For harpsichordist Lars Ulrik Mortensen, the freedom and vitality of the early music scene have become somewhat diluted in the past few years.
Harpsichordist and conductor Lars Ulrik Mortensen is just coming to the end of a sixdate Scandinavian tour. Performing an all-Bach programme with Concert Copenhagen (‘CoCo’), the period-instrument orchestra that’s celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the artistic director insists there’s something new to be found in each performance.‘We’ve played most of the works at earlier occasions, Bach being the standard fare of any baroque/early music group,’ he says, ‘but Bach’s music is so complex and there’s so many different approaches that one can employ, we always manage to find something new. As with the ongoing debate over instrumentation – were these pieces written for orchestra or a smaller group – these are the kinds of things we like to experiment with.’
Personally, Mortensen feels that comparatively smaller and slimmer ensembles ‘would have been much more likely to be employed by Bach’; but depending on the venue, acoustic, audience size and so on, he’ll make adjustments accordingly, ‘as indeed they would have in Bach’s time’. While experimentation and exploration are key parts to Mortensen’s working method, he is less keen to collaborate with artists from outside the early music sphere, as artists such as Christina Pluhar frequently will. ‘I don’t feel confident enough to employ musical languages other than the one I feel closest to,’ he admits.‘I leave it to people who can do that; I wouldn’t assume I have any authority on folk, jazz or ethnic music that’s not a part of my own tradition.’
Having said that,however,Mortensen himself spent several years as a rock and roll artist.‘I played keyboard in several bands in the mid-1970s,’ he explains. One of them, called Culpeper’s Orchard, was regarded as one of Denmark’s top bands of the time. ‘I’d grown up with classical music, and started playing the piano when I was two,’ he recalls. ‘Then, as a teenager, you react to this, and this was my reaction.’ That lasted until he stumbled on a copy of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book in the library, ‘which really hit me like nothing had hit me before’. The works of such composers as Byrd, Bull, Morley and Dowland had an inspirational effect, being ‘classical music in a way I hadn’t experienced before, so I borrowed a harpsichord from somewhere and found my sound.’ It was still part of his reaction to the classical world he’d grown up with, however. ‘Up until then, I’d been sharing the prejudice that “classical” was something that you reproduced from something written down, and therefore had to play in the same way each time.’ Early music, for him, represented ‘a very nice fusion between different kinds of music that I thought were much more different than they turned out to be’.
It was only after beginning his tuition at the Royal Danish Academy of Music that he gave up the rock and roll lifestyle. He studied with Karen Englund before continuing his studies with Trevor Pinnock in London. ‘At that time,’ he reflects, ‘there was a widespread belief that what we were doing represented a reaction to more mainstream music-making.There were no rules, and no firm answers.Now, that same repertoire has become much more institutionalised, and more mainstream. Hence, it’s changed into something slightly more authority-based, which was exactly what we were reacting against back then.’ As a teacher, he often has to show students that ‘it’s about not creating a museum piece, and it’s not a copy of anything else but an expression of the contemporary’. And the past few decades have seen a shift in performance practice, so that the no-holds-barred attitude of the past has been diluted somehow. ‘There have been choices made which means that certain kinds of language are no longer considered good taste or even options, and that I find a great loss.’
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