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John Eliot Gardiner & Monteverdi Choir & English Baroque Soloists
Bach Cantatas & Other Vocal Works
General Discussions - Part 4

Continue from Part 3

Gardiner and Bach

Johan van Veen wrote (July 24, 2000):
Last Sunday Dutch radio broadcasted the recording of a concert with cantatas by the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, directed by John Eliot Gardiner. It took place in Eisenach on April 24th. There were three cantatas on the program: Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden (BWV 6), Ich lebe mein Herze (BWV 145) and Erfreut euch, ihr Herzen (BWV 66). The soloists were Angarad Jones, Daniel Taylor, James Gilchrist and Stephen Varcoe. This was without any doubt one of the worst performances of Bach's cantatas I have heard for a long time. Of the soloists only Stephen Varcoe was more or less acceptable. The other three sounded stressed and were clearly not up to the task. Anagarad Jones had great trouble to sing the top notes, Daniel Taylor had problems with his recitatives in particular. He didn't blend at all in the duets in Cantata BWV 66 with James Gilchrist, whose voice sounded simply ugly.

Matthew Westphal recently wrote about the deterioration of the Monteverdi Choir. I have never been a great admirer of this choir, but I share his view: it produced a strange sound - it was pretty clear they don't feel at home in Bach. Normally the English Baroque Soloists are good - this time they weren't. They produced a poor sound, and technically it wasn't perfect at all. The whole interpretation was totally unconvincing. The opening chorus of Cantata BWV 66 was sung at breakneck speed, with many inaccuracies. On many occasions there were strange phrasings and articulations. I haven't heard many cantata performances by Gardiner, but this one confirmed my suspicion that he just doesn't have a clue about Bach's music.

I almost forgot to add that the cellist of the orchestra, David Watkin, played the 2nd Suite. That was a pretty painful experience. There was nothing wrong technically, but there was nothing, which one could describe as "interpretation". He just played the notes correctly, and his instrument sounded surprisingly thin and uninteresting - just as his performance. On the whole this concert gave me the impression that it was just another gig - an ill-prepared and therefore sloppy one. (In a way one has to hope so. It is a frightening thought that such a bad performance could be the result of a very thorough preparation...)

Armagan Ekici wrote (July 24, 2000):
Aren't we being too strong on account of one live broadcast that was unsuccessful? After all this is the man and the ensemble that produced one of the most successful sets of Bach vocal works! So verdicts like "they don't feel at home at Bach... Gardiner does not have a clue about Bach" on account of a single radio broadcast is a bit of a hasty conclusion.

In splashing criticism to Gardiner's recent recordings and concerts, we seem to be ignoring the logistics of the effort of playing different cantatas almost every weekend in different cities for a period of more than a year. Of course, on average, these recordings/performances will be of inferior quality when compared to studio recordings that are recorded in ideal venues with a much bigger time for rehearsal and possibility of editing. A live recording is by definition a risky effort (I was present in the Amsterdam legs of the tour, and I found both of the Amsterdam concerts perfectly enjoyable).

Yes, Gardiner has been (and will be) criticized for overlooking (or ignoring) the spiritual depth in Bach's music, giving it his trademark jubilant, almost military character all the time. But the man deserves a fair judgement, at least based on actually listening to his major Bach efforts.

Sybrand Bakker wrote (July 24, 2000):
(To Armagan Ekici) I don't agree with you.

Personally I think he is developing in a way you wouldn't want. Everything he conducts primarily sounds as Gardiner, not as Mozart, Beethoven or Bach. There composers and compositions who will survive such an approach, there are composers and compositions who don't. I don't think this is a judgment based on one recording only. I have his St John Passion (BWV 245) on DGG Archiv, which I don't like, and I once heard his recording of the Actus Tragicus (BWV 106), which was pretty awful. So I fully agree with Johan van Veen's remarks. It also seems this approach is not completely limited to Gardiner. The same seems to apply to the Tallis Scholars and the Hilliard Ensemble. Whatever they do it will often sound technically perfect, but lacking in emotional depth.

Thomas Boyce wrote (July 24, 2000):
(To Sybrand Bakker) I tend to agree with that on Gardiner. He's fine, but buyers beware.

John Polifronio wrote (July 24, 2000):
(To Johan van der Veen) My name is John and I'm new to the list.

I was annoyed by the viewpoint on Gardiner as expressed in recent posts. The implication in these messages as in so many other reviews about recordings and concerts, is that the rest of us cannot be left to make our own judgments about Gardiner or any other musician when we hear their work.

Gardiner has an approach to Bach, which I usually find stimulating and enjoyable. I also find and have found the work of many other conductors with markedly different styles enjoyable. I suspect that Gardiner is believed to lack a certain gravitas and solemnity which some of us feel is essential in Bach performance. Whatever the case, it seems to me important that we not allow ourselves to be dissuaded against our own honest reactions to a musician simply on the grounds that certain of the critics of that musician dislike his or her work for various stated reasons.

I feel a particular fondness for the cantata BWV 34, of which I have perhaps a half dozen performances on vinyl and disc, including the old Werner and Harnoncourt renditions. You may rest assured that I will listen with great attentiveness to Gardiner's view of this monumental cantata when it is released (if it hasn't already been issued); and if his recording pleases me it will certainly become part of my collection.

