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Bach Without Fear

 By Nicholas McGegan (June 2005)
 Feedback to the Article

Peter Bright wrote (July 8, 2005):
I found the article reasonably interesting, although it contains nothing that hasn't been written many times before - issues of playing baroque music in large concert halls, the contempt felt by some (but surely the minority) of the HIP and traditionalist stalwarts towards each other, etc. I was mildy put off by the comment "I detest the songs of Bob Dylan". All 1000+ of them? For a musician to dismiss somebody of Dylan's stature and importance - however technically untrained, basic and abrasive his style might be - smacks of ivory tower classical snobbery which we could do without...

Leonardo Been wrote (July 8, 2005):
Sound quality for the audience - echoing concert halls

Having read the article by Nicholas McGegan, I am reminded of the subject of echo:

Someone is playing a harpsichord in a cathedral, and is playing a fast movement, and due to the echos, it becomes impossible to listen to it, unless one sits very near (or at) the instrument.

And not even using the cathedral's sound system that is designed to make the preacher audibly understandable also in the back of the cathedral, the concert then becomes unattendable except for maybe fifty or so people nearest the instrument, and even these have to cope with the echos.

So I would think it is not so much the size of the hall, from a theoretical viewpoint that might lead to a solution, but it is the sound qualities of such a hall, which would require an almost complete lack of echo or a full absorption of sound (as one for instance could have at an open air concert in a rural ambience).

I once heard someone play the flute, a Mozart piece, in the middle of a forest - no wonder I was drawn to it from afar with delight.

Bradley Lehman wrote (July 8, 2005):
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Articles/Bach-Without-Fear[McGegan].htm
I found this sentence amusing:
"Modern orchestras are also beginning to experiment with historical seating arrangements, and are finding that a classical symphony takes on a whole new flavor when the first and second violins sit in stereo."

Otto Klemperer's performances/recordings of orchestral repertoire, with the Philharmonia, regularly used a divided violins seating plan in the 1950s and 1960s (which is especially noticeable in the Tchaikovsky 6 finale's melodic zigzagging, and in Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn...).

So did Pierre Monteux; listen closely, for example, to his 1961 Chicago Symphony recording of the Franck symphony.

They just didn't call attention to it, like publishing orchestra seating charts in the booklets of Norrington recordings.

Boyd Pehrson wrote (July 8, 2005):
Aryeh, Thanks for the article. I agree with Mr. McGegan's thoughts. I never viewed the HIP movment as something to replace all other ways of performing Bach, only HIP as another way to perform Bach. I personally prefer Bach on Old Instruments and smaller forces, and preferably in an acoustically friendly space. I am glad that this variety of possibilities of playing Bach is now available to us. As Mr. McGegan pointed out, the HIP has been around for 200 years, now we have the technology and understanding to adapt to these ideas. I hope there will be more thinking outside-the-box.

David Hitchin wrote (July 8, 2005):
Leonardo Been wrote:
< Someone is playing a harpsichord in a cathedral, and is playing a fast movement, and due to the echos, it becomes impossible to listen to it, unless one sits very near (or at) the instrument. >
Ideally every performer should have a chance to hear the sound from where the audience sit - but that would need someone else to play their instrument for a bit while they wandered round and listened.

I attended a number of organ recitals by an excellent performer, sometimes in the organ loft as page turner, and sometimes with the rest of the audience. Up in the organ loft it was wonderful, but not so good downstairs. The resonance, which wasn't very large, blurred the sound so that all clarity was lost. If only the performer had once sat downstairs and listened to someone else he would have known that he needed a little more articulation and a slightly slower pace at times. Perhaps I should have told him, but it's like thinking how you tell someone that they have a body odour problem.

In spite of all of the disadvantages of electric actions, I can see the value of a midi system which allows a performer to hear him/herself as the audience do. Not so many harpsichords are fitted with MIDI so far!

