Bach’s artistic legacy is not quite as straightforward as we may sometimes imagine. Whilst we can identify a steady and seamless thread of emerging curiosity and eventual homage through the 19th-century, in more recent times Bach’s heritage has entered our collective ‘gene-pool’ in saturated doses and with increasing momentum. Our new sense of ownership is potentially disorienting. We all hold images of Bach’s posthumous reputation filtering into the veins of the brooding romantics who, in turn, lionised him in adaptations, pastiche, paraphrase and performance. If we take, for example, The Graphic’s engraving, entitled ‘Bach’s Passion Music at St Paul’s Cathedral’, printed on April 19th 1873, it shows us rather more than just the nature of the performance itself. The gothic majesty of its setting in the Empire Church reveals the St. Matthew Passion transported unequivocally into the heart of British establishment ritual, where it was to remain for several generations. How a legacy of recent Bach performance history is formulated and understood may, ironically, require an even greater reliance on source study than some Bach investigations using text-based materials from centuries ago. Performance is arguably the main culprit in this sense of disorientation, claiming a seemingly multi-layered, if elusive role in Bach’s continuing distribution of wealth. In the general melée, we can observe two extremes of Bach’s cultural position in 2002: at one end of the spectrum he appears as an icon – religious or secular as it suits – and at the other, he is camouflaged in the democratic attire of a workaday baroque kleinmeister. Never has the political field of Bach performance been so diverse and the musical results so similar: homogeneity in a heterogeneous musical climate. This is surely a troubling state of affairs.
In this lecture, I expand the notion of a 20th-century Bach legacy through a re-evaluation of some unfashionable post-war recorded sources of the composer’s vocal music. These early recordings serve as a catalyst for an ongoing exploration of meanings in Bach, which I believe – in the hardened aftermath of ‘authenticity’ – deserve serious reappraisal. Here we confront an historical awareness of a different kind from the one broadly used to convey how musical works are returned to the world of their creator. In so doing, I demonstrate how some forgotten values can be transformed into a contemporary vision of Bach interpretation, expanding perspectives beyond what I see as an often depressingly prescriptive and narrow approach to the performance of this music. Given the strong statement they make, these recordings question the rationale of contemporary approaches to performance. When we are exposed to a panoply of diverse traditions and musical personalities (as we certainly encounter in this repertoire), recorded sources mount a constructive and necessary challenge for today’s performers.
My sources are all studio recordings, except for one performance recorded live. Many of them – 40 or 50 years after their issue – remain obscure: none really figure in debates about performance history and they are seriously under-represented in commercial catalogues. As sources in sound, they ultimately speak for themselves and it is this status that persuaded Timothy Day to observe in his recent book, ‘A Century of Recorded Music’, that ‘recordings may assist the scholar by making the history of music much more difficult to write’. How one articulates observations about interpretation is a central question for all those who perceive a vital field of performance studies which extends beyond traditional musicology. Even though we still use the word ‘Play’ to characterise musical execution, we mean of course far more than mere recreation but something, paradoxically, akin to the serious act of human discovery through musical re-creation. Performance celebrates, purely and simply, what George Steiner famously wrote in Real Presences: ‘No musicology, no musical criticism, can tell us as much as the action of meaning which is performance… Unlike the reviewer, the literary critic, the academic vivisector and judge, the executant invests his own being in the process of interpretation. His readings, his enactments of chosen meanings and values are not those of eternal survey. They are a commitment at risk, a response which is, in the root sense, responsible’. ‘Play’ also alludes to the notion of acting in the theatre where the protagonist comprehends his role as a responsible voice to be heard and recognised as distinctive and authoritative. The ‘Play’ makes certain assumptions on this stage: that recorded performances are fundamental sources on their own terms, providing a unique perspective on musical history in ways to which other texts cannot aspire. Laurence Dreyfus recently suggested, in a Saul Seminar at the National Sound Archive of the British Library , how performers get ‘out of sync’ with composers, becoming ‘increasingly emancipated and empowered as interpreters’, their new super-imposed visions ‘now encoded into that of the composer’s work’. He spoke also of the interpretation as ‘the time lag’ after the composer has either created (or died), and noted in a neat aside that the composer’s interpretation is rarely in recorded history heralded as the defining interpretation. All this reminds us how often performance sits uncomfortably near our prejudices, and what we believe to be the best interpretative ‘solution’, at any one time or in any given genre. So we seek meanings in the largely uncharted historical canvas of performance traditions, treating recordings as individual models, ‘frozen in time’, works of art in their own right which play a mediating role between the composer and his composition. We use them to develop a critical framework as we begin to comprehend the chaotic rhetorics of which music is capable. By accepting this positi, Bach’s vocal recordings from the post-war period gain a new lease of life, confronting us with traditions whose traces have been covered up, sometimes deliberately but more often, unwittingly.
That historical recordings should reach beyond antiquarian curiosity and become a legitimate tool for the scholar is an important departure from the recent past. Yet, the acceptance of the recording as a ‘primary source’ has too often led either to a cosmetic process of comparability between old fashioned and modern approaches to musical performance, with little systematic or contextual revelation, or the opportunity to decompose performance in some anatomy laboratory where the amputation is examined but its relevance to the rest of the amputee as a whole is unrecognised. Traditional musicology adopting tried-and-tested analytical imperatives has regularly missed the point. For example, a discrete examination of vibrato in early 20th-century violin playing can, on one level, unmask an implicit expressive hierarchy. Yet without connective, concurrent and contextual perusal of other underlying musical manifestations, these kinds of observation fail to conclude anything of real interpretative significance. I shall set out my stall on this matter in due course. For the time-being, I think of Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin’s seminal performance of Bach’s G major Violin Sonata, recorded in 1929 , where portamenti, examined on their own, display a contemporaneous characteristic which Busch employs to ready effect. But if we listen beyond Busch’s use of vibrato, we can also hear some extraordinarily prescient gestures, ideas which rarely make an appearance again before the pioneering years of 1980s ‘period performance’.
