Love him or hate him, call him a pioneering genius or dusty and mannered, Nikolaus Harnoncourt deserves a lot of credit. Not only did he lead the period-instrument movement into its first major successes (both artistic and commercial) but his ideas about how to play Baroque- and Classical-era music (and why to play it that way) have had enormous influence even on conventional symphony orchestras and their conductors. This volume is a collection of essays and lectures Harnoncourt has given over the years laying out those very ideas. The title, Baroque Music Today, is something of a misnomer at this point: the latest essay in the book dates from 1980, and the second essay, "The Interpretation of Historical Music," is effectively the founding mission statement (from 1954) of Harnoncourt's period-instrument orchestra, the Concentus Musicus of Vienna. While the occasional observation seems dated or debatable, and certain points are repeated from chapter to chapter (the chapters were originally separate lectures), most of what Harnoncourt has to say remains both instructive and persuasive.
The second half of the book contains interesting discussions of particular Baroque-era instruments, national styles (French, Italian, German, English), and composers (Bach, Mozart). Harnoncourt manages to cover many technical details without ever moving beyond the ken of an interested layperson. The real heart of the book, however, is the first half, in which the author convincingly lays out the numerous misconceptions under which Baroque- and Classical-era music was generally played in the mid-20th-century ("The prevailing misconception that notational symbols and indications of affect, tempo and dynamics have always meant what they do today is disastrous"); how these misconceptions first took hold ("After the French Revolution, music got an ideological aspect--specifically, it was meant to be egalitarian. The idea of rhetoric disappeared; verbal elements were replaced with pictorial. That's how the sostenuto, the long sweeping legato melodic line, came into common use"); and the aesthetic approach he feels is crucial to performing--and hearing--Baroque music ("I like to say that music prior to 1800 speaks, while subsequent music paints. The former must be understood, since anything which is spoken presupposes understanding, while the latter ... should be felt"). Whether you agree or disagree with the premises of the historically informed performance movement (or just want to know what those premises are), you'll find them stated clearly and eloquently here. --Matthew Westphal [via]