Thomas Braatz wrote (July 8, 2005):
Nicholas McGegan, one of the world's leading authorities on Baroque and Classical repertoire, in his article entitled 'Bach Without Fear' viewable at: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Articles/Bach-Without-Fear[McGegan].htm stated:
>>This, to me, is a key concern: So much of the early repertoire is really for chamber forces and needs to be played in a space that bears some resemblance to a chamber. Some Baroque pieces, such as Händel's Music for the Royal Fireworks, sound splendid in a big hall, but they are the exception. I strongly advocate that a symphony orchestra look for a smaller alternative space to play the glorious music of Bach and his contemporaries.<<
In an article which purports to be focused primarily on performances of Bach's music, it appears that McGegan has somehow managed to overlook the fact that most of Bach's music using instruments (sacred music in the form of cantatas, oratorios, Passions) was not performed in a chamber-music setting, but rather in churches which might be considered fairly large 'halls.'

Unfortunately, McGegan's attitude in this reflects the thinking behind many HIP performances and recordings during the past half century: the so-called 'lite' treatment which involves many factors and regrettably has influenced negatively many potentially good HIP performance/recordings of Bach's sacred music :

1. reduce the number of performers to the absolute minimum needed (the extreme here is OVPP/OPPP)

2. create as many gaps (rests, hiatuses, 'dead' sounds) between notes as possible by playing staccato or shortening the written values of notes

3. employ virtuosically fast tempi (except in obviously marked slow mvts.,) thereby causing most notes to be 'touched' upon only very lightly and, in many instances, rather indistinctly to become virtually inaudible

It is no small wonder then that McGegan advises that Bach's 'symphonic' music be heard and performed in a chamber setting. Imagine how this affects the manner in which the singers and instrumentalists perform Bach's sacred music when they adjust their music focus upon 'entertaining the court' instead of invoking their deeply religious sentiments in a setting which was built to glorify God!

John Pike wrote (July 8, 2005):
[To Leonardo Been] A few years ago, I heard Andrew Manze and others, including Emma Kirkby, perform a number of baroque pieces in Bath Abbey, including Cantata BWV 199. You would normally expect musicians of this calibre to put on a veritable feast of musical excellence, and indeed much of it was. The problem was that the faster movements were really spoilt by the Abbey's acoustics, and the articulation between notes just drowned out by reverberation and echo. I have heard Manze play many times in other settings and his playing is usually scinillating but here it was just lost. I really think he should have played it a bit slower to allow for the acoustics, or simply chosen a different programme for the Abbey, or used a different venue, but I suppose a lot of this was dictated to him by others less familiar with the acoustics or who didn't make allowances in selecting the programme.

John Pike wrote (July 8, 2005):
[To Peter Bright] I agree with this, Peter. I found much in the article I agreed with, and on the whole it was well balanced. I think he is careful to say that his views on Dylan and Abba, which I don't s, were personal taste.

I generally like people trying to perform Bach using the instruments, styles, pitches and temperament which he would have known, but I also think there are many other ways of doing it which also sound very beautiful. Charles Rosen's performance of the Art of Fugue on piano, using as an example a performer mentioned in the article, is generally reckoned to be very fine.

I have sat through HIP performances of Bach which were almost excruciating (a performance of the Bach double concerto in D minor for 2 violins without any vibrato and, to my ears, lacking any emotion and soul, comes to mind) and I have heard performances on modern instruments that were dazzling. I have also heard some truly memorable HIP performances, and some excruciating modern-instrument performances. So much depends on the performer.

I have immense respect for Pinchas Zukerman as a violinist, but his comments on HIP are plain crazy.

Johan van Veen wrote (July 8, 2005):
Peter Bright wrote:
< I found the article reasonably interesting, although it contains nothing that hasn't been written many times before - issues of playing baroque music in large concert halls, the contempt felt by some (but surely the minority) of the HIP and traditionalist stalwarts towards each other, etc. I was mildy put off by the comment "I detest the songs of Bob Dylan". All 1000+ of them? For a musician to dismiss somebody of Dylan's stature and importance - however technically untrained, basic and abrasive his style might be - smacks of ivory tower classical snobbery which we could do without... >
Did he say they were bad? He just gave his personal opinion: he doesn't like them? Why is that not allowed?
(Not that I know what he is talking about; I've never heard anything by Dylan.)