Then we come to ‘Passion’, whose significance will be seen to lie beyond the canonical St. Matthew and St. John. ‘A play of passion’ was of course Sir Walter Raleigh’s succinct answer to ‘What is our life?’, set so memorably by that exemplary Jacobean, Orlando Gibbons. I draw ‘a play of passion’ into Bach’s orbit because, for me, it symbolises my frustration with too many performances of recent years, in which a lack of emotional engagement and a pretty conceit of objectivity disregards a brooding passion, similar to that expressed in the courtly Elizabethan aesthetics of Gibbons. Admittedly, this parallel stands somewhat aloof from the centrifugal force of Bach’s muscular momentum. Nevertheless, as critics of performance, we surely cannot shirk from scrutinising the fundamental emotional engagement, or passion, between performers and their text? We must start with the premise that Bach performance belongs to no ideological position – as his music is too often subliminally appropriated – either in its unique stature or in its specific relevance as timely rather than timeless. This is a distinction which Michael Marissen makes in his book, ‘Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism and the St. John Passion’. Timely, in our context of interpretation, can be understood to imply a positive encouragement for renewed engagement as opposed to the relatively complacent and inert concept of timelessness. The expectations of ‘play’ as performance and ‘passion’ as expression in Bach’s oeuvre have been ingrained in mainstream culture for over 200 years, and for most of those years performance ideals have been sought with the same methodological and philosophical fervour as for all music that went before and after. Yet, a general acceptance that previous generations of Bach performance can be as illuminating as the present requires explanation, some background and a conscious effort to put aside all that we have previously sought to adopt or dismiss in recent decades of dogmatic perusal.
Reconciling positions of historicity in Bach performance is no mean task. A widely-held view in early music spheres is that interpretation is directed by what historical evidence – gleaned from the time of the composer – is accessible to the performer, or what one surmises the evidence might have been. On one level, no-one can doubt the extraordinarily liberating effect such a cathartic revolution has had in expanding horizons in performance of music from all periods, although of course there is no knowing what historical accuracy has ever been achieved. Secondly, and crucial to us, we can also recognise a different sort of historical evidence in the recorded form. Here, we have a sense of ‘historical’ that does not claim a knowledge of practices in Bach’s time, and yet who is to say that a tangible record of artistic endeavour, in seeking an understanding of Bach, is no less historically significant? John Butt encapsulates the view of the former position when he writes that ‘historical evidence has often inspired performers to rethink their musical reflexes…and to work with new constraints, which engender new interpretative insights’. One can read too many slogans in isolated quotations but the idea of ‘constraint’ is a deliberate means to shore up perceived emotional excess and gesture which no longer fit these accepted reflexes. In any case, I have serious misgivings about any theory of performance which seeks to inspire by constraint. With constraints removed, one could nevertheless adopt this formula to prove how historical evidence in the recorded form can also ‘inspire performers’ – in Butt’s words – ‘to rethink their musical reflexes’ as the means to ‘engender new interpretative insights’.
The most palpable evidence for this ‘new age’ musical historicism in the last twenty years has been the growth of recording through the commercial compact disc. An explosion of recorded repertoire and specialist vocal and instrumental groups of every combination and nationality – in music from Hildegard to Wagner – as well as specialist labels and studio profiles for ‘period’ performers has extended the early music revolution beyond the limits of its wildest dreams. Catalogues groan with Locatelli, Heinichen, Veracini, Charpentier and Gluck. Long-forgotten names become household words in an environment where ‘musica oscura’ has established itself as just one particular manifestation of a smooth-running service industry. The long-awaited CD recession is but a glitch in an unchanged world of accessible recordings of 17th and 18th-century music. The lexicographical instincts of the ‘historically-aware’ movement are a further characteristic, easily traced in the methods and ambitions of recording companies to produce complete editions of a composer’s oeuvre. In this morass, Bach and Locatelli begin to dance to the same tune.
Performances of 17th and 18th century music effuse a special frisson when the repertoire in question is felt to belong to part of the rich heritage of the ‘mainstream’ canon, as well as to the new order of historical rectitude. This is where Bach becomes that most potent of pivotal figures, especially in the recorded vocal domain where recent debates on appropriate voice-types, and textural, numerical or instrumental considerations have ruthlessly demarcated the territory at an instant, bludgeoning and obfuscating all manner of interpretative visions which might be brought into the frame with the advantage of renewed access. Such is not the case in the instrumental domain where the stars of Pablo Casals, Dinu Lipatti, Edwin Fischer, Glenn Gould, and other such luminaries of Bach performance heritage ascend with every new re-packaged re-mastering, sitting easily within a contemporary critical milieu. Murray Perahia will speak reverentially of Edwin Fischer. Not so, I imagine, Perahia of Sigiswald Kuijken. In fact, Bach’s vocal performances, conducted by mainstream ‘luminaries’, have attracteconsiderably less critical attention over the last 20 years than performances of 19th-century music. We are more inclined to find listeners expounding the virtues of Wilhelm Furtwängler’s 1943 version of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony than of his account of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, if we are seeking a statement of contemporaneously recognisable and accepted musical gestures. Whether that is because a wary gremlin tells us that Bach should not be done in that way and ‘we know better now’, or that Furtwängler is merely a better Beethovenian than Bachian is less obvious. Perhaps, the undoubted benefits of historical knowledge of the last 30 years has rendered the less durable aspects more pronounced in some of these old performances, as ‘beyond the pale’ of relevance to modern sensibilities? But maybe also, the obvious examples of ‘old-style Bach’ – as they have been most readily available from major labels – have erroneously lured us into a polarised view of mutually exclusive standpoints. This isn’t surprising when Otto Klemperer, Furtwängler and other maestros become, by stealth, the embodiment of Bachian mystique and gravitas. Despite such an outlook, many current practitioners have concluded that barriers have been broken down between old and new approaches, as ‘bel canto’ re-enters the baroque arena at the expense of ‘piping kettles’, as one critic disparagingly described ‘period’ singing. This ‘entente cordiale’ has a hollow feel. Why? Because the assumed criteria of what constitutes a past tradition are less and less based on a rigorous and penetrating investigation of what actually characterises those traditions, what they in fact stood for, and indeed what purpose they might serve in the future.