Ryan Michero wrote (July 24, 2000):
Johan van Veen wrote:
< I haven't heard many cantata performances by Gardiner, but this one confirmed my suspicion that he just doesn't have a clue about Bach's music. >
Have you heard his B-minor Mass (BWV 232)? Or his Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248)? Or his St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244)? Surely not, because anyone that has heard these recordings could not say such a thing.

Johan van Veen wrote (July 24, 2000):
(To Ryan Michero, regarding hearing recordings of the great choral works by JEG)
Yes, I know them, and I don't like them.

Philip Peters wrote (July 24, 2000):
(To Johan van Veen) I totally agree and I couldn't believe my ears at first. It was most embarrassing. Almost everything about the concert was. I wouldn't say that the Monteverdi Choir isn't at home in Bach - they certainly did well in Gardiner's SMP (which I cherish) but that was indeed another incarnation of the choir. It's a total enigma to me why Gardiner picks bad soloists (I heard Varcoe in the 1994 Goodwin version and there he is doing so much better, while the others are definitely third rate). And the orchestra...that oboe...even in the early days of HIP they did better.... One can hold different opinions on Gardiner's quality but something like this must be difficult to understand even to his artistic enemies...simply appalling.

Armagan Ekici wrote (July 25, 2000): 0:58
(To Sybrand Bakker) Er... actually you agree with me in your main point (that Gardiner always stamps his on style on Bach, lacks emotional depth). I would hope that you also at least agree that Gardiner (and anybody else for that matter) deserves a fair judgment.

We should be able to distinguish mof taste from facts. Let's say Mr. X likes Richter, Mr. Y likes Gardiner, Mr. Z likes only his own recordings; this is a matter of taste; we can say what we enjoy, what we do not enjoy, give our reasons and leave the matter at that. There is enough of the world for everybody and I personally prefer spending my time looking for more of what I like (instead of complaining on what I don't like).

When it comes to facts: Gardiner and Monteverdi choir have invested a significant amount of their career in performing and recording Bach vocal music. By the end of this year they will have performed and/or all the cantatas, large scale works and motets. Dismissing all these on account of a single radio broadcast and to verdict that "they do not feel at home at Bach... Gardiner does not have a clue on Bach's music" is simply contradicting the facts (by using the same logic of selectively ignoring most significant chunks of a career, you can also say "Maradona does not feel at home at football field... he has no clue on the game")

Even if you find Gardiner's work totally tasteless and decades of critical / listener acclaim is meaningless for you, it is an observable fact that he and his ensembles do have a clue on Bach. Their understanding may or may not coincide with your understanding -- that is a matter of taste. But we should at least respect him as a major artist that is doing his best to advance Bach's music.

PS. If not obvious by now, I should add that I enjoy Gardiner's style a lot and I am almost a Gardiner completist. Like all artists he has high points and low points, and like all artists when you consume his work a lot you start to see his tricks of trade. But my life would be much poorer if I had never heard his large scale Bach works, early cantata recordings and Haydn oratorios. His version of Eroica (usually ridiculed to death because he follows Beethoven's metronome marking in the opening) is the only one that sounds completely right to me.

Lucas As wrote (July 25, 2000): 1:18
(To Ryan Michero) I've heard all of those recordings (I didn't buy them though), but I totally agree with Johan: Gardiner really doesn't understand the music of Bach: the performances lack the spiritual and emotional depth. It's all brilliant and superficial, which is very inappropriate for a passion, mass or for an ode to the birth of the Son of God.

I'm not trying to offend you, but e.g. the recordings of the SMP by Leonhardt and a Hohe Messe performed by Herreweghe do show Bach's musical palette in a much more convincing way. Every time you listen, you'll find something new. You'll find little of it back in the recordings of JEG.

Ben Mullins wrote (July 25, 2000): 1:35
(To Armagan Ekici) Oh those pesky metronome markings! What was a genius like Beethoven thinking? Actually I love Gardiner's Bach and his is the only set of Beethoven symphonies I own on CD. But I must admit that I cannot wait until his 'Pilgrimage' is over and he can get back to the Romantic period. I'm really looking forward to the Brahms symphonies, Wagner Operas, the Te Deum and Requiem of Berlioz, etc., etc. I think that if Sir John Eliot Gardiner isn't always the best Bach interpreter all the time then that's fine! There are plenty of other conductors and orchestras ready to take up the slack. McCreesh, Koopman, Suzuki, Herreweghe, Parrott...need I go on? And anyway, who is to say that Gardiner lacks "emotional depth" (whatever that is)? Why is Gardiner unemotional, could it be all the other conductors are over emotional? I'm not saying that, but it is food for thought. Unless of course it is better to stereotype a conductor and instantly dismiss him and everything he does...

John Downes wrote (July 25, 2000): 1:36
(To Armagan Ekici) I have attended 5 of the Gardiner performances so far. The one in Warwick in May was the best Bach concert I have ever been to.

Has it suddenly become fashionable to criticize him? If so I am quite at a loss to understand it.

By comparison with other performers who see/saw it as their task to brand a personal and idiosyncratic stamp on Bach's music, I feel JEG's performances as a breath of fresh air.

