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Born to the baroque

Trevor Pinnock at the two harpsichords in the Sydney Opera House Opera Theatre 51K jpeg
Master magician: Conductor and harpsichordist Trevor Pinnock says he isn’t keen on applying labels to music

Trevor Pinnock’s passion for early music comes from the heart not the head, writes Miriam Cosic

FOR a man who helped revolutionise the way we hear whole centuries’ worth of music, English conductor and harpsichordist Trevor Pinnock is surprisingly short on detail when it comes to explaining his interpretation of the baroque.

Perhaps it’s because he's unwell: after an hour with Margaret Throsby in the ABC studios, he is now slumped in an armchair in the foyer of the Sydney apartments where he is staying while he conducts Handel’s Rinaldo for Opera Australia.

He is, he says, “a man really much more of the gut than of the head”, though he has read the treatises on early music and tries to back up his instincts with scholarship.

“All I’m asking them to do is to make music which invites people into a different world, away from the mundane, and without themselves trying to make explanations of what’s happening,” he says.

Urged to give examples that would elucidate how that music-making takes place, 300 years after the original performances and without the benefit of recordings to show what Handel intended, he continues tiredly: “It would be useless for me to talk about small details that I would ask them to do. The important thing is going beyond that, putting the music on to a level of magic, which gives the music a light and shade, and a life, which carries it along.”

“When we manage to do that, there’s a tremendous energy which arises from within the whole group of musicians with a sort of essential energy. It’s hard to explain in words, but it’s amazing how that can happen.”

He may not just be avoiding exertion. There is something of the avuncular magician about him, warning you for your own child-like happiness not to look behind the facade of his props, when he says he has never been keen on the labels — “authentic” or “historic” performance practice — with which the baroque revival has been tagged.

“I always wanted my music to be part of the mainstream of music,” he says, “and to some degree I felt that the instruments that we chose, and the musical decisions we made, were things that should be private to us. They’re part of our business of making music and people should just be hearing the music itself.” Early music is big business now: there are whole festivals devoted to it in Europe and record companies ransack the archives looking for fresh material to present.

But the revival was relatively new when Pinnock started in the 1960s with a trio, the Galliard Ensemble, playing on modern instruments. Gustav Leonhardt and Nikolaus Harnoncourt were already working to acclaim in continental Europe and Pinnock, looking for a way to take early music forward in England, was inspired to emulate their pioneering attempts to present the music as it would have been heard in the 17th and 18th centuries, before the advent of big orchestras, full of high-resonance instruments, designed to project monumental 19th and early 20th century repertoire into large auditoriums.

Pinnock seems to have been born to the baroque. When he was seven years old, his piano teacher gave him a book of easy pieces. In addition to learning the one he was set, he practised another, by the 17th-century composer John Blow, which attracted him strongly. When he proudly played it for his teacher he was shocked, he says, when she dismissed the work as “that dull old stuff”. It was an early coming of age: he realised that his piano teacher, his idol, had feet of clay.

He was born in 1946 in Canterbury, where his grandfather had run a Salvation Army band. His father was a publisher, his mother an amateur singer with a lovely voice and a “marvellous” sense of rhythm. He attended the Canterbury Cathedral Choir school, which imposed rigorous discipline on its students: choir practice at 8.30am, a regular day’s school, a service in the afternoon school, then more school work till 6pm. They sang Bach and early English composers such as William Byrd.

By the time he was 15, he was taking up the harpsichord and knew that the 17th and 18th centuries were for him. In 1973, he founded the English Concert, seven people playing period instruments and, within a couple of years, had expanded it into a serious chamber orchestra.

It was a time of experiment: musicians didn’t really know how to play these funny old instruments, though they knew they wanted to make it work. Which is probably why so many mainstream musicians were sceptical, indeed often enraged by the movement, claiming it was a refuge for bad musicians.

From the beginning, Pinnock’s music-making was instinctive, he says, grounded in what he read in the score and heard in the playing of it, rather than in research into early music practice. “I’m not a university product, so I wasn’t really taught to think in those terms,” he says. “But as a responsible musician, of course, I knew that I had to find out things about the music.”

His 1979 recording of Bach's Brandenburg concertos created a stir: they were light years away from Herbert von Karajan’s lugubrious version, for example, which had informed a generation of Bach enthusiasts. (In 2007, he will re-record the Brandenburgs; he says he is looking forward to finding out how he will respond to them now.) Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, the English Concert recorded constantly for Deutsche Grammophon, bringing a new sound world to adventurous listeners.

Compared with the audacious interpretations of the current darlings of the early music world, conductors such as the magisterial Rene Jacobs, energetic young Italians such as Fabio Biondi, Rinaldo Alessandrini and Alessandro di Marchi, and the latest star, the Corsican Jean-Christophe Spinosi, Pinnock’s musical world view seems austere, almost dry, though always technically masterful. It sounds measured and didactic alongside the work of the edgy younger generation, which grew up with the genre already formed and is perhaps more confident about having fun with the music.

“I think fashion has quite a lot to do with it, in fact,” Pinnock says. “And things appear in reaction to whatever has appeared just before. Luckily, music is strong enough to be able to withstand the vagaries of fashion.”

The difference between the musical aesthetic of those early days of the baroque revival and now is almost as great as that between the pioneering work Pinnock was part of and what went before. But it is not, he points out, a linear development towards knowing how music sounded to 18th-century ears.

In 2003, Pinnock handed the English Concert over to its violinist leader, Andrew Manze, in order to concentrate on his solo career as a harpsichordist and conductor. He has worked very little in opera, though he made his New York conducting debut with Handel’s Julius Caesar at the Metropolitan Opera in 1988 and, in 2001, made a live recording of Handel’s Tamerlano at Sadler’s Wells.

Rinaldo was last seen in Australia in 1999, directed by James Robinson and conducted by Patrick Summers. It is being “restudied” by house director, Luise Napier, to fit the score that Pinnock is using, an amalgam of Handel’s revisions.

Although Opera Australia has produced early operas in recent years, most notably Julius Caesar, with Yvonne Kenny in the famous bath scene, and Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice, the popular tenor David Hobson’s calling card, Pinnock is treating the opera orchestra as baroque virgins.

“It’s a matter of recognising from the outset that there must be a certain amount of compromise,” he says, “but not making any allowances for the fact that they’re actually playing on those instruments and that they’re not accustomed to playing this sort of music. So it’s about challenging them really hard, but challenging them on the basis of giving them initially some very clear guidelines and then trying to work to the point where they, who are all good musicians, will respond with their good musical instincts to find the light and the shade and the colours.”

Article by Miriam Cosic
The Australian July 21 2005

Sound 1K gif Ruckers Double 2003 Trevor Pinnock and the Australian Opera & Ballet Orchestra
performing live an excerpt from Handel’s Rinaldo.

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