The source material for capturing a developing sound picture of Bach vocal performance is based less on specific landmark recordings than a capacious and unremitting white-water release of cantata recordings from the end of the last war to the early 1970s. Assembling a discography of this oeuvre reveals a range of activity throughout Europe which arguably rivals any significant body of chamber, symphonic or operatic work during that period. The rise in popularity of Bach’s vocal music can be explained by its suitability to the pioneering LP revolution in the early 1950s. As a compendium of singers, it is an unrivalled source which reaches far beyond the ubiquitous performances of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Hans Hotter and others. The majority of labels, on which they appear, have now disappeared, swallowed up by ever-larger conglomerates or simply lost and irrecoverable. Since many of the performers were little more than regional figures, their reputations died with them and disappeared from catalogues in the years leading towards the introduction of the CD in 1982.
There are, of course, exceptions, notably in Leipzig, where iconic status prevailed – regenerated by the Thomanerchor’s importance to the Bach revival in the 19th Century. This is still a recorded legacy that has remained strongly intact. It is tempting, in this light, to revere one of the master-cantors of St Thomas’s since Bach himself, Günther Ramin, who served from 1939 until his untimely death in 1956. Despite Ramin’s profound influence on the subsequent generation of Karl Richter, his greatest musical attribute was as an inspirational trainer of young people and a communicator of the highest order. His early, heavily-abridged and yet still interminable St. Matthew Passion from 1941 is a justly celebrated and powerful statement, if largely for its unwavering and enlightened zeal in projecting the lifeblood of the work. It is certainly an advance on Hans Weisbach’s own Leipzig account in 1935, which is considerably less dramatic and cohesive than Willem Mengleberg’s idiosyncratic, if well-worn 1939 reading with the Concertgebouw.
Ramin’s radio-broadcast cantatas from around the early 1950s  are interesting historical documents of Leipzig music rising from the ashes of war in an unsettling political era. Yet, for all the mystique of performance in Bach’s workplace, they fail to project a world where endless possibilities are inherent in the performance ethos. This is ultimately the disappointment with Ramin in relation to the legacy left by several of the figures we will soon be considering. Not just in Leipzig have traditions of Bach performance been part-moulded by the political turmoil of recent German history. Yet here we are left with the strongest sense of the struggle of musicians to bring fresh optimism and light into their work, especially marked in a hallowed institution that was inevitably a target for propaganda. Ramin died in his fifties after a courageous tenure and was succeeded by Kurt Thomas, a man far less politically and administratively astute; it wasn’t long before he fell foul of the East German authorities, leaving a plethora of worthy but mainly stolid performances exacerbated by the treacly instrumental palette of the local Gewandhaus Orchestra. With a relative degree of stability, Erhard Mauersberger further cemented this serious if ponderous organ-loft approach: old-world, avuncular courtesy abounds but it is ultimately dogged by a part-penitential, part war-affected fatigue. If, despite all our revisionist efforts, the recorded evidence from Leipzig barely lives up to its location and promise, our quest for inspiration must reach beyond geographical and institutional expectations.
In Berlin, Vienna and other more obscure centres of activity, artists appear to have felt less inhibited and therefore able to impose their own ideas more freely. Fritz Lehmann is a forgotten contemporary of Ramin whose public performance of the St. Matthew Passion BWV 244 during Holy Week 1949 constitutes a logical starting point in our quest for a repository of interpretative ideals. The excerpt I am about to play comes from one of the key moments after Christ’s arrest, ‘So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen’ (My Jesus has now been captured). It goes on, ‘Moon and stars, have for pain been ‘untergangen’ – dimmed/made to set at the wrong time of day, or more poetically, ‘sunk with pain’’ – and finally, ‘since my Saviour has now been taken, they lead him away, they tie him up’. Picander’s metaphor pronounces a grand and graphic dimension, incandescently juxtaposed with the stark reality of an increasingly hysterical mob, who bawl out for Christ’s release with harrowing rhythmic (and yet also decidedly un-rhythmic) unanimity: ‘Lasst ihn, haltet, bindet nicht’. Christoph Wolff writes of this as ‘a topos representing the superterrestrial and the innocent, for the Son of God’ . Bach tells us rather more in that his music identifies and deliberately brings into relief the uncomfortable contrast between a celestial canvas and an immediate and palpable sense of human loss. This occurs at a time in the overall shape of the work where both consolidated reaction and contemplative summary would be the most obvious way forward. And yet Bach’s narrative has just raised the stakes with human violence and spiritual illusion on the increase. Bach tellingly floats the music without a continuo accompaniment for this still, stellar, and prophetic horizon and then builds up the intensity of raw human angst, both complementing and undermining in turn. It all signals a dramatic move into the mystery of the dark unknown, whose elemental force is confiin the segue chorus ‘Sind Blitze, sind Donner’ (Have lightenings and thunders forgotten their fury?). Now the performer must take over from Bach’s inventive dichotomy, merely suggested by the poet, and find his way to project the all-seeing resignation – the emotional fermata of acceptance and the restlessness of the turba, the super-charged crowd.