And as for lacking emotional depth... come on! Please!

Ben Mullins wrote (July 25, 2000): 1:46
Oooo...I forgot Pinnock! Silly me!

Ben Mullins wrote (July 25, 2000): 1:50
(To Lucas As) I have always found it very unwise to prejudice one's self from any particular conductor, automatically dismissing their work. The minute one does that, the recording comes along by that conductor that really touches you in the heart. That is when you suddenly find that your foot has lifted off of the ground and has planted itself firmly in your mouth. Like I always say: Superlatives are never a good thing.

Lucas As wrote (July 25, 2000): 2:45
(To Ben Mullins) I don't have any prejudices, "nothing" would me please me more then listening to the recordings of an enlightened Gardiner. On the other hand, his current recordings can't convince me, because they miss the essence of Bach's musical intentions.

Please understand me well, Bach's music touches me in the heart, JEG performances also, but in a quite unpleasant way...

Matthew Westphal wrote (July 25, 2000): 3:24
Now, now, everyone...

I don't think (in the immediate instance) that it's a matter of prejudicing oneself against Gardiner as much as being critical of what one has actually heard.

Based on the Gardiner Bach performances I have heard over the radio recently, as well as the appalling Vol.1 of the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage series, I think some criticism of Gardiner may be appropriate, especially as regards standards of polish in performance.

Armagan Ekici wrote:
< Aren't we being too strong on account of one live broadcast that was unsuccessful? After all this is the man and the ensemble that produced one of the most successful sets of Bach vocal works! So verdicts like "they don't feel at home at Bach... Gardiner does not have a clue about Bach" on account of a single radio broadcast is a bit of a hasty conclusion. >
Whether or not one likes Gardiner's Bach recordings of the past is a matter of taste, certainly. But I myself do hear a change between the Gardiner & co. of the Christmas Oratorio and the Gardiner & co. of the last four years or so (since JEG's success in Beethoven, Schumann, Verdi, etc.).

Armagan wrote:
< In splashing criticism to Gardiner's recent recordings and concerts, we seem to be ignoring the logistics of the effort of playing different cantatas almost every weekend in different cities for a period of more than a year. Of course, on average, these recordings/performances will be of inferior quality when compared to studio recordings that are recorded in ideal venues with a much bigger time for rehearsal and possibility of editing. >
For what it's worth, the DG Bach Cantata Pilgrimage discs that are not re-issues, were recorded in a studio last year before the tour started (so as to have more rehearsal time and to have discs available for sale at the Pilgrimage concerts).

John Polifronio wrote:
< I was annoyed by the viewpoint on Gardiner as expressed in recent posts. The implication in these messages as in so many other reviews about recordings and concerts, is that the rest of us cannot be left to make our own judgments about Gardiner or any other musician when we hear their work. >
I don't think there's any implication that others can't be left to make their own judgments. Johan was expressing his opinion -- and that's presumably a big part of what this list is for. Of course we are all free to agree or disagree with others' opinions as we see fit. This is true of reviews as well (speaking as a part-time professional reviewer myself) -- they are opinions by definition.

John P. wrote:
< Whatever the case, it seems to me important that we not allow ourselves to be dissuaded against our own honest reactions to a musician simply on the grounds that certain of the critics of that musician dislike his or her work for various stated reasons. >
EXACTLY SO!

And I doubt that any good critic would suggest otherwise.

People presumably read what critics have to say because thewant to know the reactions of someone who has already heard the recording or performance in question before, say, spending $40 on a concert ticket or $20 on a CD.

Philip Peters wrote:
< I totally agree and I couldn't believe my ears at first. It was most embarrassing. Almost everything about the concert was. I wouldn't say that the Monteverdi Choir isn't at home in Bach - they certainly did well in Gardiner's SMP (which I cherish) but that was indeed another incarnation of the choir... One can hold different opinions on Gardiner's quality but something like this must be difficult to understand even to his artistic enemies...simply appalling. >
That was exactly my feeling about Vol.1 of the Cantata Pilgrimage. (Vol.3 is a good deal better, I think.) And I do think we now have, in effect, a different Monteverdi Choir from the one that did such glowing, precise, exciting work on the Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248) recording. This one has been doing a good bit of Beethoven, Schumann, Verdi, etc. in recent years, and it shows. I think they're marvelous in Beethoven's 9th and do bang-up jobs on the Requiems of Berlioz, Brahms and Verdi, but it's hardly surprising that such a choir might not be at its best in a Bach cantata.

(I myself suspect that Gardiner's heart is really no longer in the Baroque, but he announced this Pilgrimage some time ago and has to go through with it -- it's no good saying, "Sorry, I announced that Bach to-do three years ago but I'm really much more interested in HIP Berlioz and Wagner now, so instead of those Pentecost cantatas, here's Das Rheingold.")

