Bach to the future: how period performers revolutionised classical music

<span>Photograph: Ladi Kirn/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Ladi Kirn/Alamy

Gramophone magazine generally selects the megastars of the classical music world as recipients of its annual Lifetime Achievement award. Conductors Claudio Abbado and Bernard Haitink, players Isaac Stern and James Galway, singers Kiri te Kanawa and Montserrat Caballé have all been honoured. But this year the award went to a specialist in early music who has quietly been the voice of a revolution: the soprano Emma Kirkby. Her pure, direct, intensely eloquent singing on recordings over recent decades can truly be said to have changed the sound of music in our time. She has been the voice of the abbess Hildegard of Bingen on the bestselling Gothic Voices, she has cut through the refiner’s fire in Christopher Hogwood’s famous recording of Handel’s Messiah, and on countless recital discs she has explored the intimate expressiveness of the lute song.

Gramophone’s honouring of Kirkby reveals the extent to which early music, once a connoisseur’s backwater, has become mainstream. It’s half a century since medieval and Renaissance music burst from its cocoon and, through the energy of David Munrow and other pioneers, became a sophisticated, professionalised idiom. Ensembles revived the music of the Renaissance with the folk-inspired voices of Jantina Noorman and Montserrat Figueras. Soon the music of the baroque followed. In Britain, Trevor Pinnock, Christopher Hogwood, Roger Norrington and Andrew Parrott worked with the advancing skills of period-style instrumentalists and singers to reanimate a repertory of forgotten and familiar music with their ensembles in the 1970s and 80s. In Austria, the pioneering Nikolaus Harnoncourt brought back to life the wonderfully elaborate early baroque music of Biber and Schmelzer alongside recording all Bach’s cantatas with the Dutch musician Gustav Leonhardt. It was a thrilling period of exploration and discovery.

In place of the sustained, rich, legato sounds of modern chamber orchestras performing Bach and Vivaldi, period instrument bands brought transparency, short-breathed phrasing and sharp articulation. Not everyone liked this change: tussling with the challenges of “original instruments” was a controversial activity, and to many established musicians, deeply unwelcome. “We need a revival of period instruments as much as we need a revival of period dentistry,” quipped a Gramophone reviewer. For conductors such as Raymond Leppard and Neville Marriner, who had revived baroque music with modern instruments, it was particularly galling that their insights were now overlooked and replaced by the pungent (and as they saw it in the early days, ill-tuned) sounds of period instruments, with gut strings and more primitive wind and brass instruments without later technical improvements. Wouldn’t Mozart have loved a modern Steinway? Wouldn’t Machaut have relished the sound of a synthesiser? Well, maybe, but they would then have written very different music.

The early music movement’s vigour fitted perfectly with revolutionary ethos of the late 60s and 70s

Related: Raymond Leppard obituary

The public loved the fresh sounds of old instruments: it reflected the temper of the times. The early music movement’s vigour fitted perfectly with revolutionary ethos of the late 60s and 70s, the questioning of the establishment and reinvention of tradition. Controversy over what “right” and “wrong” performance helped. Records advertising “first recording in the original version” were a marketing department’s dream. You could argue it was oversold – there was the implication that there could be one “right” way to perform, and that getting back to the imagined “original” was something only the early music performers could achieve. It became rather ridiculous when the Academy of Ancient Music recorded the famous Pachelbel Canon, released with a sticker saying “Authentic Edition. The famous Canon as Pachelbel heard it”. We have no idea what Pachelbel looked like, let alone how he heard his own music.

Fran&#xe7;ois-Xavier Roth conducts Les Si&#xe8;cles.
Art of re-creation … François-Xavier Roth conducts Les Siècles. Photograph: EFE News Agency/Alamy

Period-instrument recording boomed as the players became more skilful. When Hogwood began to record the early Mozart symphonies, the LPs were astonishingly popular, riding high in the charts with Pavarotti. They were praised by critics for being neutral in tone and “uninterpreted”, as if that were a virtue.

A backlash was inevitable. The violinist Nigel Kennedy, denouncing period performances of Bach wrote: “Even the description of oneself as being ‘authentic’ is unbelievably arrogant – and, in the case of so-called ‘period’ performance, misguided. How can music … be authentic if it is stripped of passion and made into an exercise of painfully self-conscious technique?”

Related: Nigel Kennedy accuses fellow violinists of destroying Bach's legacy

Another attack came from within the movement. The US conductor and scholar Richard Taruskin argued fiercely that what was seen as the recreation of an authentic past was in fact the creation of a newly modern and vital performing style. His intervention did not deter either performers or record companies, now boosted by the arrival of the CD, from re-recording masterpieces in period-style performances: Beethoven symphonies led by Roger Norrington, Schumann from John Eliot Gardiner, Wagner from Simon Rattle, right up to Debussy and Ravel played by François-Xavier Roth’s Les Siècles, recreating the sounds of these works when first heard. The pungent sounds of that ensemble, with its reedy bassoons and strident flutes, were a mile away from the warmly homogeneous and integrated textures of the modern international orchestras.

The French conductor Laurence Equilbey.
Enlarging the repertory … French conductor Laurence Equilbey. Photograph: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty

The repertory continued to be enlarged. The French orchestra Insula under Laurence Equilbey revived 19th-century French symphonies; hitherto little-known composers such as the 18th-century Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, and the 17th-century Barbara Strozzi were recorded. The movement’s detailed research and rehearsal altered our preconceptions about how this music sounded. Andrew Parrott challenged the pitch at which Monteverdi should be performed, Malcolm Bilson brought the fortepiano back into Mozart’s piano concertos, and most controversially, Joshua Rifkin made his startling proposal that Bach would have expected his passions and cantatas to be performed with one singer to a part. This was uncomfortable for those wedded to the large-scale amateur choral society performances.

From a period of polarisation, early music and period-instrument performance has today surely reached a new maturity, in which it can feel satisfaction at the impact it has made on the mainstream. Conventional orchestras from Berlin to Boston are anxious to glean the latest expert insights. Even now, when CDs have ceded to streaming, ensembles are still researching and recording fascinating forgotten corners of the repertory. Alongside that, we can equally relish the creative imagination of another Gramophone award winner, the pianist Víkingur Ólafsson, whose piercingly intelligent reinventions of Bach give us hope that whatever the sound of early and period-instrument music in the future, it will continue to be a central part of our lives.

• Nicholas Kenyon’s six-part series The Future of the Past – Early Music Today begins on BBC Radio 3 on 3 November at 11pm and available on BBC Sounds.