Is it not allowed to detest popular music - of whatever kind - or jazz or whatever, in general? Why not?

I detest Wagner. Not allowed?

Charles Francis wrote (July 8, 2005):
John Pike wrote:
< A few years ago, I heard Andrew Manze and others, including Emma Kirkby, perform a number of baroque pieces in Bath Abbey, including cantata BWV 199. You would normally expect musicians of this calibre to put on a veritable feast of musical excellence, and indeed much of it was. The problem was that the faster movements were really spoilt by the Abbey's acoustics, and the articulation between notes just drowned out by reverberation and echo. I have heard Manze play many times in other settings and his playing is usually scinillating but here it was just lost. I really think he should have played it a bit slower to allow for the acoustics, or simply chosen a different programme for the Abbey, or used a different venue, but I suppose a lot of this was dictated to him by others less familiar with the acoustics or who didn't make allowances in selecting the programme.>
I had the same problem with Junghänel and Cantus Cölln some 15 years ago, when I heard them perform in the cloister of Melk in a program of Schmelzer. It was an inaudible mush because of inappropriate fast tempi and the reverberant environment. On another occasion, I heard the Hilliard Ensemble performing Lassus and Victoria, in the very same venue, singing One Voice Per Part; it was wonderful beyond words. I do like Cantus Cölln, but only as studio musicians. By contrast the Hilliard Ensemble, who I have heard many times in various churches, actively focus on the acoustics of their environment and, with appropriate tempi, exploit reverberation as an asset.

Jim Offer wrote (July 8, 2005):
[To Johan van Veen] We have to face it: the English language gets progressively less precise and more romantic with every passing day, and there's not much anyone can do about it. It's more a symptom of a trend than an individual fault of McGegan's that he didn't say "I dislike equally the music of Abba, that of Bob Dylan, and that which is performed upon the klezmer." To many people, there's no reason to merely dislike something when you can detest, despise, loathe, abhor and abominate it.

On the other hand, in this case, the writer is just using stronger terms; I very much doubt he actually has such an extreme opinion. I think it would be an indication of bad character for anyone to truly hate any piece of music. There are exceptions, of course, but usually people can turn off what they don't like, and that's all anyone really wants to do. The tendency to overemotionalize any opinion is silly, but in this case it's not an indication of snobbery.

As far as the requirement that one listen to every single piece by a composer or performer before making a general statement of opinion, that doesn't make any sense. There's such a thing as a reasonable assumption, especially if, in this case, we're talking about Bob Dylan's qualities as a performer rather than a composer. He has a very distinctive voice, one which it's difficult to take an indifferent opinion toward. A comparison in art music might be Peter Pears. If you've heard a half dozen of his songs and didn't like a single one of them, why should you be required to expend the time and effort listening to his entire catalog of recordings before being allowed to say you don't like his music? I can think of musicians whose work I slightly enjoy, but would not devote that kind of study to. Why devote it to one who's made repeated bad impressions on me?

Peter Bright wrote (July 9, 2005):
[To John Pike] Thanks for your comments. One thing the article did encourage me to do was to assess my current thinking on modern vs HIP performances, particularly of the vocal works. I have to say now that, overall, I prefer listening to period instruments and relatively smaller scale forces than I used to. I still greatly admire some of Richter's work (and I still maintain a certain degree of awe for Klemperer's St Matthew Passion (BWV 244)). But my enjoyment of HIP recordings seems to get stronger with each passing year (in fact it seems highly correlated with my exposure to each successive disc in the Suzuki cantata series!).

This is also the case for the chamber and orchestral music - the musicians I really value are those like Podger, Manze, Pinnock, Savall. For example, I simply cannot get enjoyment out of the orchestral suites played on modern instruments anymore. On the other hand, I probably prefer the solo keyboard works on piano - Tureck, Koroliov, Perahia, Rosen, Hewitt - wonderful artists, with very different approaches to Bach - but each is equally valid in my opinion. However, Pinnock's partitas, Richard Egarr's recitals, Carole Cerasi's recordings, and those of Robert Hill can also be tremendous...