Armagan wrote (about Johan's comments):
< When it comes to facts: Gardiner and Monteverdi choir have invested a significant amount of their career in performing and recording Bach vocal music. By the end of this year they will have performed and/or all the cantatas, large scale works and motets. Dismissing all these on account of a single radio broadcast and to verdict that "they do not feel at home at Bach... Gardiner does not have a clue on Bach's music" is simply contradicting the facts (by using the same logic of selectively ignoring most significant chunks of a career, you can also say "Maradona does not feel at home at football field... he has no clue on the game") >
I think Johan was just expressing an opinion (a forceful one, to be sure) the way people do in Internet discussion groups -- or in conversation, for that matter. One could certainly argue that Johan was overstating, but that's something people do, especially on matters important to them. Nothing to get too upset about. Just express your own opinion in response.

< For example, John Downes: I have attended 5 of the Gardiner performances so far. The one in Warwick in May was the best Bach concert I have ever been to.
Has it suddenly become fashionable to criticize him? If so I am quite at a loss to understand it.
By comparison with other performers who see/saw it as their task to brand a personal and idiosyncratic stamp on Bach's music, I feel JEG's performances as a breath of fresh air.
And as for lacking emotional depth... come on! Please! >
Lucas As wrote (sorry, I deleted the message) that he feels Gardiner in his performances is missing Bach's essence. Speaking for myself, I can't always get that far -- in some of these Bach cantata concerts, Gardiner and his forces deliver some sloppy execution that I just can't overlook or get past. Particularly since I doubt Gardiner would not tolerate such sloppiness in a performance of Berlioz or Brahms.

John Polifronio wrote (July 25, 2000): 3:27
(To Matthew Westphal) Well said. I would only wish to add that insofar as critics are concerned, I've always felt that the best approach was to search out those critics that agreed with me, and reflected my taste, and not that this or that critic was to be trusted or believed without my having to hear a recorded performance. I'll hazard that you agree that there's a bit too much of the latter going on in the arts.

Philip Peters wrote (July 25, 2000): 3:42
(To John Downes) As yet the only thing I have heard are gratuitous opinions (to which everyone is entitled). I've seen no proof or argument that Gardiner lacks emotional depth or doesn't understand Bach. These are, moreover, such personal opinions that they can't possibly be proved or disproved. I happen to love Gardiner's SMP, h-moll Messe a.o. But that concert at Eisenach, boy, I couldn't believe my ears...terrible, terrible and I don't think anybody here would disagree.

Matthew Westphal wrote (July 25, 2000): 4:01
(To John Polifronio) If only everyone would do that...

Yes, there's too much of the latter going on, but with so much product and limited money to spend on it, there's no way to avoid that phenomenon.

Matthew Westphal wrote (July 25, 2000): 4:03
(To Philip Peters) If you (or Johan or anyone else) happens to see a notice that the Eisenach concert is to be broadcast somewhere (especially a radio station that broadcasts over the Web), please let us know so we can hear for ourselves!

Donald Satz wrote (July 25, 2000): 4:05
I generally enjoy Gardiner's Bach recordings. His recording of Cantata BWV 51 is the best I've ever heard (Philips, coupled with Magnificat), his B minor Mass (BWV 232) is very good, and so is his Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248). On the other hand, I wasn't enthralled with his St. John Passion (BWV 245) or St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244), and his new cantata series has not greatly impressed me.

What I like best about Gardiner/Bach is the energy he gives the music, much fantastic pacing, and brass and winds that are often out of this world. On the downside, I often don't care for his vocal soloists such as Argenta, George, and Varcoe. Also, I've never been a big fan of the Monteverdi Choir.

It's a matter of twists and turns, and that's the case with other Bach conductors on period instruments, including Suzuki, Koopman, Rifkin, Parrott, and anybody else. None of them gives me everything I want, so I buy and listen to them all.

On another list, I have done surveys of recordings of some Bach choral works, and the one thing that always sticks in my mind is how variable most of these recordings are from one track to the next. Someone mentioned how poor Gardiner's Actus Tragicus sounds on record. I don't consider it all that bad, and his Sonatina is outstanding. The next section is, in my opinion, a loser. And so it goes - back and forth.

Ben Mullins wrote (July 25, 2000): 4:13
(To Lucas As) "The essence of Bach's musical intentions"? Shaky ground that... Anyway, I'd be lying if I said I like all JEG's recordings. The more I listen to it, on the whole, the more I can't stand his Magnificat (BWV 243). (The solo numbers are pretty good though.) Especially when I compare it to that of, say, Parrott (which I just got two days ago, but more on that tomorrow). I suppose what initially annoyed me by your post, and those of others, is how his recordings are described with almost total repulsion. I see your point, and of course if you don't like him, you don't like him. Sir Gardiner does tend to either be loved or hated, ironically sort of like period instruments. All I ask is for an open mind, but on this list I need not worry!

Steven Guy wrote (July 25, 2000): 5:53
My two cents' worth.

I wish Gardiner would leave Bach to Suzuki and Koopman and get back to the 19th Century repertoire with the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique and get back into making HIP recordings of Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Verdi, Liszt etc. This is the repertoire that John Eliot Gardiner has been at his best in lately. Or perhaps he should have tackled all the Buxtehude cantatas or the Telemann cantatas (over 1000 of them!)?

Robert King and his King's Consort have got the right idea! - Leave Bach to the specialists and tackle the incredibly interesting repertoire that was the background to Bach's music. Tmusic of Kuhnau, Schelle, Knüpfer and Kreiger (etc.) is well worth hearing and provides an insight into the genesis of J. S. Bach's own music.