Example One: LEHMANN: Duet, ‘So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen’ (St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244)
This short excerpt cannot convey the impact of Fritz Lehmann’s perceptive dramaturgy over the course of this performance. And yet, he leaves the listener in no doubt that his vision of this difficult corner in the St. Matthew is an extension of Bach’s own musical gear-change in proceedings. The text is important but only as Bach has himself interpreted its significance. As the solo duet becomes gradually more extended, both in register and phrase lengths, so Lehmann gives the singers their head. From observers they become entangled in all the melodic strands of the opening ritornello. Their sound, from poised elegance to shining immediacy, in such subtle shifts of tonal projection, risks of breathing and dynamic, contributes an extraordinarily rounded expressive vignette, symbolised as the soloists recall the final motif in the ritornello. It also provides an organic link into the triple-time chorus which acts as a brutal relief to the growing intensity. The opposite effect is almost always the case here, as the homogeneity of articulation and sustained beauty of vocal delivery, in its tidiest frock, demands a gear-change out of proportion with the dramatic context. It is also worth noting how Lehmann idealistically dabs at the night sky whilst retaining the lacy Milky Way of suspended temporality, brought screaming to earth by the rhythmic irregularity of the crowd’s brief interpolations. Throughout, Lehmann seems to concentrate on the linear integrity of each counterpoint, and a concern with precision and clarity of voicing; this is a heart-felt reaction emanating from a head brimming with lucid argument. One can hear, for example, how his flutes in Choir I share the same phraseology as the singers. Yet, like true chamber musicians, the art is not mere imitation but a subtle reference and acknowledgement.
Lehmann was another musician who died young, in his forties, just at a time when he had assembled a team of soloists to embark on a large project of Bach choral works for Deutsche Grammophon. Amongst his singers was Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, then under contract to Radio Berlin at the age of 23, and Helmut Krebs, the then-doyen of Evangelists. The concept of a strong ‘voice’ behind the performance is what Lehmann projects with an unerring sense of naturalness. His approach to Bach, however, is quite distinct from the many versatile conductors of the mid-century. Whilst his artistry draws on many cultural references, there are none of the predictably purple and heavy-laden assumptions which characterise the Furtwängler and Klemperer performances of the time. Lehmann brings the charisma of wide experience in the mainstream world of opera and symphony to intensify the dramatic options. He conforms to no artistic agenda beyond a series of unfolding hierarchies to enable his stark and highly personal vision to be realised effectively.
Such an attitude is encapsulated in the best work from Vienna in the early 1950s. Here one encounters as remarkable a growth of Bach recorded vocal music – especially the cantatas – as any in subsequent periods. Looking through uncharted discographies of the time and subsequent decades (much of it courtesy of the National Sound Archive) , one can detect – as I mentioned earlier – the sheer volume of miscellaneous cantata performances. Crucially, recordings of Bach’s cantatas from this period were made without almost any preconceptions of performance practices, or indeed self-reference, as the oeuvre was all but virgin territory. Whilst the St. Matthew Passion had five full-length recordings by 1950 with many common conceits and mutually-accepted rhetorical sign posts, the cantatas carried no such contextual expectation. The field was dominated by largely unknown figures, such as Jonathan Sternberg, Mogens Wöldike and Michael Gielen with abundant Viennese chamber ensembles. A good proportion leave us with nothing much more than workshop recordings, often attractively undistilled but equally under-nourished. Yet these figures were responsible for establishing, largely through experimentation and primary investigation, some important working practices for Bach. These were not based on ideological or research-oriented models but merely on what seemed to work in terms of realising the tenor of the music. What appears, surprising for today, is that many of these recordings were drawn from the ranks of the large opera house orchestras and choruses. Far from sounding as if the singers had been dragged kicking and screaming from the State Opera, the results convey some of the best-judged Bach singing of the century.
Example Two: PROHASKA: Aria, ‘Wir eilen mit Schwachen’ (Cantata BWV 78)
This well-known duet, from ‘Jesu, der meine Seele’, was sung in that extract by two notable Vienna State Opera principals of the time, Teresa Stich-Randall and Dagmar Hermann. It is also worth recalling that other successful Bach singers are inseparable from the reputations they gained in a huge range of different repertoire: Hilde Rössl-Majdan, Hugues Cuenod, Anton Dermota, Hans Braun, the young Walter Berry and many others. The significance of this is, I believe, central to the idea of Bach forming an integral part of a singer’s world before the concept of ‘mainstream’ and ‘specialist’ had evolved. Contrary to many current preconceptions, these singers adopted many of the stylistic nuances which were consolidated in Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s cantata series 15 years later. One only needs to hear early recordings of tenor Kurt Equiluz to understand how the open-throated extremes of theatricality and introspection are simply derived from a generic characterisation of the way music was performed in the broadest Viennese context. This was the backdrop for his Bach explorations; it was never to leave Equiluz any more than Harnoncourt’s experiences in the Vienna Symphony – to which he still openly alludes – ever ceased to affect his musical outlook.
