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The Virtues - And Traps - Of Early Music

Classical musicians struggle with the question of how to `be true' to a composer. PERIOD PERFORMANCES

THE rhythmic pulse sweeps the audience inescapably into the dance. The Haydn symphony, performed at the recently concluded Early Music Festival here, was played with a vigor and depth which made the music seem fresh and new. Woodsy-sounding ``original instrument'' winds chattered mischievously; the strings exuded a heady sensuality.

Roger Norrington conducted the symphony, and it was his originality in translating the performance practices of the past into the concerts of today that enabled the music to come through.

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If one theme unifies the astonishing diversity that is the early music movement - from the cult of the ancient crumhorn to the standard repertory of Mozart, Haydn, and even Beethoven and Schubert - it is ``creating the excitement of the original,'' says Bill Hunt of Britain's Renaissance group ``Fretwork,'' as he chatted in the lobby of the Boston Park Plaza Hotel, the hub of the festival.

The early music movement is devoted to honoring composers' intentions, using the instruments available at the time the music was written. The greatest controversy the movement faces is simply defining what ``original'' means. Does being true to the ``original'' require a strict adherence to the letter of the score? Or does it call for renewed creativity, building on but not being constrained by historical knowledge? While the first approach has dominated the movement's early years, this time the festiva l demonstrated the virtues of building on history.

Mr. Norrington, conductor of the London Classical Players, has himself changed. The program notes for his earlier Beethoven symphony cycle for EMI were peppered with metronome marks to justify the use of the tempi Beethoven is said to have specified - even where they sound eccentric and ill-fitting. The music in some of these literalist recordings simply fails to come together coherently. But Norrington has loosened up since his early recordings, and it is his imaginative search for the spirit and not j ust the letter of the score which has made him the brightest light in original-instruments circles.

``You've got to get all the grammar right, but in the end ... however much you learn, it's of no consequence if you don't do an exciting performance,'' he said in an interview during a rehearsal break.

Norrington conducts on the basis of a broad knowledge of the era in which the music first was composed. ``Symphony grew out of opera: It's intensely dramatic ... it is opera without words.''

The operatic connection came through compellingly in the dialogues between violins or between winds and strings Norrington so deliciously highlighted in his performances of two Haydn symphonies with the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra.

Not only did the interplay of instrumental voices produce a sparkling wit; it also led the listener to a world of gentleness and beauty, as in the second movement of the ``Oxford'' Symphony, where the plangent flute sound weaved rhapsodically among the strings.

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At the other end of the achievement scale, a performance of Mozart's ``The Marriage of Figaro'' by Boston's Banchetto Musicale, conducted by Martin Pearlman, failed to inspire precisely because it took a literalist approach and had too little to offer.

It is questionable, in a year when Mozart performances are reaching an all-time saturation level, whether unstaged concert performances of one of the composer's most popular operas are justified in the first place. Given Pearlman's inability to make the music sing - his conducting was extremely bland - the use of ``authentic'' instruments and tempi could not save the day.

``Ex Machina,'' the Baroque opera company from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, fared much better, producing a clear festival highlight with their inventively-staged ``Prohibited by Order of the King,'' a recreation of an entertainment of 1749 from the San Antonio Seminary in Cuzco, Peru.

The stage was filled with color and light from beginning to end, in an absorbing program of dance and song. The blend of the musical and the visual was in perfect harmony: There was lively, well-articulated singing, energetic dancing, and sensitive instrument performances. The costumes were wickedly outrageous, as was the chariot which brought them on stage. By the end of the piece, we could understand why Carlos III of Spain thought such goings-on were highly inappropriate, and banned them.

Several of Ex Machina's offerings illustrated the influence of the black and native cultures on late Renaissance and Baroque music in Spanish colonial America. The Minnesota group deserves high praise for producing a spectacle which not only gripped the imagination, but taught something about little-known times and places.

The performance of the Moscow Academy of Ancient Music will be remembered as the festival curiosity. The musicians' style of playing Vivaldi's ``The Four Seasons'' was not only 20 years out of date, but included special effects quite out of character with the music, and certainly not based on the score. The performance was, unfortunately, rather embarrassing, but it illustrated the effects of cultural isolation on the Soviet Union. It also made the point that ending such isolation will require more inte rnational exchanges of this kind.

The festival was far more than concerts. Each year there are symposia, master classes, and endless behind-the-scenes meetings and discussions. At this year's exhibition all manner of instruments were on display. The corridors of the Park Plaza Hotel filled with the sounds of competing demonstrations. Down a hallway, a soprano voice could be heard emanating from one room, a bright fortepiano from another, and a violin on trial from a third.

Violin-maker Douglas Cox had the most intriguing exhibit, displaying violins in all stages of manufacture along with the tools used to make them - providing a detailed description of the process. He picked up a tiny, toy-like thumb plane at one point, and began shaving away at the unfinished form of an instrument-in-the-making, a reminder that the most celestial of sounds are created by earthly gut and wood.

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