Ben Mullins wrote (July 25, 2000): 7:09
Absolutely right! I hate to say it, because it sounds like blasphemy, but I almost wish Gardiner was not wasting his time making this almost, kinda', sort of, not quite, cantata cycle. I think he has better things to do.

Matthew Westphal wrote (July 25, 2000): 7:20
(To Steven Guy) I agree. I strongly suspect that Sir JEG does too.

Roy Reed wrote (July 25, 2000): 7:17
(To Lucas As) Gardiner on Bach...yes, I can get into that. I became turned off by Mr. Gardiner's Bach right off. Long time ago. I had heard some cantatas, didn't turn on, but did buy the St. Mt. Passion (BWV 244) when it came out. I got as far as the words of Christ in the Eucharist and turned it into "Second Hand Records" for one third of what I paid for it. I get the impression from Gardiner's Bach that he is trying to conquer Mt. Everest. He has the best equipment, the most experienced companions to make the trip, the proper attire. He can't ever get to the top of the mountain, however, because he just doesn't understand the mountain.

Black American Gospel musicians speak of their genre of music as having, or not having "soul." Mr. Gardiner can get great playing and singing, fabulous articulation, etc. Just no "soul." Take the Verba of the Last Supper in St. Mt., for example. He does get through it in record time. You just can't do that with this marvelous arioso. Once you get those words and tune in your mind...they just are that text for you forever. There is a blessing, a consecration here that you just can't rush through. Gardiner has a wonderful singer for this music, but he is in charge and he ruins it. He gets it done. There is a tender, loving care here that he doesn't seem to know about. A devotion that eludes him. Cantata BWV 51 with Emma Kirkby, Couldn't you just do it up right with that singer and those forces? Not Gardner!

I always feel very uncomfortable laying into someone this way. As a conductor I have always tried to be a generous critic. I have some real idea of what it takes to make music; how hard it is to really get it right, do it well, the many problems, etc., but Gardner just gets my goat. Sorry about that, Gardner fans, but sometimes you just want to use CD's as frisbees!

Johan van Veen wrote (July 25, 2000): 8:36
On the basis of all the replies let me add something about "Gardiner & Bach".

First of all, I wasn't dismissing Gardiner as a musician in general. I have heard good performances by him. Although I am not very much at home in 19th century music, I do like some of his recordings of that repertoire.

But often I am not moved by his interpretations. I am not very interested in Mozart's operas, but years ago I had to review his Idomeneo by Gardiner. I compared him with Harnoncourt, and for me the latter had much more depth and drama. Nevertheless everyone seems to like Gardiner's Mozart cycle. That's fine by me. Everyone is entitled to his own opinion. And everyone has the right to express his opinions. I agree with Matthew: that's what this list is for.

I also agree with Matthew that right now Gardiner is perhaps more interested in the romantic repertoire. There is nothing wrong with that. But then, why doesn't he stick to that? Why does he play Bach if his heart isn't in it?

Generally I am not impressed with Gardiner's Bach interpretations. Although some of them are quite good (Magnificat with Emma Kirkby et al.), most of them don't sound convincing to me. It seems that he has no real understanding of the relationship between text and music, and the way the German language influences Bach's composing. That is a problem not only of Gardiner, but also of many others - in particular non-Germans. I haven't heard many convincing, idiomatic performances of Bach's music by British musicians anyway.

I don't dismiss the qualities of the Monteverdi Choir either. But they have been better. And even then: they were always dramatic and powerful, and that's fine in Handel's oratorios. But in Bach you need the utmost clarity and precision and sense of detail in order to realize all parts in Bach's polyphony. Choirs like the Collegium Vocale are far better in that respect.

I fully understand that a concert isn't comparable with a studio recording. But there is no excuse for continuous sloppy playing. Yes, something can go wrong, but if the whole concert is of a disappointing level, the audience has every right to ask if Gardiner's heart is in it, or if he considers this just another gig, or something he has to do, and wants to get over with as quickly as possible.

Yes, sometimes a singer has a bad day. But all four of them? If a soprano can't cope with the upper notes, then why on earth has Gardiner invited her? And if alto and tenor don't blend, then he should have chosen singers whose voices naturally blend, or singers who are able to adapt themselves to each other.

Like I said before, why does someone do something when his heart isn't in it? Just to underline that this isn't just a matter of Gardiner-beating: yesterday I heard Bach's Coffee cantata on the radio in a recording by Leonhardt. That is an example of someone who fully understands Bach, but doesn't seem to have the understanding of the humor of this piece. It was just lifeless and boring. (That's what British musicians should do: as far as sense of humor is concerned, they are unbeatable. Kirkby/Thomas/Hogwood are excellent here.)

Jane Newble wrote (July 26, 2000): 15:32
(To Johan van Veen) After I wrote my few thoughts on BWV 185 and Gardiner's performance of it, I caught up on all the messages since coming back from holiday, and was surprised to find similar feelings in most of the postings about him. I agree with Johan van Veen about the performances by British musicians. It is rather rare to hear a "Germanic" interpretation. Mostly it is too light-hearted to be 'real' Bach. I have often wondered about the reasons for this.