If one considers that voices from the post-war period were generally smaller and projected more through focus of timbre rather than volume, it can be suggested that a conscious decision to adapt vocal delivery to perceived stylistic parameters was less marked than today. How conscious Teresa Stich-Randall was of re-aligning her vocal equipment for Bach is likely to have been based more on practical considerations of execution than any stylistic self-evaluation. By that, I am hardly advocating that that is possible or even desirable today but the reality is that singers had no recourse to refer to ‘appropriate’ or ‘inappropriate’ approaches to Bach singing. By all accounts, Stich-Randall was renowned for her straight, almost vibrato-less sound, and yet also admired for her intuitive coloration. Whatever operatic, lieder or oratorio experience was brought to bear on Bach, it was the simplicity of vision, unfsympathy, the absence of complex philosophical posturing which allowed musical expression to follow its most natural course. It is also worth reminding ourselves that the 1950s was a golden age of singing by any standards and that any decisions a performer may have been faced with would not have altered the high level of singing which Bach demands in any period.
Felix Prohaska and Hermann Scherchen are the two major figures in the pioneering First Viennese Bach School, if we regard Harnoncourt as the Second. Prohaska, like Scherchen, was no kapellmeister but an opera ‘chef’, famous for rehabilitating the Salzburg Festival after the War. Since the cantatas brokered no particular stance, no tradition of execution dominated another – as was emerging in the performance history of the ‘Great Passion’. Because of this, much of the music is transmitted without the due reverence which weighs down so many of the major choral performances of the period. Often, we can hear and understand many of these cantata performances as being remarkably prescient of certain traits we associate in our post-‘authenticity’ era. In that duet, the manner in which the singers lightly differentiate between quavers and semi-quavers, the well-directed pulse and pre-ordained ritardandi – are just three examples. If prescience is certainly a trend, as our sources reveal, that goes some way to demonstrating that the cultural reaction against ‘mainstream’ Bach was largely self-selecting, and of course relative to the aims of the ‘early music movement’ in the late 1970s. Often, artists who valued great music above all were cast out, musicians whose instincts were far more prophetic of the best in stylistic nuance than could have been appreciated during the high-zealotry of the authenticists. Whilst critics rightly chided the arrogance of Georg Solti’s and others’ unquestioningly bombastic Bach, the evidence and reality of an all-embracing stylistic discovery by the ‘early music movement’ becomes historically less and less sustainable as we observe modest ensembles from the 1950s permeating Bach with all the vitality, deft rhythmic control and textural definition of latter-day ‘period’ ensembles. As a corollary, even Hernert von Karajan’s B minor Mass BWV 232 recording for Walter Legge in 1952 – known as the ‘Tale of Two Cities’, as it was recorded both in London and Vienna – challenges the old-style Bach performance with its dazzling instrumental playing and agile choral work.
The idea of music as an autonomous language is something that we largely take for granted but it is one which springs to my mind whenever a strong musical personality takes centre stage, like Lehmann, Prohaska or Scherchen. Celebrating that fact alone is all very well in a current age where Bach performance seems less able than ever to find such challenging and penetrating leadership. Yet our task must be to define the distinctive qualities of Bach performance brought to us by these shadowy figures and recognise exactly what they were ‘alive to’. For both Prohaska and Scherchen, there is a palpable worldliness, a secular theatricality about the approach to the conceit of a particular work. The first of two short examples is a 1953 recording of Cantata BWV 70, ‘Wachet! betet!’, made with modest forces, drawn from the Vienna State Opera. Prohaska’s approach is one of projecting imagery, calculated from the cleanest sheet of the pioneering 1950’s spirit. From the shimmering confidence and stately control of the opening, the anticipation of dread ‘plunging us into a world of tumult’, as Whittaker describes it , soon besieges the listener. Salomo Franck’s text is consumed less by the day of judgement than Peter’s warning to watch (wachet!) and pray (betet!) and it’s invitation for Bach to inflict terrible tension. Look out for the increasingly short-breathed phrases and undulating sense of danger through patient and gradual dynamic contours. It deliberately and skillfully pits order against a growing chaos and hysteria. The ominous fanfare accompaniment, which underpins the movement with remarkable economy, is graphic in its precise pointillism with Prohaska picking off the faithful, one by one and hurling them aside. This dramatic scena is, in inspiration if not medium, once removed from the interpretative decision-making which Prohaska would have made, the following week for, say, Orfeo ed Euridice or Fidelio.
Example Three: PROHASKA: Chorus, ‘Wachet! Betet!’ (Cantata BWV 70)
The considered balance, with these extrovert Viennese Bachians, where dramatic realism and abstract musical argument conspire, is what makes Hermann Scherchen such a riveting figure of the period. Scherchen was about as versatile a conductor as one could be in those days, delving into music past and present, the latter exemplified in premières of Berg’s Violin Concerto, Strauss’s Symphony for 13 winds, Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony no. 1 in 1911 and later, Henze’s König Hirsch in 1956. Scherchen’s reputation as an experimenter is perhaps not quite accurate but there is certainly something of the detective in his quest and process of finding the inner vitality of a work, first through a detailed examination and then, once able to define the psychological essence, by throwing the key ingredients firmly into the hands of his musicians. This search for meaning is thus, for him, a never-ending process of which interpretation and its spontaneous outcomes is the most natural result in its own right. In this example from 1952, we hear the animated trance-like aria from Cantata BWV 32, ‘Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen’ (paraphrased as ‘Dear Jesus, I long for you, where have you gone?’). The points to watch out for here, in particular, are the rhythmic irregularities of the plangent oboe, the pushing on, the languid and spontaneous inégale to reflect the unsettled state of mind. Then, when Magda Lászlò enters, she picks up the instantly recognisable figure on the word ‘verlangen’, but waits for the repeat of the word, prepared by the ‘vor imitation’ of the oboe introduction, now enhanced by a yearning portamento and a steady path of discovery towards the goal of finding the Saviour.
