9th January 1973: Leopold Stokowski (1882 - 1977), the world famous conductor, in action at rehearsals with the Philharmonic Orchestra. (Photo by Frank Barratt/Keystone/Getty Images)
Stokowski: wall of sound © Getty

While Laura Cappelle acknowledges William Christie’s prominence as a musician, her recognition of his status and achievements is overly modest (“Pastoral sympathy”, Life & Arts, August 17). Granted, this is a story about his garden, but his global reputation might have warranted a few more column inches.

Prior to the ascendancy of Mr Christie and his colleagues, the French baroque was accurately described by a prominent critic as “the last, great, unexploited repertoire”. It was seldom recorded and even more infrequently performed. And when it was, it sounded so very different from today’s iterations as to be virtually unrecognisable. The big changes came with the introduction of historically informed performance practice, and the use of period instruments, or copies of same.

Sadly, or maybe inevitably, his accomplishments were accompanied by what some economists term creative destruction. Prior to the authenticity movement, audiences heard music before Mozart in the grandiose style of the Romantics. Often these performances were pretty pneumatic. The greatest exponent of this bigger-is-better school was Stokowski, whose take on early music sought an immersion effect, wall-to-wall sound as it were.

Even if some of them still make for great listening, most of these old-fashioned interpretations are now curiosities, largely consigned to the dustbin of vinyl history. Problem is, what began as a novel, even revolutionary approach, stressing authenticity and historical accuracy, has itself become an ossified orthodoxy. And it has its enforcers. Zealous authenticity cops, not unlike the morals police in some Islamist countries, patrol period orchestras to flush out the odd steel string or rogue valve that have crashed the party.

There is no guarantee that scores vetted by academics, antiquarians and other specialists will please the ear. A French reviewer recently offered a concise opinion of a historically correct concert: “Painstakingly accurate, and unaccountably mediocre.” I have sat through a few of these, and would furnish a less charitable judgment.

But back to the garden. Mr Christie is obviously enjoying his well-deserved golden years. Ms Cappelle suggests that after three decades his famously unfriendly Vendée neighbours even acknowledge him on the street. In any event, his current digs have to be a substantial improvement over those of his hometown, a suburb of gritty, deindustrialised Buffalo, New York, the so-called buckle of America’s snowbelt. Especially in January.

Harvey Clark Greisman
Wilmington, DE, US

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