Johan van Veen wrote (July 26, 2000): 22:11
(To Jane Newble) There are a number of factors here. It is difficult for anyone to learn how to speak another language idiomatically. It is in particular difficult, if your native language is so different in character from the language you want to learn. And I think that English and German are very far apart in character. If I try to put it in musical terms, I would say that English is a "legato" language and German a "non-legato" language. It is difficult for a native English speaker to feel the right sounds and the right accents of the German language. Therefore in British performances of German music (vocal and instrumental) you often hear the wrong articulation (or none at all) and strange accents.

The German religious music gives specific problems. Bach's cantatas are not only every inch German, but also Lutheran through and through. As far as my knowledge goes, Lutheranism had a totally different meaning in German society of the 17th and 18th centuries than Anglicanism in Britain. The reasons of course are rooted in the origin of both religions. The Church of England didn't come into existence because of a conflict of doctrines with the Roman Catholic Church. It was a political conflict in the first place. That is totally different with the Lutheran Church in Germany. Therefore you will find a very strong "doctrinal" content in Bach's cantatas, which you won't find in many compositions by English composers of the time. In Bach's cantatas you find numerous references to passages from the Bible, and texts from the Old and New Testament are linked in a way which is difficult to understand for many people of today, and which in many ways is deeply rooted in the theology of Luther.

The role of church music is also different in Lutheran thinking in comparison with Britain. Music was considered to be a sort of sermon, whereas music in the Anglican tradition is perhaps more (like in the Roman Catholic Church) an ornament. That hto do with the different character of the service: in the Church of England it is in the first place "celebration" and in the German Lutheran Church "education". Therefore German church music has a certain "gravitas" and seriousness, which British people by nature - even those who have been raised as Christians - have problems to connect with.

It is often said that the British have a great sense of humor, and that the Germans don't have any sense of humor at all. Those are prejudices of course. But - as with all prejudices - there is some truth in it. It is no surprise that the best recording of Bach's Coffee cantata (at least in my view) is British: Emma Kirkby, David Thomas and Christopher Hogwood. But the best recordings of Bach's Passions for example (to my view again) are all German or German-influenced.

But it works in both ways. I can't think of a German singer who would be able to sing the more humorous or tongue-in-cheek English songs of the 17th century. They don't have the light-heartedness British singers seem to have by nature. These are just some thoughts about this subject. If this is all nonsense, don't hesitate to say so.

Matthew Westphal wrote (July 27, 2000): 1:53
Jane Newble wrote:
< After I wrote my few thoughts on BWV 185 and Gardiner's performance of it, I caught up on all the messages since coming back from holiday, and was surprised to find similar feelings in most of the postings about him. I agree with Johan van Veen about the performances by British musicians. It is rather rare to hear a "Germanic" interpretation. Mostly it is too light-hearted to be 'real' Bach. I have often wondered about the reasons for this. >
< Johan van Veen wrote [emphasis added]: There are a number of factors here. It is difficult for anyone to learn how to speak another language idiomatically. It is in particular difficult, if your native language is so different in character from the language you want to learn. And I think that English and German are very far apart in character. [Snip] But the best recordings of Bach's Passions for example (to my view again) are all German or German-influenced. Spoken (okay, written) like a true Dutchman, Johan! >
No, I don't think your comments were nonsense -- In particular, I thought the contrast between the Lutheran idea of church music as sermon to the faithful and the Anglican (and Roman Catholic) idea of church music as adornment to the greater glory of God was very perceptive.

Roberto Dillon wrote:
< Moving to another concert: there was anybody at the Proms last night? There was a Bach concert by Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante (the flautist is a close friend of mine). I'd like to know how it was... >
I heard it on BBC Radio 3 via the Web. The concert was actually only about half Bach, the other half being Locatelli and Vivaldi music for strings (all of which was given a lively performance). Ian Bostridge sang two solo cantatas, "Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht" BWV 55 and "Ich habe genug" BWV 82a. (Yes, he sang the soprano version down an octave.) As usual, Bostridge was very musical and involved and he made a nice sound. Some of his vowel sounds seemed odd to me -- and I'm not even a German speaker. The sound I particularly noticed was the "u" sound, as in "Schlummert ein." As I understand it (naturally I could be wrong about this), that vowel sound should be something close to the vowel sound in the English word "put" (or the German word "kaput") -- but Bostridge tended to sing a vowel more like the one in the English words "pump" and "plum".

As for your friend the flautist, Roberto -- to the extent I could tell listening over the Internet, your friend and his/her colleagues played beautifully.

Speaking of Gardiner and Bach, I listened this morning to Vol.5 of the Cantata Pilgrimage series (cantatas for Pentecost). It is a VAST improvement over vol. 1, and is to my ears the best of the series so far. The performance may seem a bit too bright and overcharged for some (not so different from the way his performances of Bach have always been), but the lapses in execution and polish I've criticized before are not much of a problem here. The soloists are delightful, especially Magdalena Kozena (singing soprano here) and Peter Harvey. Gardiner's Vol.5, at least, is one you need not be reluctant to buy.

