The Handel Institute

Issue 3: January 2002

Interview with Judy Tarling

Introduction: David Vickers ("DV") spoke to Judy Tarling ("JT") -  a violin and viola player for several professional baroque orchestras - about her personal experiences of performing and recording Handel, and her philosophy towards the interpretation of baroque music.

DV: What was your first memorable experience of Handel's music, and how was this consolidated?

JT: It was probably the signature tune to the BBC Home Service’s ‘5 to 10’ (or was it ’10 to 10’?) - the religious slot every morning circa 1953. This was consolidated 30 years later by discovering it was the Larghetto, e piano from Op. 6 no. 12!

DV: And how did you become interested in playing the violin?

JT: I began playing violin because my sister was getting free flute lessons at school and became attracted to the idea of learning the harp (this plan was thwarted by our parents). I started lessons with a violin teacher conveniently placed in the next street.

DV: But of course it was quite a while before you knew anything about "Gut strings"...

JT: ‘Early music’ and gut strings hardly existed when I was a student. Whilst in the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra [CBSO], I had instinctively shuddered whenever Handel appeared on the schedule: now I know why! The early seventies saw me learning the viol (on gut of course) because I thought that’s what a baroque string player did. I soon discovered the existence of the baroque violin family. I still play viol as a social hobby.

DV: Can you describe your personal approach to playing?

 JT: Always rhetorical! Interpretation must express the emotional message of the music. The ability to recognise and communicate this message to the audience is always the main thing, and should be central to baroque performance. All other performing decisions should depend on this. The use of phrase direction and shape is central to the persuasion element, to drag the audience along with you and hold their attention. Equality or evenness should only be used as a special effect, as it kills expectation, and bores the listener. I believe that the continual revision of primary sources is essential to keep the performer fresh and ready to experiment with different ideas. Re-reading in the light of new musical experiences usually produces results or insights into previously foggy or difficult areas.

 DV: Do these experiments include use of vibrato?

 JT: Yes - use it! But not without thought or strategy, and certainly not continuously. I use it as a tool of expression, or ornament in solos or chamber situations and mainly on long notes - especially if they end in a dissonance. Vibrato was probably not used much by orchestral players, and the more players you had to a part, the less it would be used. Good blend and intonation are more important in a violin section, and that is best achieved by matching bow speeds and the length of strokes.

 DV: You've featured on a lot of Handel recordings over the last couple of decades. Do any of these stand out for you personally?

 JT: La Resurrezione in 1981 with Christopher Hogwood was special, also Richard Hickox's Alcina in 1985 - especially due to Arleen Auger’s singing. Most recently, The Parley of Instruments recorded Handel in Hamburg, a collection of theatre suites which was recorded using an old-fashioned (for its time) French style theatre orchestra with bass violins in Bb - note the rich orchestral sound! I've also enjoyed participating with Roy Goodman’s Brandenburg Consort in an operatic aria series with Emma Kirkby. Listen to Roy’s interpretation of the overtures on these discs - each one takes a different attitude to the dotted rhythms, for example, and there’s no applied formula, each overture has it’s own inventiveness, not just a standard routine French overture interpretation. Working with Joan Sutherland in Athalia was also a memorable experience - when told the orchestra played on old instruments, she endearingly described herself as a ‘bit of an ancient instrument myself’.

DV: Dare I ask if you have suffered from negative vibes during any recordings or performances?

JT: I usually enjoy the music whatever, even if from the limited perspective of the viola section. Advantages of playing the viola in Handel opera include sitting back in those unison violin arias and enjoying the music! Routine or poorly thought out performances present an opportunity for analysing why they are weak, or fail to hit the message.

DV: Such as?

JT: One general observation is that there is some danger in opera (or any vocal music) of interpreting word signals literally instead of looking for emotional motivation - e.g. "Caro!" can either be loving or sarcastic, but which? This can (and should!) affect how the music is realised. Gentle caressing "caro" or bitingly vicious "caro"? A gentle dolce or a fast furioso?

DV: What kinds of staged productions have you been involved with?

JT: I haven’t taken part in that many, but I really hate out-of-period productions. Rhetorical performance works by a combination of pleasing the eye and the ear, matching all the sensory input to enhance the various affects. If the audience have to make an effort to relate what they receive aurally to another era visually, they might be mildly amused or entertained, but they cannot be really moved in the same way as if all the signals match. Body language on stage also adds to the musical and visual affect. Use of baroque gesture, if well done, can be very affecting. On the other hand, I loathed Jonathan Miller’s Rodelinda at Broomhill which was minimal and white (he hates "prancing around in Baroque wigs"). The musical level was very high - singers included Robin Blaze and Daniel Taylor, and Kraemer directing the Raglan Baroque Players - but wasted by the lack of stage drama. If I’d paid opera prices for a ticket I would have demanded my money back, as it didn’t seem that different from a concert performance.

DV: But you have worked at Göttingen, which must have been a very different approach.

JT: I enjoyed playing with the Hanover Band for Nic McGegan's Tolomeo at Göttingen, with the delicious Dominique Labelle. Nic’s seating plan for the band was particularly successful, with 1st violins in a row facing the stage and the 2nds (usually naturally disadvantaged because of lower range) in a row beneath the stage facing the audience. The gap down the middle was filled by the 2 harpsichords end to end, with bass section split at extreme left and right. Oboes sat next to leader. It was directed from the keyboard, visible to all players. This was an extremely satisfying layout, hopefully for audience as well.

DV: Have you been involved in any other Handel Festivals?