Example Four: SCHERCHEN: Aria, ‘Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen’ (Cantata BWV 32)
Hermann Scherchen’s identification with this music and its curvature of line is a wonder of the sophisticated Viennese Bach tradition, one which, if not as prolific in quality as in quantity, represents a gold standard of achievement in the early years of cantata recordings.
The most elusive gold mine for tracing Bach vocal performance comes from the central spine of Germany in the 1950s and 1960s and a large number of provincial choirs and kapellmeisters, figures like Wilhelm Ehmann, Helmuth Kahlhöfer, Diethard Hellmann, Hans Grischkat and Ludwig Doormann, whose names and achievements have been all but forgotten. This is the area where research is most critical in assembling evidence of these performance traditions. Many are embedded in the kapellmeister roots of their respective parochial regions, this, despite the pragmatic choice of mixed chamber choirs as opposed to the boy’s choir which Ramin and others enjoyed at Leipzig. Most of these choirs and foundations had been seriously eroded in all but a few towns and cities, and despite a resurgence of German boys' singing in the 1970s, posterity ultimately reveals it to be a peripheral tradition. The great flowering of post-war recording saw many obscure labels releasing cantata performances from Mainz, Stuttgart, Mannheim, Bremen, Frankfu, Heidelberg, Pforzheim, Kassel, Göttingen and many far less recognisable locales. Few of these recordings were re-pressed and most of the labels which housed them have long since been dissolved. Preservation has largely rested on the re-mastering from existing LPs – themselves rarer than one might imagine – as a means of building an archive of some grass-roots Bach performance. Six such cantatas are found in two of the initial nine volumes of miscellaneous reformatting which constitutes the new Royal Academy Sound Archive, now accessible to students and the public (thanks, I should say, to Nicholas Anderson who has made accessible his valuable collection). Some critics would have this recorded oeuvre viewed otherwise: in his book, ‘The Grand Tradition’, John Steane summarily dismisses this period of Bach recording in Germany: ‘a beautiful voice trained to sing beautifully, and a brain and a heart to guide it – but the beauty comes first. It would be nice if this were the general rule in the Bach industry. The output of cantatas, especially on German labels, has been prolific but a great deal of the solo work has been undistinguished, some abysmal’. He has a point: local loyalties do not always lead to high standards. But his summary is too transparently based on random experience, and it is an un-enduring and simplistic conclusion when one considers where singing, such as this in this next example, is really coming from.
Example Five: GÖTTSCHE: Aria, ‘Mein Verlangen’ (Cantata BWV 161)
The voice on its own, it must be said, is hardly a tonal delectation but few would doubt the intimacy and communicative simplicity of this quiet but noble utterance, the cascading strings emboldening the heart-felt longing. The conductor, Heinz Markus Göttsche, has settled for a consort of single strings, and the tenor of Theophil Meier appears as the primus inter pares. The Elysian textures are borne of an instinctively natural response to the theme of preparation for death, exemplified in the open, unforced timbre, a humbling vulnerability and its strongly affective means of conveying diminishing life. The engagement is not just with how the words are set (which, as Whittaker rightly says, are ‘singularly undescriptive’)  but how music is presented as a pure and largely unself-aware abstraction of its own cultural understanding and milieu. This is, in part, the reason, I am certain, for the variety of Bach performances in this era. Whilst the Viennese performances are far more eventful, this is a Protestant German world based on habit, convention and a modicum – at the very least – of liturgical consciousness. By that I am not suggesting a greater spiritual engagement than in other performance traditions, so much as an easy and unabashed identity with its natural surroundings.
Amongst these illuminating recorded documents are some dull and undistinguished performances – as Steane rightly points out – but there are many direct and uninhibited expressions of Bach’s music from a valuable and indigenous source. Perhaps the key to understanding the merits of this unfettered approach is what it doesn’t do as much as what it does. The appoggiaturas in the last extract are not accented as an automated default in the performers, but weighted and shaded according to their placement in the ritornello, in dialogue with the singer as Bach recalls the practice of his forebears, and as a spontaneous reaction on the part of the player; the appoggiaturas appear more urgent in the da capo as the spirit meets, at that stage in the journey, with some natural and touching human resistance. Whilst a few figures of greater artistic stature – and therefore greater international profile – were now actively regenerating Bach performance with rather higher stakes, the unpretentious ambitions and implications of what these kapellmeisters achieved can be too easily under-estimated. Theirs was a play of passion, often displaying a distinct fallibility, and yet one without dogma, sentimentality, gratuitous religiosity or speculative theories elevated beyond all sense of ultimate purpose.
The most recognisable of such figures, and rather more established, was Fritz Werner. His initial Bach recordings with his Pforzheim musicians emerged in the late 1950s and, like his fellow German kapellmeisters, set no agenda but he set out a very definite stall.