Jane Newble wrote (July 27, 2000): 17:18
(To Johan van Veen) Thank you for your very interesting and enlightening explanation. Being Dutch myself and having lived more than twenty years in England, I had often pondered this whole question. I'm sure you are right about Lutheranism and how Anglicanism came to exist for a totally different reason. In that case I think Dutch performers are very much on the "Germanic" side. When I heard one of Aafje Heynis' CD's I was amazed how almost 'wrong' her English songs sounded. You are right in seeing music in Anglicanism more as an ornament than the 'education' it so obviously is in the Lutheran Church. Of course the main other Protestant movements in England are Calvinism (where music is as good as banned) and Methodism/ Evangelicalism, where music is something like a form of emotional (and often sentimental) expression, but not education. Chorales are definitely not liked very much in England. They are seen as "heavy". National character probably has something to do with all this too, but here I feel I get into deep waters.

Piotr Jaworski wrote (July 27, 2000): 18:11
(To Matthew Westphal) In the very last moment I realized that Channel 2 of the Polish Radio would also broadcast this PROMS concert. Eleven at night, what a great time to listen to such a music and performance. It's not necessary to repeat Matthew's compliments - Biondi and his ensemble already enjoy such reputation that little can be added. Great concert. But the new area they decided to explore - Bach cantatas - looks really promising. Mainly for us - the listeners. More Bach by Italians? I'd say: ALWAYS. Probably, thanks to such unlimited, so different interpretations, we will be able to learn a bit more about Bach music.

Here - my hat off to Armagan's excellent morning post.

Mag Linders (Jill) wrote (July 28, 2000): 2:25
Jane Newble wrote:
< Chorales are definitely not liked very much in England. They are seen as "heavy". >
I agree with most of what Johan and Jane have said except the snip above.

If anything, IMHO the 20th century English audience (I won't try to speak for all of the British) has loved chorales too much, at times to the exclusion of almost all else. This legacy lingers on. I think many English non-HIP types would rather Bach had produced more chorales, and certainly bigger ones.

Contrary to popular belief among the non-English, the English are repressed and incurable romantics for whom Big Music is Very Moving = Beautiful Music. Especially Big Chorales. Maybe Empire nostalgia had something to do with it, although that's pretty well dead, now. Unless you count the last night of the Proms. (And unless you think that's all irony anyway. I am never too sure…)

(I am allowed to be rude about my own, I think? And anyway don't you just love stereotypes?)

Elgar (God help him), Beecham (bless him) and Sarjeant (natty dresser) inter alia were responsible for much of this addiction to big chorales, a distortion of musical interpretation which has, maybe, all but passed, now. But a few decades ago, much music was felt to be characterized by an un-English aesthetic unless it was "Big". To wit: the oh-so-popular Huddersfield Choral Society type of performance (they got "smaller"), the notorious Messiahs, Hiawatha (yes, OK, OK…but it was VERY popular) and the huge SMP's.

Benjamin Britten did much to counter this narrow view and many others helped; English tastes are much broader now.

However, England's musical darling for about three decades was Malcolm Sarjeant (aka "Flash Harry"), still of revered memory in popular culture, who reportedly opined that there is no more beautiful sound than a thousand human voices singingquietly together. I wonder whether the majority of English wouldn't harbor nostalgia for this sort of thing - Empire or no Empire.

Ryan Michero wrote (July 28, 2000):
Johan van Veen wrote:
< There are a number of factors here. It is difficult for anyone to learn how to speak another language idiomatically. It is in particular difficult, if your native language is so different in character from the language you want to learn. And I think that English and German are very far apart in character. >
So, what about Bach's sacred music with Latin texts? Are native German speakers more apt to perform this well? Was Bach able to as effectively write for a language of which he was not a native speaker? And how do you explain Bach's parodies of the German cantatas in Latin mass settings?

< If I try to put it in musical terms, I would say that English is a "legato" language and German a "non-legato" language. It is difficult for a native English speaker to feel the right sounds and the right accents of the German language. Therefore in British performances of German music (vocal and instrumental) you often hear the wrong articulation (or none at all) and strange accents. >
If this is true, how do you explain the Germanic conductors with a penchant for legato phrasing (Richter, Rilling, etc.)? Or are these particular conductors influenced by Romanticism, represented by the legacy of...Wagner and Mahler?

< The German religious music gives specific problems. Bach's cantatas are not only every inch German, but also Lutheran through and through. As far as my knowledge goes, Lutheranism had a totally different meaning in German society of the 17th and 18th centuries than Anglicanism in Britain... >
Your points about the differences between Anglicanism and Lutheranism are well taken. But I don't think it is impossible for Anglicans, Jews, or Buddhists to understand ideas in other religions. Masaaki Suzuki made a good point in the notes to Vol.1 of his cantata series: Is it better to have a performer born outside of a culture in which the music was produced who has lived in and passionately studied the culture, or a performer who was born into a certain culture and knows what he or she knows simply by "common sense", or some kind of cultural osmosis? (An aside: I see bumper stickers sometimes that say "I wasn't born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could."

