Orchestra of the 18th Century

Performing on period instruments, Frans Brüggen's ambitious ensemble visit Belfast on November 30

Followers of BBC Radio Three’s Early Music Show on Sunday afternoons may recently have heard Piers Adams’ two programme tribute to the late Frans Brüggen.

As a virtuoso recorder player, Brüggen was one of the musicians who pioneered the revival of early music, especially but not exclusively from the Baroque era – the time of Bach, Handel, Rameau and their contemporaries.

Brüggen eventually put aside his recorder, and his often controversial and idiosyncratic approach to music making, and in its stead took up the baton in the years after he founded the Orchestra of the 18th Century in 1981. His authentic performances were always stylish and thoroughly researched but were never dull or stuffy.

Brüggen died in August 2014 at the age of 79, but his period instrument orchestra continues to explore repertoire that ranges from the 18th and well into the 19th centuries. And on November 30, they perform in Belfast's Ulster Hall as part of their tour123 project, which also takes in Belgium and the Netherlands.

For anyone who hasn’t heard music played on original instruments – or, at the very least, copies of those original instruments – it may be a revelation to understand how each phrase, each harmony, each individual instrumental sound comes alive in a very different way from being played on modern instruments.

Both approaches are equally valid, perhaps, but it is understandable how some musicians have become passionate about authenticity and historically accurate performance. It is something that we don’t get many opportunities to experience here in Northern Ireland, so a first visit by the Orchestra of the 18th Century is an event not to be missed.

Belfast-born conductor, Kenneth Montgomery – erstwhile principal conductor of the Ulster Orchestra – first became associated with the Orchestra of the 18th Century in 2012 when he stepped in at the last moment to undertake a tour of several concerts which Brüggen was unable to conduct due to ill health. He has been working with them ever since.

As an avid exponent of opera from its beginnings, Montgomery is no stranger to the early music world. Having taught in the Royal Conservatory of The Hague, he is a colleague of one of the world’s leading exponents of 'period music', Ton Koopman.

Koopman is also a professor at the conservatoire. And, of course, the Netherlands was always a centre for such enthusiasms right from the days of Gustav Leonhardt, whom many would regard as a founding father of the early music movement.

'The Orchestra of the 18th Century is really quite extraordinary,' Montgomery asserts from his home in Amsterdam. 'There are something like 28 different nationalities represented amongst the players and they work in blocks of time as an ensemble – it’s not a continuous, full-time orchestra but it is nearly always the same group of people who come together.'

Montgomery acknowledges that setting up such an orchestra was always going to be a challenge, regarding both players and audiences. 'When Brüggen first decided to establish the orchestra, it was not easy' Montgomery admits. It was a matter of experimentation and more experimentation because they all had to learn how to play these original instruments.

'So, the string players had to get used to gut strings, different bows and, of course, the wind players had to deal with instruments that had just one or two keys as opposed to the many, which now adorn instruments like the flute or the oboe or the clarinet. For the brass players, there were valve-less trumpets and horns to grapple with.

'Different speeds to what we are used to nowadays with works such as Beethoven symphonies, for example, also became possible, and we can get much closer to that composer’s actual metronome markings – always a bone of contention – with this sort of period instrument orchestra than we can with the modern symphony orchestra.

'It’s all to do with the articulation with which they can play. There is much more energy in the sound even if that overall sound is much softer. Even with the technique of vibrato, lessons had to be learned. The original approach at the start was to shun vibrato altogether but then they gradually learned to use a little bit.'

As for the players, they hail from far and wide, and are, perhaps, a microcosm of Europe's elite-level classical music performers – in order to learn the ins and outs of so many unusual instruments, they would have to be.

'The people in the orchestra are teachers and professors themselves in conservatories all over the place,' Mongtomery adds. 'Some are even instrument makers, and they have steeped themselves in the theoretical books of the time. They are very knowledgeable people, which can make them just a little bit daunting to work with!'

For the concert in Belfast’s Ulster Hall, the orchestra is bringing an original early-19th century piano with them, and will be accompanied by a special piano technician and tuner. This will be for the performance of the first piano concerto by Irish composer John Field, in which Irish pianist Finghin Collins will be soloist.

Montgomery reveals that Collins has spent a great deal of time getting used to the 'different feel' of a piano from the period and has made several visits to Holland to try out the various instruments at his disposal. To hear Field played live on an original piano will be one of the many highlights of this concert.

Montgomery points up another aspect of original performance – that of pitch, which in previous centuries was generally lower than the norm nowadays. 'In fact, our concert in Belfast will have different tunings in either half of the concert. This means that the wind players have to bring two instruments, one for each part of the concert.

'The first half includes Haydn’s Symphony No.99 and Mozart’s concert aria 'Ch'io mi scordi di te' for voice, piano and orchestra with the splendid Dutch mezzo-soprano, Rosanne van Sandwijk, as soloist, and the Field piano concerto will all be played at a particular pitch right for that late 18th century period. Then the second half, which includes Handel’s 'Music for the Royal Fireworks', will be done at an even lower pitch.'

This is the first time that the Orchestra of the 18th Century will have toured to Ireland and Montgomery is particularly looking forward arriving in Belfast. He is especially keen to let it be known that the orchestra will be available in the Ulster Hall from early on the Sunday afternoon to work with any local players who are interested in their particular style of performance and will use Haydn’s Symphony No.99 as the tool.

They will play in instrumental groups separately and then, in the last hour, they will all come together under Montgomery’s baton. It is a unique chance to hear and even play with some of the finest early music performers of the present day.

Orchestra of the 18th Century perform at the Ulster Hall, Belfast on November 30.