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The Belgian historical flautist and recorder player Barthold Kuijken – who, along with his brothers Wieland (’cello and viola da gamba) and Sigiswald (violin), was among the first wave of musicians to grow up following the path blazed by early music pioneers such as Gustav Leonhardt and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Along with the Dutch recorder player Frans Brüggen, Barthold Kuijken also carried out vital research into historical flutes and recorders, cataloguing and testing many all over the world, the results of which work have proved invaluable to modern instrument makers.

In 2007 Kuijken obtained the first ever doctorate of music awarded by the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, with a dissertation containing the fruits of his 40-year career in early music – thoughts on the philosophy of the historically-informed movement, and reflections on specific aspects of performance. That dissertation has been reworked into the current book.

Kuijken makes clear right at the start that his goal is neither an academic musicological study nor an instruction manual for early music, modestly deeming himself unable to add anything of substance to the many such publications that already exist. He is too modest – indeed, he is not immodest enough, for his writing is bursting with wisdom and insight.

One of his main points is that ‘the more we study the old sources, the more it becomes obvious that there is not a unique historical truth, valid for all times, styles, genres and composers’ – and related to this is his lament that a minority of performers in early music carry all before them on a wave of personality, charisma and success, blinding others to the deficiencies in their knowledge and (either wittingly or not) leading others to imitate them. Rather, Kuijken rails, students should be encouraged to question and examine the validity of any interpretation laid before them, because even the most well- intentioned teacher or performer cannot avoid offering information that is ‘paraphrased, truncated, manipulated, chosen, neglected, or combined, and anyway subjected to [his/her] own biases, (in)capacities, experiences, blind spots, temperament, and taste’.

The majority of the book is taken up by a number of short chapters, each focusing on a performance-related topic such as pitch, temperament, dynamics, basso continuo etc. – few are more than a handful of pages long, and each is a well-argued distillation of Kuijken’s thoughts. The whole book is short enough (just over 120 pages, including the index) to read in one sitting, and I’d certainly recommend tackling it in that way at first, but the clarity of Kuijken’s writing is such that it repays both extended reading and dipping in and out.

Adrian Horsewood Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Early Music Today, 2016 - ©Rhinegold Publishing