Eric Bergerud wrote (July 9, 2005):
[To Thomas Braatz] Mr. Braatz makes some strong arguments and the points are well taken. Yet the last time I heard the American Bach Soloists they played OVPP in a very large church in Berkeley and the sound was splendid. Naturally they were at the front "concert style" instead of coming from an unseen or partially seen loft. There were also mics all over - I would assume they were on.

But if Mr. McGegan is correct that symphonies have abandoned baroque music (as the liner notes from Bernstein's SMP (BWV 244) also note) because of the HIP then his points are also well taken. Now that I think about it, I think he's right about the local environment we share. It's a rare day that the San Francisco symphony does anything before Mozart/Haydn. And that is a pity because the baroque ensembles' offerings are not numerous. The result is very little live Bach outside solo recitals. When I'm in my other home in St. Paul the situation is rather different. There isn't a professional "original instrument" group in the area. But there is the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. The result is lots of Bach, but on modern instruments. I'll take the St. Paul model myself. Dedicated anglers simply assume that any fishing is bthan no fishing. Well, within reason, any live Bach is better than no live Bach.

Juan Carlos Herrera wrote (July 9, 2005):
[To Peter Bright] <> In relation to Mr. McGegan's article Bach Without Fear, I permit myself to express some points which could arise some wise comments from you:

1.- He says that he felt a bit silly conducting the Nº6 Branderbourgeois, for eight players, in a concert hall for 2500 listeners. My point is: independently of the listeners and the hall, it is not just silly to conduct the Nº 6? or: do 8 players need to be conducted in the Nº6 or any other chamber piece?. Frequently we see larger groups performing baroque music without a formal conductor, having just the direction of the first executor (in general a violinist) to give the entries, and the result is generally good. Eight players are just a bit over four or three, so someone could also want to conduct Beethoven's quartets or Schubert trios! For me, to conduct an 8 players group speaks not very well of the conductor and definitively bad of the players themselves!

2.- Playing early music (let's call that from stone age up to Mozart) in modern instruments and succeeding in the effort is the best demonstration of the vitality of that music. As for style, nobody can be absolutely sure of what was the style in those years, so that field is wide open for any interpretation, and probably all of them can be valid. A different thing is playing that early music which has been recorded by their authors in a system which is perfectly consistent with the present one, and altering or miss-interpreting the essential elements of the register or score. I use to listen to Bach's Saint Matthew Passion (BWV 244), as played by different ensembles and conductors, score in hand, and find that very frequently, more than one can desire, what is listened is simply not what is written. For instance, in a J.E. Gardiner rendering of SMP (BWV 244), introduction of first part, noted in the score at a 12/3 rhythm, he simply do not play at that rhythm; he plays it like a pure waltz! This is not just a matter of style or interpretation. It is a matter of miss respect for the work being played! Other example is when the composer has indicated Chorus in some part of the score, and the conductor or someone else places just one voice!

3.- Big halls have the right to be flooded with the music of small chamber ensembles. If the acoustics does not help, why not to use modern technology and provide a little bit of amplification, well balanced around the whole volume of the hall. The clever engineers that are available in these post-modern times, can guarantee success. Has no one tried that? or it is against the select taste of the purists?. If someone want to do it, he can take the advice of pop groups!

4.- It is not surprise that Händel's Royal Fireworks, or incidentally, the Water Music, could sound well in a big hall. They were written to be performed in the outside. The master musician, a perfect connoisseur of instrumentation, did the things so as the music could be listened clearly by His Majesty, who was a bit away from the players in the first performances.

John Pike wrote (July 11, 2005):
[To Peter Bright] I absolutely agree with all of this, except to say that I don't know Klemperer's SMP and have not yet, sadly, heard any Suzuki. I really must get round to it. The trouble is, there's an awful lot of other stuff out there I would like to get my hands on even more!

 

Back to the article: Bach Without Fear [by Nicholas McGegan]

Nicholas McGegan: Short Biography | Recordings of Vocal Works | BWV 248 - N. McGegan
Article:
Bach Without Fear [by Nicholas McGegan]

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