A little early music is good for you

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Trevor Pinnock turns 60 on Saturday. That’s when conductors supposedly come of age, although Pinnock is more than a conductor. Harpsichordist, pied piper, arbiter of style, organiser, inspirer – any of these could describe the role Pinnock has played in the early music movement since the late 1960s, when he left the Royal College of Music and started exploring an almost unknown baroque repertoire.

There’s more to celebrate than Pinnock’s birthday. After 30 indefatigable years of leading The English Concert, the period instrument ensemble he founded, and a three-year pause to pursue individual projects, Pinnock is back on the trail of Bach: for the next 12 months he will work on the Brandenburg Concertos with a group of musicians hand-picked from Europe’s period instrument orchestras. The idea is to take a fresh look, in the light of developments in style and scholarship since the early 1980s, when Pinnock made his landmark recording of the six concertos. His European Brandenburg Ensemble will re-record them for Avie and perform them extensively.

There always was something about Pinnock’s Bach that set him apart from other interpreters. It’s not just a question of his rich chordal style at the keyboard, or his feel for the lilt in Bach’s dance-inspired forms. No, it’s more to do with the character he brings to the music while keeping it free of quirks and gimmicks. His decisions may be based on thorough research, but there is nothing academic about the result. Quite the opposite: Pinnock finds room for the earthiness and fun of the baroque.

It doesn’t stop him being a perfectionist, steeped in the no-excuses-accepted performing tradition he imbibed as a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral. That perfectionism came across vividly to me when, as a student in the early 1970s, I first heard him with The English Concert. There was no doubting who was in charge or where he wanted the music to go.

So it comes as a surprise, when I visit his north London terraced home, to find a musician who could not be more relaxed or less doctrinaire. It is a misconception about early music (a loose term for anything composed before the 1770s) that its practitioners know all the answers and play in the same way. They do know that the sounds conceived by Bach and his contemporaries were different from those made by modern instruments; they realise that the editions handed down by tradition are often corrupt. But Pinnock is the first to acknowledge that going back to source material throws up only questions, not answers.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, he says, the focus of the early music movement was more on method – finding instruments that approximated to those of Bach’s day and learning how to play them – than on the music itself.

“Nothing was known, there was everything to discover. The next generation found that the things we had struggled with came more easily, so that everyone could concentrate on the music. But the danger in establishing a mode of performance is that you find yourself in a ‘safe place’ – you lose the sense of discovery. For me, all music- making is about discovery. That means listening to what the music has to say, then going back to the source to see if you’re doing it responsibly.”

But what does “doing it responsibly” mean? Surely musicians have always read into the score what they wanted? That paradox, I suggest, lies at the heart of the so-called “authentic” movement. Up to a point, replies Pinnock.

“You do need to establish an idea of what the composer intended, but there’s no fun playing music to a set of rules. My definition of style is very broad: there’s no single ‘correct’ way of doing it. There comes a moment when the composer hands the music over and it becomes a shared responsibility. My view is that you can’t have an appropriate sense of style unless it involves music-making from the centre of your being. That’s one of the wonderful things about what we do: everyone has to find their own truth.”

That search for truth – what Pinnock calls “practical, pragmatic decisions in response to each situation” – has taken him along a more catholic path than is generally acknowledged in the UK, where he tends to be pigeonholed as a baroque specialist. As principal conductor of Ottawa’s National Arts Centre Orchestra in the 1990s, his repertoire extended to neo-classical Stravinsky and all but one of the Beethoven symphonies. And it was Pinnock who introduced Maxim Vengerov to the baroque violin. They would play period instruments for the first half of their recitals and modern equivalents after the interval.

He now works regularly with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie, and conducts one production a year for Opera Australia. As to his own concert-going, Pinnock – whose partner, Beatrix Hülsemann, is a violinist in the European Brandenburg Ensemble – is not averse to contemporary trends: he was recently seen at a programme of Kurtág and Adès in London. “The door is always open for new experiences,” he says.

That manifesto applies as much to his latest Bach project as to anything else in his life. The series kicks off with a concert in Sheffield’s City Hall on December 16, his 60th birthday.

“Even if our performances turn out to be different to the recordings I made with The English Concert, it doesn’t mean what we did then was wrong. I never tire of coming back to works I know, any more than would a nature lover who walks through the same wood each day. The light is different, there are always new things going on. The more you do it, the richer the detail because you notice so much more.

“Lesser composers than Bach can be fun to play but few withstand frequent revisiting. Bach can be daunting but if we do our craftsman’s work well, and we respond to what the music appears to tell us, we hope he will look benevolently on what we do. That means making the music serve its function, which is to contribute to the well-being of people.”

You can’t top that. But before I leave Pinnock to his music,
my eyes alight on the elaborately decorated harpsichord in a corner of his living room – one of six keyboard instruments he owns. This one, he says, is a US-made copy of an 18th-century harp-sichord “with lots of singing
notes, and not too much clatter”.

“It’s funny how instruments adapt themselves to you,” he says. “A harpsichord should be nothing more than a mechanical box with strings – but when other people play it, I’m always surprised by how different it sounds: it reveals different sides of its personality. Or is it the performer’s personality? You can only draw from an instrument what you demand from it.”

Trevor Pinnock and the EBE
perform Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos at Sheffield City Hall on December 16. Tel 0114 2 789 789

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