notes and comment

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.

BUT FOR her extraordinary prescience, Sōma could be just another Japanese girl. Instead, she is constantly forced to live through future events in other people’s lives as she talks to them. What violence is done to her character? Is she a saviour? An egotist? Or just plain miserable? If anything, she exposes the artificiality of someone like Jin Yūichi.

Yūki Aoi’s Sōma is an enigma – mischievous, yet detached. Unlike her more popular Madoka, Sōma Sumire is no slave of Bühnensprache. Often, she sounds indifferent, seemingly paying little attention to her interlocutor. If the unmoving jaw is where Japan towers over Disney, then Sōma would be the high priest of that style of speaking. She also speaks slower than others, with a playful cadence here and there. A slow speech rate long being a feature of poetry recitation, Yūki is the one who brings the fire to anime, with a matchless air of ease and self-assurance.

A talent for precognising is not special at all in the town of Sakurada. Everybody has a talent for something. (It was before the very notion of talent got debunked by Colvin.) To avert a future of authoritarian control by the powers that be, Sōma scripts her own premature death and leaves hints for Asai to create a second her two years later, a plot Donald Davidson would have smiled on.

One would think a scheme like this is ripe for visual virtuosity. Yet it is presented with the plainest skills, with neither the artworks of Vaioretto Evāgāden, nor the framing techniques of a Shimbō. Rather, it is Yūki’s nuanced performance that allows one a glimpse into the restlessness and emotions simmering beneath the surface.

Sōma, who knows everyone’s secrets in peeking into their futures, appears ever slightly amused. It is the amused gaze of Mr Santayana behind a thin veil of melancholy. Yūki presumably keeps her mouth unrounded when doing a’s and o’s, which are normally rounded vowels.

Then, there is the intonation. A rising pitch is known to indicate query across different languages, but Sōma’s pitch is higher than would usually be expected when she poses a question she already has an answer for. She also highlights things in a sentence that she knows more about than she lets on. She would start a phrase with a sudden rise in pitch, then descend slowly over the phrase. When multiple phrases get accentuated this way, the sentence assumes a melodic character that finds no parallel in the history of vocal art. We congratulate Yūki on this feat.

The old bel canto relies on full resonance; Yūki shuns it. Bel canto is, in the end, a masculine invention. It destroys the beauty of the feminine voice. But it will be decades before the west is ready to appreciate the quiet grandeur of Sōma.

Miss Xiao reads mathematics at St John’s College, Oxford.