JT: I played in the London Handel Orchestra from its inception - when Denys Darlow started using period instruments in 1981. The orchestra, when it began, was based on members of The Parley of Instruments with Roy Goodman leading, and later directing. I played in this group until Roy eventually left to pursue his own conducting career. I enjoyed the annual post-Easter feast of oratorio, and making recordings including the 1757 version of The Triumph of Time and Truth. I've also played in Halle with The English Concert.

DV: In addition to regularly playing for Peter Holman's Parley of Instruments, you are also a member of his ensemble Opera Restor'd.

JT: I really enjoy playing for Opera Restor’d - although sadly we haven't done any  Handel. All their productions are ‘period’, and the team combination of music director Peter Holman, stage director Jack Edwards, and designer Robin Linklater is supreme for 17th-18th century style. The most successful productions, in my view, have been Lampe’s The Dragon of Wantley, and various Dibdin productions including The Ephesian Matron, which has also been recorded. Next year Opera Restor'd are due to revive Lampe’s Pyramus and Thisbe - a parody of Italian opera in London (also recorded). Lampe played the bassoon in Handel’s opera orchestra, so he was fully conversant with Italian musical and stage conventions and doesn’t hold back on the send-up! Don’t miss it when it comes back around the UK from 2002 (although there are no firm dates yet).

DV: You've mentioned Arleen Auger and Dominique Labelle already. What other singers do you like working with?

JT: Emma Kirkby is particularly enjoyable to work with (see the Brandenburg Consort's Handel aria series with Roy Goodman from Hyperion Records Ltd.). She is so expressive and versatile, and her ability to ornament is astounding - she seldom does the same thing twice. Other singers please note: she can and frequently does sing short notes! I don’t know why this should be a problem, but many singers resist singing short notes. Perhaps there is a technical reason why this is difficult, but it is essential to the rhetorical style which relates singing to speaking, where varying the length and emphasis of notes or syllables adds variety and interest.

DV: How do you like working with "Conductors"?

JT: Since minor RSI (repetitive strain injury) problems about 5 years ago - caused not by playing, but through overuse of a computer keyboard - I have given up playing in the larger orchestras/repertoire. Over the years I developed a technique suitable for Biber, but lost the stamina necessary for Brahms or Beethoven. This conveniently means that I more or less avoid the conductor situation. Processing the interpretation through a third party (either conductor via player or vice versa) can only mean some loss of expressive power. In my view conductors are only useful if they a) beat time in a useful way (i.e. the beat goes down on the 1st beat and up on the last beat of a bar) and b) bring players in who have been counting rests for hundreds of bars. Interpretation of the music, which should ideally originate with the players, should come a low third on the list of their function. However, I admit they are necessary for larger choral forces.

DV: Do you see the role of orchestra leader as more crucial?

JT: The quality of the leader of the orchestra can influence the performance (for good or bad) far more than the conductor. It is possible to perform all 18th century orchestral music with good leader or keyboard direction, and this method generates more responsibility from within the playing group. Following a vague beat (not many conductors I have encountered have any technique) is usually considerably more inaccurate for ensemble than listening to one’s colleagues, and co-ordinating togetherness by movement of a player, either keyboard director or leader.

DV: You have a special fondness for Handel's Twelve Opus 6 Concertos, don't you?

JT: This amazing set of concertos contains a complete compendium of rhetorical expression, and can be used as a model to illustrate every rhetorical technique in the book! I reach for these pieces first when teaching a string group, as this music always raises the spirits and is great fun to play. My main aim when playing these pieces is to exploit the opposing forces of concertino versus ripieno and 1st/2nd violin conflict or agreement. Usually the 2nd violins have to be persuaded to be much more provocative! Having the violins seated on opposite sides of the group is essential to get the full effect.

DV: Speaking of rhetorical techniques in the book, you have of course written a book specifically geared towards students learning baroque violin...

JT: I love writing for performers, and my book Baroque String Playing For Ingenious Learners has had a very successful first year. It has been taken up by most of the major baroque violin teachers and is being used by performance practice courses in universities round the world. It has also been bought by oboists, harpsichordists and even a few conductors! It is based on primary source material about baroque style (with a certain amount about bowings and string technique), stuck together with my ideas and experiences ‘in the field’, and includes a CD of The Parley of 17th century music.

DV: Are you going to write another book?

JT: My next book The Weapons of Rhetoric: A Performer’s Guide is in preparation and shows how the performing techniques used in oratory from ancient times were later used in the performance of music during the renaissance and baroque periods. Most writing about rhetoric has been about structural analysis, representation, symbolism or figures; my book is about delivery - the technique of how to kill your audience! There is hardly anything written about this subject, which should be central to all the performing arts. It can also be applied to other types of performance (teachers, comedians and politicians please note!).

DV: Do you have any future plans you'd like to tell us about?

JT: Hopefully, a full diary for The Parley of Instruments, but there is no Handel on the horizon at the moment. I would like to continue to teach workshops with groups of players, which I find more useful and rewarding than violin teaching one-to-one, as you can show people how baroque music works from a harmonic basis. Cellists need to understand this much more than most do, and lead from the bottom. They should learn continuo playing as a special skill. Playing Bach solo suites is all very well, but how much of their working life will be spent doing this, and how much in the ensemble situation? Also, most violinists need to be shown how to make decisions based on harmonic considerations. I am starting to teach courses with modern instruments, and love exploding myths about ‘authenticity’ (horrid word!), especially the bogus sort.

Relevant Links:

For more information about Baroque String Playing for ingenious learners see

The Parley of Instruments:

Opera Restor'd:

The Brandenburg Consort:


Note: The Parley of Instruments, Opera Restor'd, and The Brandenburg Consort all record exclusively for Hyperion Records, Ltd.

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