Let's take an example: Bach's Wohltemperierte Clavier. There are many recordings available for this set of Preludes and Fugues, and there are many choices of instrument out there.
Most people will now be thinking "the most obvious choice for a HIP recording is one on the harpsichord". In fact, that is mostly correct. Harpsichords were popular and widely composed on in 1722, and most of the Preludes and Fugues would have been intended for one. But is it the only instrument that Bach would have heard them on?
|Bach's original harpsichord, which he owned the last twenty years of his life|
In fact, sometimes we simply assume that all the pieces in WTC were all composed together for the same purpose. The fact is that Bach, when constructing this collection for his students and for his children, used older fugues and recycled new material. This asks tricky questions regarding interpretation, as some of these are in fact organ pieces.
A clear example is the A minor fugue from WTC I.
Highlighted in red, we can see the tonic pedal lasting four and a half bars, which is physically impossible to maintain without the use of a pedal (on a piano). The only other alternative is that this is an organ fugue arranged for keyboard (that pedal note being more metaphorical than not).
So, there are problems when interpreting these pieces, regarding instrumentation. I personally like Gustav Leondhart's harpsichord recording, yet that pedal in this fugue is obviously not played. So maybe it would be better to listen to the WTC set on an organ.
There are performers who record these on the organ, but then there are some pieces that are obviously harpsichord pieces!
This is mainly a matter of taste, therefore. Until now I have talked about the instruments that the composer would have used to write the music. But back then, like now, the instrument that the composer used was not necessarily the instrument that would have used in common households. A perfect example of this is the clavichord. The clavichord is like a smaller, weaker harpsichord which was usually used for practice or composition. However, many households had one, instead of a more expensive harpsichord.
Therefore, due to the fact that the WTC Preludes and Fugues would have been played extensively on a clavichord, shouldn't we also accept this as a genuine option for recordings? (I personally love the clavichord's sweetness and sonority).
Furthermore, the clavichord was still around by the end of the 18th century, and people still owned the instruments in their houses, despite the modern advances of the fortepiano. We can therefore assume that many people would have played Haydn's and Mozart's sonatas on a clavichord, and even some of Beethoven's. In fact, I recently heard a beautiful and convincing recording of Beethoven's Pathetique on a clavichord, by Wim Winters.
It is most likely that this sonata was composed on a Viennese fortepiano. But people still played it on the older and smaller clavichord (and harpsichord).
So really we should redefine what the principles of instrumentation for HIP are: not "performed on the instruments the composer would have used" but "performed on the instruments the musicians of the day would have used". The same principle applies for all other instruments and ensembles.
But... if the composers were happy to hear their pieces played on a clavichord, harpsichord and fortepiano (such as Mozart or even early Beethoven), what prevents us from playing them on a modern piano / violin etc... ? Food for thought. I know what my answer to that question is, but I would like to find out yours. Please comment below and thanks for reading.