FRANS BRÜGGEN’S orchestral recordings sound entirely different from modern orchestras. In fact, they also sound different from other recordings on original instruments. This is because he prioritizes the role of the “Harmonie”, the wind-band group: flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns, clarinets, etc. The principal expressive element of his orchestra is the wind sound. In his concept, the strings, by contrast with modern usage, are a beautiful halo of sound behind that. The strings complement the winds, rather than vice versa. This is, of course, the opposite of any modern orchestra, in which the strings are shrill, heavy, and dominating, and the winds struggle to be heard. In Brüggen’s orcehstra, the strings, in fact, sound like winds. The strings have breath. The whole orchestra has breath. The whole orchestra breathes as one human being. I think it is fair to say that no other orchestral recordings, modern or original-instruments, at least which I have ever heard, make this kind of wind-based sound.
The winds are the core. The winds are the core not just of the sound, but of the manner of producing sound, shaping and directing sound. The strings have an uncanny “wind sound” to them. The orchestra actually could be said to be inventing a new, third principal instrumental sound for this music: a combination of wind and string. It’s not simply a “blending” of wind and string, although that’s the point. It’s not simply a “balance” between wind and string, although that’s important, too. It’s a third, new sound, which could be called: “windstring”. It is inherently vocal, breathing, alive, approachable, delicate and sensitive, malleable, vulnerable, full of color and constant changes of color.
One day some time ago I happened to hear on the radio part of a performance of a Beethoven symphony by one of American’s most famous big-city orchestras (it doesn’t matter which city, for the purposes of this discussion). This was the most repulsive, most inappropriate sound and approach I have ever heard for this music: shrill, screaming, tense, steely, colorless, mechanical, heartless, even threatening, angry. This would be the opposite of the sound of Brüggen’s “Orchestra of the 18th Century”. The ugliest-sounding element of the big-city-orchestra performance seemed to be the oboe sound, next that of the flutes, next that of the strings, and finally that of the brass. It sounded like a collection of instruments that should never sound at the same time together. Brüggen’s sound, by contrast, sounded healthy throughout the ensemble, like all the instrumental sections were meant to be playing as a team together.
Mr Parmentier taught harpsichord at the University of Michigan from 1976 to 2014.
I am sure that since many years have now passed since I wrote it, there have arisen other orchestras who are achieving, or trying to achieve, the same thing. I have not listened to every current Baroque orchestra! Certainly Les Muffatti, from Belgium, has something like this kind of sound. So my note is out of date. However, there’s still something strong and proud about the wind sound in Brüggen’s orchestra that might be felt to set his sound apart.