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Stylistic awareness of historical performance practice is rapidly gaining significance for most modern performers, with a number of prominent musicians now performing and recording on both period and modern instruments. recently met up with Baroque violinist Pauline Nobes to find out more about its role in the training of young players. John Woodford reports…

Photos: Jim Four (Pauline Nobes); Ralph Ashmead (Bows)

Before we begin, tell us something about the Baroque violin and how it differs from modern instruments.

Its basic set up is very different from a modern violin: the sound post, bass bar and the neck [below left] are very different, the result of changes made from around the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century to provide the instrument with greater power. On a modern instrument, the neck is angled much further back (I would hate to think of how many Italian necks were just thrown away by makers in the name of progress), so that it is no longer at a right angle with instrument body. Another casualty of its evolution was that gut strings became replaced with the type we use today.

Today's bows are also very different: the Baroque bow is convex and is shaped down to a very slim 'duck-billed' point [above right], whereas the Tourte [modern] bow, developed to cope with composers' changing requirements, is concave and stronger. Since most Baroque music is based on dance, it contains an inherent hierarchy of strong and weak to reflect the music's beat: the bow, being very light, is designed to airing the stroke by coming on and off the string. Modern bows, on the other hand, are designed almost to do the opposite, since more contemporary repertoire requires a line in which legato and power are important considerations. Therefore, the Tourte bow's shape and weight have to be very different and, in this respect, they are much harder to handle and not as suitable for early music.

How important is the use of the correct equipment in developing a sense of correct performance practice?

Compromises can be made, but there is no substitute for hands-on experience of period instruments. Modern soloists and orchestras can play stylistically, but we must remember that the old instruments were designed for a specific function. Giving someone a Baroque bow, for example, helps to facilitate good playing since it helps to achieve a wider range of phrasing and articulation techniques. As I have said, the role of modern instruments is very different and playing Baroque music with them makes you feel that you are struggling with something that was designed for a different purpose. That way, your job is certainly going to be much harder.

Why do we need to think in terms of stylistic performance practice?

Simply because we need to play music as close to the way in which it was conceived. There's no point in coming out with the adage that had Bach access to modern instruments he would have used them. He might have, but the music would have turned out very differently; the two are completely different and the sound that modern instruments make is so far removed from the composers' original conceptions. Therefore, we must at least try to recreate something of that original sound world, even if it is a long way from perfect.

At what stage should teachers introduce stylistic awareness to their pupils?

Many 'older-school' teachers have little understanding of 'kosher' Baroque techniques, since developing stylistic awareness amongst violinists is something that has only recently been introduced to college syllabuses. This is something you can spot when you talk to a first-year intake…their knowledge and understanding is very varied; some know that a Stradivarius, for example, is a Baroque instrument, whereas it comes as a complete surprise to others, and most know nothing about bows and set up. Although there are the mechanics to learn, there is no reason why aspects of stylistic playing shouldn't be brought in from the outset: for example, pupils could easily be made aware that a dance is not about equality, or that vibrato is not quintessential to the sound.

How can we be aware of what 'real' stylistic playing is when we look at music from a 21st-century viewpoint?

There are plenty of treatises from the period, so there's a lot of material to work from. For example, you cannot get much clearer than Quantz, who is so careful in explaining how to play his extracts that page after page of notes are written – his writings are so detailed that, in a way, it would be better to read his book than listen to someone's performances! Since there are plenty of descriptions of the sounds orchestras made and we have the right equipment, I think today's performances are pretty close to the way in which they would have sounded at the time.

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