Example Six: WERNER: Aria, ‘Letzte stunde, brich herein’ (Cantata BWV 31)
The essence of Fritz Werner’s personality is the measurable extent and means by which he imprints his vision on the object. Unlike the more localised performances of Göttsche, where the director graciously encourages the performers to open themselves up to the music and, by and large, leaves it at that, Werner sits uniquely at the cusp both of this approach and the clear-sighted, self-projected personality of a Hermann Scherchen and Karl Richter. This is clearly evident in the aria you’ve just heard, ‘Letzte Stunde’ from Cantata BWV 31 where Werner sets out on a carefully reconnoitred journey, constructed on a distinctive vocal refinement around which his own creative instincts can be most easily developed. If the ubiquitous kapellmeisters I have described are to be praised for their unself-regarding, straightforward and free-breathing response to Bach, Werner introduces new dimensions, deftly and stealthily controlled: the ‘art without artificiality’ of soprano, Agnes Giebel, is but a starting point for a play of enraptured restraint, maturing into a statement of unforced authority. From a quasi-prosaic and appropriately bucolic oboe ritornello, the performers of this pastorale start to lean into each other, bound by the chorale which gradually projects the dynamic and unfolds the protagonists, eventually, towards a state of grace, but it is subtle and well-earned by the time the oboe retreats in somnolent repose at the close. The ethereal match of Giebel with her surroundings are indeed luminously realised by her, but the interaction between them is coaxed, I imagine, rather more by Werner than one would think. This is not just a saintly meditation, even if his meticulously chosen voices play a key part in a profound projection of his view of humanity. He employed many fine singers and they all – whether Agnes Giebel, Helmut Krebs or Jakob Stämpfli – deliver from a light head-voice, both capable of vulnerability and yet unwaveringly at one with Werner’s strength of purpose. Werner’s command of his resources becomes more fascinating as one explores his work; patient lyricism and sensitivity to timbre is far from accidental, as is his relatively limited concern for ensemble precision. There is about Werner a veracity rooted in distant echoes in a way that there isn’t with the worldly Prohaska and the initial Viennese epoch.
The concept of what constitutes ‘modern-sounding Bach’ is one which can be observed well before the ‘period’ ensembles arrived. Helmut Winschermann also used many fine singers, including Agnes Giebel, Gérard Souzay and Hermann Prey. His partnership with Elly Ameling is perhaps the most revealing for our purposes.
Example Seven: WINSCHERMANN: Aria, ‘Tief gebückt und voller Reue’ (Cantata BWV 199)
I use ‘modern-sounding’ in the sense that Winscher-mann in 1969 was arguably the one Bach conductor whose achievements from this late-historical generation can now be most easily regarded as consistently enduring. Karl Richter, as we shall see finally, had played his most significant cards by then, and Fritz Werner’s work was nearly complete. Exquisite singing from Elly Ameling in Cantata BWV 199, ‘Mein Herze Schwimmt im Blut’, is one thing but the inner phrasing so eloquently poised in rhetorical relief, an uncontrived but mature engagement between singer and orchestra, as well as the quiet assurance of the bass line, all contribute to the lack of neuroses and point-making which plague so much modern Bach performance. By this I mean the excessive attention given to promoting particular theories, both scholarly and speculative, on voice-types, size of forces, textual deviation and contextual paraphernalia – without a vital perspective on their relative place in the order of lasting musical value. Perhaps the Winschermann example is the model which best serves to articulate pure interpretative ideals in a visage we can accept for the present day?
It is Fritz Werner, though, who can be most readily understood as an antidote to a figure who has become the sacrificial lamb of recent years, Karl Richter. Without tracing the achievements of one of the most gifted, prolific and variable Bach personalities of the 20th century, we should register historically that Richter’s career is in part responsible for overshadowing the achievements of many a contemporary, including the estimable Werner, through his celebrated reputation forged by a contract with Deutsche Grammophon which started in the late 1950s and continued until his death, at the age of 51, in 1981. You’d be excused at this stage for thinking that directing Bach too seriously is the one way to an early grave. The scale of Richter’s remarkable role in German musical life lies principally, I believe, in the conflation of all that the ‘mainstream’ listener increasingly wanted from his Bach. As the composer was manoeuvred along the inexorable path back to the heart of German culture, so Richter had the credentials of a resolute Lutheran kapellmeister whose training was ‘echt-ified’, if you will, by his mentoring under Ramin. He was a supreme keyboard virtuoso but ultimately remembered as an intense, obsessive and fervent executant of ensembles, trainer of the ever-affirming Munich Bach Choir and conductor of some of the finest obbligato instrumentalists of their generation. Richter’s mainstream credentials were largely driven by his choice of pre-eminent singers of the age, the likes of Maria Stader, Edith Mathis, Gundula Janowitz, Ernst Haefliger, Peter Schreier, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and others. Only Helmuth Rilling could boast an equal roster. Whilst we speak of great directorial leadership in this oeuvre, we should perhaps also consider the specific effects of how this plethora of fine singers generally identified themselves with musical directors; perhaps this would help to explain the full range, from staged formality to intimate engagement, often palpably evident in performances of this period?
How history has treated Richter and how he can now be viewed are two very different things. Firstly, now that we have almost all his recorded material readily available, we can observe a musician whose later Bach performances neither do him credit nor represent his extraordinary capacity for juggling thrilling dramatic tension with a deeply-bowed and dignified composure. He had an intractable faith in the power of the musical text as well as a capacity to bring to it indefatigable energy and fortitude. With such momentum and self-belief came some playing of an unyieldingly rigid perspective, and by the 1970s too often unfocused and comparatively enervating. The balmy summer of 1958 witnessed, in the Herkulessaal in Munich, a recording of the St. Matthew Passion which for dramatic revelations and a sweeping grandeur has arguably never been equalled. Although Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau later confided that during the sessions Richter and his production team ‘seemed determined to maintain a mute hauteur’, he also claimed it to be one of his favourite recordings. Of Richter, he continues: ‘I have rarely seen an artist practise his craft so masterfully and with such continually surprising novelty… a motion of the baton that was both precise and unconventional allowed him to convey the smallest emotion, immediately and freshly-felt, and offer it to his audience…’. To talk of spiritual quality is a fruitless task unless one is specific about the spiritual source. Here, spirituality is somehow derived from Richter’s indissoluble power to uncover an emotional world which teeters tantalisingly on an edge where expression and self-belief can either transform or suffocate our understanding of musical stillness and the melodrama of the set-piece . This is Steiner’s ‘commitment at risk’ in all its finery. Appreciating the essence of the moment is one thing, to realise it on its own terms quite another. As the apogee of mainstream values, Richter will always stand and fall by the sword. This excerpt from the great final aria of the St. Matthew Passion BWV 244, ‘Mache dich’, and the preceding recitative, is sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and communicates a human drama at an emotional crossroads in the closing pages of the Passion. How peaceful resignation, unhealed scars and tentative hope are subsumed into this recorded ‘moment’ remains, to me, one of the most extraordinarily perceptive and profound artistic statements in Bach’s performance legacy.
