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Richard Bratby: Refiner’s Fire

The Academy of Ancient Music and the Historical Performance Revolution
Elliott & Thompson
256pp, ISBN: 978 1 78396 760 5
£25

The somewhat curiously titled Refiner’s Fire – the name inspired by a passage of recitative in Handel’s Messiah  – will make some of us feel rather elderly.  It was commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding in 1973 of one the first of Britain’s period instrument orchestras, the Academy of Ancient Music. The birth of the AAM came in response to the 20th-century revival of interest in period performance practice and the use of instruments of the era (or copies of them).  The name given by its founder, the Cambridge musician and scholar Christopher Hogwood, was in itself a revival, since it had been the name of an 18th-century concert-giving organisation, originally founded as the Academy of Vocal Music, devoted to performing the music of the past. 

For those of us starting to become interested in period performance the early 70s was an extraordinary time. It witnessed the sudden and exponential growth of a movement that was already some twenty years old, largely in the shape of such Continental ensembles as Nicolas Harnoncourt’s Concentus Musicus Wien and Gustav Leonhardt’s Leonhardt-Consort in Amsterdam.  In addition to the AAM within a short period Trevor Pinnock’s English Concert (1972), Andrew Parrott’s Taverner Singers, Consort and Players (1973), and, slightly later, John Eliot Gardiner’s English Baroque Soloists (1977) and Robert King’s King’s Consort (1980) were all established. In the field of opera during the same period, Kent Opera under the musical direction of Roger Norrington introduced revelatory productions of Monteverdi’s three extant operas using period instruments, events that would radically change my own approach to Baroque opera.

The one thing above all that allowed the meteoric rise of all these ensembles was the record industry. By coincidence, their rise in the 70s and consolidation in the 80s coincided with a period that witnessed first a significant expansion of stereo recording followed by the arrival of the CD. In the case of the AAM, they were fortunate to fall in from the outset with Decca and Peter Wadland, a visionary producer who would (in conjunction with Hogwood) build an extensive catalogue on L’Oiseau-Lyre Florilegium, in effect a label created for early music. The first recording made was of Arne’s Eight Overtures. The sessions took place in September 1973 and represented the official birth of the AAM. Today it is fashionable to sneer at the Arne and other early period instrument recordings, pointing to their lapses of string intonation, honky oboes and doubtful natural horns, but for those of us that heard them with fresh ears at the time they had (and retain today) the visceral excitement of a thrilling voyage of discovery of a kind lacking in many of today’s routine early music performances.  

The subsequent story of the AAM is one that can fundamentally be divided into two halves: the era of Christopher Hogwood’s sole directorship of it and the post-Hogwood years (from around the turn of the century) that have witnessed no fewer than four directors, with at one time both the oboist Paul Goodwin and the mercurial violinist Andrew Manze jointly at the helm. It is this story that is recounted by Richard Bratby in Refiner’s Fire. He tells it in largely straightforward terms, mercifully avoiding the baroque (in the original sense of the word) contortions frequently encountered in his Spectator reviews. One of the strengths of the narrative is the inclusion of a substantial number of interviews with those that accompanied the AAM on its journey down the years. A listing includes nearly 50 such contributors and their reminiscences and anecdotes enliven the book considerably. This is especially true when filling in the details of some of the little scandals that have occurred down the years, perhaps most notably the smoking row between cellist Anthony Pleeth and American harpsichordist William Christie that led to a Musicians Union dispute with the AAM’s non-union members, including Hogwood himself.

In general, however, Bratby avoids dwelling on such incidents, which is fair enough in a celebratory volume where the aim must be to remain neutral, even to the point of occasionally approaching hagiography. He is not noted as an early music person, which shows at times in such slips as the reference to the 18th-century organisation as the Concerts, rather than Concert, of Ancient Music (p.3) and a reference to the modern instrument Swiss cellist Christoph Croisé in error for the period instrument French cellist Christophe Coin. One senses also a greater sympathy for the flamboyant if not always scholarly Manze than for the AAM’s founder. The importance of Hogwood’s scholarship in the context of the AAM evokes only a muted response from Bratby. Although he covers the 1999 recording of Handel’s Rinaldo as Hogwood’s swan song as a recording artist for Decca, he quotes only a few tepid generalised comments from the review in Gramophone. He fails to record the fact that this was one of the first performances and recordings of a Handel opera that took a scholarly approach not only to the instruments employed but also to the strength of the composer’s orchestra, using no fewer than twenty strings. Though slightly differently deployed, this is the same number as that employed by the Queen’s Theatre in 1710, the year previous to Rinaldo’s premiere there. This kind of attention to scholarly detail was arguably Hogwood’s greatest strength and one rarely emulated today when, for example, most Handel opera recordings muster about half that number of string players.  

More recent developments are probably too close to the present to analyse in a historical context. I do however find it hard to agree that the unlikely completion of the Mozart piano concerto series with Robert Levin on the AAM’s own label has maintained the quality of the issues made before Decca abandoned it over twenty years ago. And it is curious to find Laurence Cummings talking of taking on the Beethoven symphonies with the AAM as ‘new repertoire’ for them when Hogwood recorded a complete cycle in the 1980s. The rapid turnover of music directors and chief executives in recent years has not assisted stability and what happens in a future in which early music in this country is presently in a poorer state (in all senses) than I can recall remains very much an open question.  In conclusion, it should be noted that there are eight pages of evocative photographs and a good index, although the Parrott on p.58 is the artist manager Jasper, not the musicologist and conductor Andrew.

Brian Robins