For earlier music (i.e., romantic period or classical period and earlier, especially music of the baroque, renaissance and medieval periods), there has been a great deal of exploration of different interpretations in terms of "historically informed" or "period instrument" practices. These don't represent a single movement or school of thought concerning "correct" interpretational choices so much as a philosophy of investigation into long-neglected techniques of playing, instrument construction, ensemble size, choice of tempos, and a variety of other textual and interpretive issues. Many "period instrument" performances focus attention on one or more of these aspects. Period interpretations have found favor with musicians and CD buyers, and the availability of recordings capturing these performances has increased dramatically in recent years.
At their best, period performances can illuminate often-heard compositions anew by incorporating smaller instrumental or vocal forces, and expose novel sonorities by using instruments similar to those in use at the time the music was first composed, thus bringing a clarity to the inner workings of the music. However, excellent performances are still taking place of older repertoire using modern instruments and performance practices that bring a fuller more substantial sound to the music by using larger forces and modern instruments, and we have tried to recommend CDs that capture outstanding performances whatever the philosophy behind the interpretation.
The "authenticity" question is complex, and not as straight-forward as some would believe. The use of instruments similar to or the same as instruments commonly in use at the time the music was written can be important, but so is the performance practice (where the practices common at the time the music was written are investigated) as well as considerations of what the composer may have intended when he wrote the score. These are all intertwined, of course, but early music performers may place emphasis on one or more of these aspects.
These are historical instruments or copies of ancient instruments from the time the music was written. The hope is that by using such instruments the performer might more accurately convey the tonal qualities in the music in a way that would be recognizable to the composer or to audiences from the composer's time. Considerations include the actual instrument used, and whether it has been modified and to what extent. All extant Stradivarius violins have been altered, for example, even though they were made over 250 years ago they may not truly be authentic anymore for music of the high baroque. Questions of pitch are relevant as today we tend toward a standard pitch of middle A=440 Hz or even slightly higher, but in Bach's time the standard pitch was probably around A=415, almost a half-step lower in pitch. For stringed instruments the kind of string (gut vs. steel) and how it is wound is of interest. For wind instruments pads, keys, valves, mouthpieces, reeds and so on are also considerations that can drastically affect the tonal qualities.
This is an area of vigorous discussion as so much was taken for granted in the apprentice system of instructing performers. The oral tradition combined with teaching by example was the primary means of instruction until the time conservatories were established in the 19th century. Thus, there are many open questions about bowing, vibrato, makeup and forces in ensembles and so forth. For instance, many baroque period sonatas were written for one (solo sonata) or two (trio sonata) obbligato instruments and basso continuo. The obbligato parts were written out in full, but we know for sure that the soloists were allowed leeway to embellish the solo parts with additions (ornamentations) of their own. The extent to which this took place, and what forms it took if/when it was used are very much in question in some cases. Was it just the occasional grace note or were more elaborate additions the norm? We really don't know as no one bothered at the time to write down specifically how this was accomplished. The whole question of basso continuo is another can of worms. What instruments were used (bass viols, cellos, contrabasses, bassoons, harpsichord, organ, some combination, etc.) and how were the parts fleshed out (the composer typically just wrote chord changes – "thorough bass" – but obviously intended the performers to provide something more than block chords)?
Musicological research continues into the original manuscripts and what the composer may have intended for a given piece of music. This is also a highly debatable area. For instance, many people feel that the composer's written score should be fairly sacrosanct as far as what is actually written. In matters of dynamics, tempo, phrasing and dozens of nuances the performer may interpret what the composer wrote in different ways or ignore what's written altogether. For instance, how fast should "andante" be played? How about "allegro"? No one from 200 or more years ago bothered to tell us specifically. Metronomes came into existence about the time Beethoven was writing his late works, but they were highly inaccurate. Beethoven had many times expressed frustration with the way orchestras of his day occasionally butchered his works and saw the metronome as at least one way of getting these groups to play at the tempos he intended, so he went back and added metronome markings to many of his earlier works including all of his symphonies. However, there is some question as to whether Beethoven's metronome was even very accurate. In addition, he may not have marked every change of tempo in precisely the way he intended. He was only human after all and may have made mistakes. There is some evidence that during the romantic and modern periods slow movements (movements marked adagio, andante, etc.) have slowed down and fast movements (movements marked allegro, presto, etc.) have sped up. This makes sense as tempo is one of the primary means by which you can convey contrast and "romanticize" or add emotion to a work.
Another important aspect should be mentioned, and that is the claims made by the performers. All of the labels surrounding these practices are emotionally loaded. For instance making even a semblance of a claim of "authenticity" implies that all other interpretations are inauthentic. Likewise any discussion of "historically-informed" practice implies that other interpretations are uninformed. This may seem pretty silly, and sometimes it is, but what it comes down to is that many of the people interested in this style of playing and musical exploration are avoiding these terms, and any public advocacy of these concepts, as much as they can. They have been misquoted and misunderstood so many times it is hard to blame them. The fact is that the difference in style and interpretation is not nearly so clearly defined as many would have us believe, particularly those opposed to period performance practice. For instance, much has been made of various recordings of the Beethoven symphonies, those most sacred of works of modern orchestral concerts, which employ some of these practices to varying extents.
A case in point is the complete cycle of the symphonies recorded by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe led by Nicholas Harnoncourt and issued on the Teldec label (2292-46452-2, 5CDs). What Harnoncourt did was to employ "modern" instruments (many of which are actually the same Stradivarius, Amati, etc. instruments used in Beethoven's time and earlier but have since been modified to take higher tunings and produce more volume) with modern bows and strings. He also used period winds to a certain extent (ex., the valveless hunting horns used during Beethoven's time). He employed a ensemble of approximately the same size as orchestras during Beethoven's time (orchestral forces have gotten consistently larger until the early 20th century when we settled on Mahlerian/Wagnerian/Brucknerian-sized ensembles that have since played Beethoven and Mozart, often with part-doubling). He then went and studied the original scores carefully, coming to many of the same conclusions as his colleagues, Roger Norrington, et. al., have about tempos, phrasing and dynamics. Note that neither Harnoncourt or Norrington followed the metronome markings specified in the manuscripts slavishly, but did try to reflect their spirit throughout the score.
Is this "authentic"? Well, yes and no. Harnoncourt and his ensemble devoted more time to questions of musicality than they did trying to recreate an authentic historic experience, and this is how it should be in all interpretations. Music is a personal and highly expressive medium best served by making choices based on musical considerations, and not on historic ones. Not all period instrument performances are successful, but then neither are all modern instrument performances successful either. In the end, it is best to judge each approach individually and determine if the result is musically satisfying, regardless of the hype and controversy surrounding the philosophies. Harnoncourt's approach has been judged a success by many, not because it is "authentic" or somehow "historically informed," but because it works as music.
The renewed interest in period instrument performances has spawned a number of ensembles specializing in period performance practice and historical instruments. Brad Leissa has compiled extensive lists of such ensembles.