Example Eight: RICHTER: Recit and Aria, ‘Mache dich’ (St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244)
To demonstrate the multiplicity of interpretative approaches and ideals in a single repertoire of a single composer is ostensibly a revelation of source material, and yet also a compendium of some traditional perspectives, common identities and motivations. It is also a much-needed critical reminder of which elements provide musical interpretation with its endless possibilities, definition and character. From the eloquent lucidity of argument of Fritz Lehmann, the cohesive prescience and dramatic vitality of Felix Prohaska, the searching of Hermann Scherchen, the uninhibited integrity of the best German kapellmeister sorts, the perceptive sleight-of-hand of Fritz Werner and the fervent sense of purpose from Richter, we are left with more than a mere notion of strong and effective musical personalities. Within each performance lies a perceptible means to an end, recognisable qualities which extend beyond fashion and challenge the precepts of the musical world in which we live. That world, confined here to Bach’s vocal music, is not for a negotiable re-birth, a sentimentalising of the past, I suggest, but acts as a mirror for discriminating what specific rhetorical and aesthetic values have slipped from our grasp in the habitual comfort zone of current reflexes. No-one can doubt that the vibrant performance practices of the last 20 years, used extensively in Bach today, have delivered a great deal of what allows the composer to speak with new insights and vision. But no longer do we need either to demarcate or reconcile prevailing knowledge, or tastes and traditional styles.
So my main ‘cri de coeur’ concerns a depressing uniformity of Bach performance today, a world too often bereft of expressive means and interpretative ideas: one where artistic mediocrity has largely come about through myopic agendas, be they governed by a polemic on a detail of executancy, or a desire to project a new-fangled philosophical theory. They are increasingly set in surface values, often premised on a subliminal fear of what people will think. Considerations of style and accepted ‘historically-informed’ formulae are regarded as the sum of the interpretative process: representations not interpretations. We are unwittingly condoning a culture where the instincts and individuality of artists are generally fostered less than the codification and refinement of standards set by those working to the agreed code of practice. Is it surprising that Bach performances can only sound distinctive when we debate the numbers of players employed? We are now customarily inclined to be suspicious of strong individual artistic presence, of the sort we observed with Lehmann and Scherchen, as running counter to the democratic and accepted, impersonal recreation that characterises the often-exquisite but soulless Bach performance. As a depressing corollary, one only has to observe the lack of stature in so many Bach singers these days.
Why do we care so much about Bach’s music? Because we consider his music to be life-enhancing beyond measure and, like a great play, we wish to be stimulated and affected by the self-expression and vision of a voice behind the creation, yearning to tell us more. Obsession with, say, instruments and sources as ends in themselves has played its part in an amnesia of the past by rejecting important evidence from the critical forum of 20th-century performance practice, as it has unfolded; indeed, the general fall-out from the ‘authenticity’ revolution has arguably stifled Bach performance within a broader European cultural tradition. Rejecting material – such as we’ve heard – as irrelevant to performance practice questions the notion of tradition having a claim on something which lives on. As history has shown in sound recordings, the finest traditions are founded on a bedrock of artistic mentoring and an unashamed desire for threads of continuity which, far from blindly following conventions, can deliver the context and scope for meaningful interpretation for the present. Being ‘informed historically’ – thus threatening the hegemony of the comforting joined-up adjective, ‘historically informed’ – can therefore present some positive new dilemmas for the status quo. Rather than conforming to a restrictive interpretative memory of perceived verifiable practice, whose values are largely tied up in recognisable executancy, we now have the means to respond to this dangerous loss of rootedness and historical consciousness in Bach traditions and, like the practitioners we’ve heard, the opportuntity to extend musical possibilities for our subject.
If the relatively emotive and fluid language of older mainstream performance is often culturally and artistically a bridge too far for today, then maybe some of these old recordings are not for listening to, per se. But what of their value in generating wisdom and perspicacity as a repository for raw materials, lost and found, an empirical glossary to aid intuitive performance, which can be extricated and reconditioned for contemporary use? There must, surely, be a way of revitalising the living ideals, if not the actual essence of these great, mostly dead, artists who enabled Bach’s music to develop its cultural influence beyond the artisan? There must be a rapprochement beyond the pragmatic pasting of historical and romantic approaches ‘inside the spectrum of contemporary Bach interpretation’ as Helmuth Rilling has advocated. It must come from an understanding of where passion and invention lie in the solar-plexus of the musical object, and how the gestures of recent Bach history can inform the present, in the same reference and reflex as we bring stylistic knowledge and nuance from a perceived 18th-century world. In tandem, a new ‘joined-up Bach’ can re-join a global, mainstream artistic arena. Only through a close examination of these interpretative values, as handed down to posterity, can we begin to comprehend whether the musical values of today have any significance for the passions of tomorrow.