singer started in the basement, whooped up, and then settled somewhere close to the real note. We have enough recordings of such singing techniques, made in the early 20th century using the first recording equipment, and sung by divas and famous tenors who had learned their art some decades earlier. And this kind of singing sounds utterly horrible to most modern listeners, accustomed to the present day style of attacking a note exactly on the spot and taking pride in the precision of the intonation! What a huge difference! So, even if we know how it was done, we may sometimes choose not doing it that way!
Modern composers leave relatively little interpreting to be done. They
state the paces, the accents, write down organ stops, and of course all
notes are there. But this has not been that way in old times! Baroque composers
basically wrote down a skeleton of the music, and trusted the craftsmanship
of the performers for all the rest! Now this sets the stage for a disaster:
If you put modern performers, clueless about improvisation, ornamentation,
and baroque play in general, to perform such music, you will end up with
a bone-rattling skeleton, rather than with baroque music!
Baroque music really cries for being filled out, ornamented, changed according to the mood of the performer and to the atmosphere that builds up in the concert room. Doing this kind of finishing to the music is a basic requirement for true-style performances of baroque and earlier music!
But it does not need to be always this way. I have heard modern performances of baroque works, using large choirs, modern instruments, producing a much fuller sound than possible in the old times. Some kinds of music really lend themselves to this modification! Just think of Händel! I'm sure he would have been glad to get a large romantic orchestra, a choir composed of 1000 singers, maybe adding a Roland synthesizer with a 10000 Watt class-D amplifier, and blasting out his Messiah over the city of London! I can vividly imagine Händel at the Roland keyboard, his white mane flying in the wind created by the breathing of the massive choir, exceedingly happy with the new sound!
But one thing is wrong: Partial approaches that combine incompatible sounds. Period instruments from the baroque time usually produce much softer sounds than modern instruments, but are much more agile. If you now perform a Bach cantata using period instruments, together with a choir of 30 men and 40 women, the choir will overpower the instruments in a hopeless way. The fine and detailed playing will be drowned under the massive, but clumsy choir sound. On the other hand, take a choir of 16 boys and 6 men, and put a full modern orchestra in front of it, and the choir simply is reduced to total inaudibility. But take the large mixed choir together with the modern orchestra, and you will get strong, intense, interesting, enthusing music. Or better, take the boy choir and the period instruments, and you will get a colorful, detailed, marvelous performance like those conducted by Bach himself, as the famous Harnoncourt/Leonhardt recordings show!