Perhaps it's better to have an outsider take on Bach's music, since Germanic interpreters may be blinded by a corrupted tradition, convinced that what they are doing is "right". HIP is all about rediscovering what was lost, and I think dedicated cultural outsiders may have an advantage doing this, as they don't take anything for granted. Is it any wonder that the most pioneering work in Bach performance as of late has come from British and American interpreters (Parrott and Rifkin)? Or that the most consistently satisfying Bach cantata recordings lately have come from a Japanese ensemble (the Bach Collegium Japan)?

< These are just some thoughts about this subject. If this is all nonsense, don't hesitate to say so. >
It's not nonsense--I respect your ideas very much. I just don't agree with them.

Johan van Veen wrote (July 28, 2000): 11:23
(To Ryan Michero) I think you are partly misinterpreting what I have written. Maybe I just wasn't clear enough. So let me try to explain what I meant to say. On the basis of my experiences listening to Gardiner's Bach interpretations I have stated that I don't know that many Bach interpretations by non-German (-influenced) performers which are convincing (of course, as always, to my ears). I have tried to give an explanation for those specific interpretations where that is the case. That doesn't mean that there are no non-German interpretations which I find convincing. But apparently these performers have been able to overcome the natural barriers on the way to the heart and soul of Bach's music. So my explanation only refers to those specific cases where I think a (p.e.) British interpreter misses the point in Bach's music. I have never stated that being a German, a Christian, more specific a Lutheran, gives automatic access to the heart and soul of Bach's music. There are other factors, which can cause problems - for instance a lack of historical knowledge, a lack of musical talent or a lack of imagination - in fact all the factors, which apply to every performance of music, be it by Bach or by Schubert or by Stravinsky.

So: there are many factors, which can prevent a musician from being a convincing Bach-interpreter. I have only tried to give one possible explanation for some unsuccessful British performances. I add some comments to specific points you have made.

a) Bach and Latin: I think I have written earlier that I believe that the native language of a composer not only influences his vocal, but also his instrumental compositions. Therefore I believe that instrumental works by Bach or Telemann should be phrased and articulated differently from the instrumental works of - say - Purcell. German musicians are mostly not very convincing in performing English music of the 17th century. English is different, therefore all music by English composers is different. Let's not forget that Bach knew Latin: he had to teach it. So when he composed music on Latin texts he knew what he was doing. But even in that case his music is very German. And any interpretation of p.e. his Magnificat should be German in character too. No German conductor will use the Italian pronunciation of Latin as Gardiner did in the Prom-concert of July 15th.

By the way: Latin was still very common in the Lutheran church of Bach's time. Several elements of the service were often in Latin. Since I believe that even Bach's Latin sacred music was every inch German in character, he didn't need to change that much to adapt his music to another (German) text. But I believe that he was very aware of the differences in character between the languages and the way they were used by composers. It is very appropriate in this respect to refer to his arrangement of Pergolesi's Stabat mater. Not only is it in Latin, but by an Italian composer, who used a more "modern" idiom than Bach. He arranged the music to a free adaptation of Psalm 51 (BWV 1053), and changed the music quite a lot to make it suitable for the new (German) text. As a result, the arrangement does sound very much like Bach, and very German.

b) Rilling, Richter etc: I already explained that there are more reasons for a not-so-convincing performance of Bach's music than those I suggested regarding some British performances. I don't know to what extent people like Richter, Rilling etc. are (were) aware of the things I have been talking about. (I remember Rinaldo Alessandrini saying that he has put a lot of effort in attempts to teach his (Italian) singers to speak their own language properly...)

By the way, I think your comparison isn't fair. I was referring to British HIP-interpreters, but people like Richter and Rilling are (were) basically rejecting HIP as a matter of principle.

c) Religion and tradition: I basically agree with you here, but I haven't denied anything you write. Yes, it is possible for people from another culture, another religion, another time (we are all from another time!) to understand Bach, but it isn't easy. Non-Christians will have to study things, which come naturally to Christians. References to passages from the Bible will be more rapidly recognized by those who know the Bible than by those who don't. (Just for the record: Suzuki is a Christian, and that certainly builds a bridge to the world of Bach's music.) People from another culture than the German will have to do more to understand the characteristics of German culture and the German mentality than those who have been born and raised within that culture. (I firmly believe that no German, how hard he tries, will ever be able to fully understand and appreciate the typical British sense of humor, nor will any Briton ever really understand and "feel" the typical German seriousness and "gravitas".)

Tradition can certainly be a huge problem. It is one of the reasons why it has taken so long for the HIP-movement to root in Germany. In a time when composers like Distler and Pepping were looking for a renewal of German church music, and looked to the past (Schütz, Bach) for inspiration, music of the 17th and 18th centuries was played in a way, which was common in those days (early 20th century). They established a tradition of performing that music before HIP-ideas were developed. In other countries the development of HIP and the discovery of early music went hand in hand. That partly explains the difference in music practice between Germany and countries like Britain, the Netherlands and Belgium.

But modern German HIPsters are often successful, because the combine elements of their tradition (scientific research of the sources) with the principles of historical performance practice.

As far as the conductors you refer to are concerned: I like some things by Suzuki, but not everything, Parrott and Rifkin may have come up with interesting ideas about the performance of Bach's music, as interpreters of Bach they can't convince me at all (as I have written about Rifkin last week).

 

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