In the original-instrument, authentic-performance game, the medium too often becomes the message. The musicological imperative of performing the music "as the composer himself would have heard it" sometimestakes precedence over everything else and, when it does, artistic purpose can get suddenly lost in academic pedantry.
When gut strings, vibratoless tones, routinely transparent textures and relentlessly zippy tempos become the sum total of music making, there might be musicological sizzle, but one can starve from such a lack of interpretive steak.
Try as they might to convince us otherwise, these original-instrument folks only prove again the wisdom of Duke Ellington's maxim that, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing."
Now violinist Stanley Ritchie, on the other hand, embodies everything that is right about the authentic-performance movement, and when he comes to town, as he did Friday evening at St. John's College, there is special music-making to be heard.
This is especially true when he is accompanied by Elisabeth Wright, a no-nonsense, sure-handed harpsichordist of very high quality.
Yes, Ritchie's scholarly credentials are impeccable. He is on the faculty of the Early Music Institute at IndianaUniversity, as is Wright.
He plays an authentic 1670 Baroque fiddle made by Jacobus Stainer, a Tyrolean craftsman much admired by no less a fussbudget than the great J. S. Bach himself.
Ritchie's knowledge of authentic-performance practices is duly encyclopedic.
Butfirst and foremost, Stanley Ritchie is a sensitive, gifted and enthusiastic magician whose playing makes Bach, Corelli, and their late Renaissance-early Baroque ancestors positively "swing."
With musicianship of this caliber, it's amazing how quickly the novelty of the "authentic" sound wears off and the genius of these composers takes off.
Ritchie's playing is characterized by impeccable phrasing, tasteful dynamics, unerring articulation and a gift for tapping into the choreography that is part and parcel of this idiom.
Renaissance andBaroque music are intimately attuned to movement. The "gigues," "courantes," "allemandes" and "sarabandes" that title so many of these movements are all courtly dances.
Suffice it to say that this is a duo that's light on its feet.
Friday's program also demanded the frequent negotiation of hairpin emotional turns.
The harpsichordist,for example, segued immediately from the stately, deeply felt Scarlatti K. 208 Sonata to the dazzling D Major (K. 119) without so much asa backward glance.
Corelli's D Major Violin Sonata moves from a ceremonial opening to a zippy allegro with closing fireworks to an intense adagio in the space of four minutes. The exploration of such varied emotional terrain requires genuine artistry which both these players possess in abundance.
Yes, there are a lot of "authentic performance" dog-and-pony shows out there clogging up the CD bins. With Roger Norrington's "original instruments" recording of Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique" on the market in all its exhibitionistic splendor, you have to wonder what's next. "Authentic" Wagner? "Original-instruments" Mahler?
How wonderful, then, to have Stanley Ritchie's Stainer calling attention to the glory of Bach, and not the other way around.