Antagonism and animosity between ensembles and musicians playing Baroque instruments on the one hand and modern instruments on the other are, we hope, a thing of the past. It is no longer the case that period instruments are only taken up by people who could not cut it in a traditional symphony orchestra. Similarly, these days it is quite possible to perform Baroque music excellently and credibly on modern instruments. What it all comes down to is understanding and respecting the music – an awareness of what it is that is being sought in the performance.
Having spent time in both camps myself, I have found it refreshing how enthusiastic and dedicated Baroque specialists are. This genre is increasingly attracting talented musicians who have already created a successful career with a modern instrument, perhaps in a symphony orchestra, and wish to broaden their horizons; or they may have taken an interest in Baroque music even at an earlier stage. Students typically take up early music studies as a "side instrument" while already well advanced in the modern version of their principal instrument. The exceptions are the recorder and the harpsichord, which can be studied as principal instruments in their own right. At the moment, there are scarcely any opportunities for studying other early music instruments at the music institute level in Finland.
By Nordic comparison, Finland has a lively early music scene. We have a wealth of trained professionals, many of whom have studied or worked abroad. Finnish Baroque musicians are regularly invited to appear in Sweden and Estonia, those being countries with fewer early music projects and an obvious shortage of Baroque music professionals. Finland has two major Baroque orchestras, of which the Helsinki Baroque Orchestra (HeBO) is of an excellent standard even by international comparison and accordingly frequently tours abroad. The Finnish Baroque Orchestra (FiBO) has principally operated in Finland so far, and its repertoire is perhaps somewhat more traditional than that of HeBO. On the other hand, FiBO released a disc of contemporary Finnish music in early December, and next spring the orchestra will be touring Germany.
There are other Baroque ensembles in Finland too, such as Ensemble Nylandia and Storia, the training ensemble of FiBO, and a wide variety of smaller ensembles. Among the most interesting new arrivals are Orpheus’ Muses, a collective of singers and instrumentalists focusing on Baroque opera and oratorio, and Bravade, a recorder consort with a broad repertoire (see also the Helsinki Festival concert review here). We should also remember that alongside Baroque ensembles there are numerous groups specialising in Renaissance music, such as the Lumen Valo vocal ensemble and the recorder group Q Consort.
The early music boom and the historically informed performance (HIP) movement began in the Netherlands, which remains one of the world’s major early music centres. There is a large number of early music students in the country, and a wide range of courses is available.
I studied the Baroque oboe at the Amsterdam Conservatory for a couple of years. My secondary subjects and interest courses included Baroque voice, Baroque dance, Baroque music performance practices and 18th-century gestures. The early music programme at the Conservatory has a large number of classrooms, and the school’s Baroque orchestra has its own manager.
In Finland, student numbers are smaller, and major projects are generally limited to one orchestra project per year. In Amsterdam, there were four such projects each year, and even then the competition to get into those projects was tough. It was in these projects that one discovered that Amsterdam really is at the cutting edge, if such a term can be used in early music, as the orchestra was conducted or rehearsed by a veritable who’s-who of early music luminaries. The school was also wonderfully flexible: the entire establishment was kept open for only a dozen people when a Baroque oboe masterclass happened to have been scheduled during a holiday week.
The Netherlands has perhaps the highest concentration of early music ensembles in the world, but they are of a very variable standard, and there is also huge variation in pay and fees. My feeling is that the principal difference between Finland and certain early music hubs is in quantity rather than in quality.
Having said that, we should remember that the internationally celebrated top ensembles in the Netherlands are utterly amazing by any measure. Period instruments are an everyday thing: it is quite typical for a church to specifically request a Baroque instrument ensemble for a cantata gig at a service, as there is a familiarity with and an expectation of a certain type of sound that can only be achieved with period instruments.
While Finnish period instrument orchestras focus on Baroque music, the trend in central Europe is increasingly towards performing Romantic music on period instruments. Because the building of replicas of Romantic oboes, for instance, is still at an experimental stage, often the only option in this genre is to use actual 19th-century instruments. In Baroque and Classical music, by contrast, the instruments used are replicas almost without exception.
In Finland, performances of Romantic music on period instruments are rare and usually only given by visiting artists. The wonderful Schumann anniversary concert given by HeBO at the Musiikkitalo (Music Centre) in Helsinki in autumn 2017 was the first ever Finnish production of Romantic orchestral music on period instruments.
The standard of Baroque music performances in Finland continues to rise, and great ambition goes into both planning and performance. An Italian Baroque oboe guru who taught a masterclass at Urbino last summer acknowledged Finland as the greater cultural player in this respect compared to Italy, mainly in terms of financial resources committed and choices made. Poor decisions can quickly demolish everything that has been attained, in any country.
It has been a definite boon to the field of Baroque music in Finland that orchestras like the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Tapiola Sinfonietta favour Baroque music and are interested in its performance practices. For the string section of a modern symphony orchestra to swap their modern bows for Baroque bows is of course not the same thing as having an entire orchestra of professionals specialising in early music – both its instruments and its performance practices – but it is a wholly positive thing that the aesthetics of the Baroque is attracting wider interest, not only in visual arts but also in music. This benefits performers and listeners alike.
The writer has a M.Mus. degree. She has studied the Baroque oboe in Finland and the Netherlands and plays oboe with the Finnish Baroque Orchestra.
Main photo: Teemu Ikonen
Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi