Wednesday, September 24, 2014

RIP Christopher Hogwood

Well, this is a bummer.

Christopher Hogwood was one of the first conductors I followed, when I was just getting into classical music. Never as famous as Leonard Bernstein or Herbert von Karajan, he was one of the pioneers in the "historically informed performance" movement, wherein avid scholarship was applied to compositions, in an attempt to replicate as closely as possible the performance practices of the day, so you could hear, say, a Mozart symphony performed the way Mozart would have heard it—which is what Mozart would have had in mind when composing it. So orchestras were smaller, instruments which had fallen out of favor (such as the valveless trumpet) brought back, tempos often quite a bit brisker, and even the sound of a note itself changed, as a A, for instance, was tuned to something like 430 cycles per second, rather than the 440 cycles per second that's standard these days.

What's all that matter? Maybe not a lot. Except that, for me, coming from a rock and roll and jazz background, I found Hogwood's recordings to simply sound more alive and vibrant than most others.

Take a really easy example. Here's one of the best known classical compositions ever, and one which, no matter how overplayed it is, I still find delightful, the Canon in D, by Johann Pachebel.

Sounds great, right? Sure, it might conjure up visions of a lightbulb commercial or perhaps a middle grade piano recital, but it's still a lovely piece of music.

This, on the other hand, is Hogwood's version.

Note how—even if you don't listen to classical music—you can easily hear how much smaller the orchestra is, how much lighter a tone the reduced forces brings, how much more clarity there is, how much easier it is to pick out and follow individual lines, not to mention how much quicker the tempo. Rather than the lush tones to which one had become accustomed, whether aware or not, this was rougher, more aggressive. It was, frankly, a pretty punk approach.

This wasn't for everyone. A lot of people just plain liked their Beethoven weighty, not fleet of foot, and understandably so: there are times that I myself like to hear Otto Klemperer trudge through Beethoven's Seventh like a drunken argentinosaurus trying to make its way through an especially stubborn tar pit. But for me it was a revelation. The idea that this was the way Bach or Beethoven would have expected their music to be played was a thrilling idea. But at the end of the day, what worked for me most was that it simply sounded wonderful.

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