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Nikolaus Harnoncourt & Concentus Musicus Wien

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Bach Cantatas & Other Vocal Works

General Discussions - Part 6

Continue from Part 5

Harnoncourt on reading a KB

Bradley Lehman wrote (June 6, 2003):
<< Lehman's utterances about the NBA reminds me to what Harnoncourt said in many interviews. He is not interested in reading the comment volumes of the NBA, because after this he would need weeks of holydays to relax. So he wants to trust only in the manuscripts or facsimiles. IMO a lazy, hybrid and ignorant attitude, which ignores the historical efficiency of a musical work, which the NBA is part of. >>
Uri Golomb wrote:
< I know of only one interview which Wörner's statement might refer to, and I am not at all sure that Woerner's intepretation of Harnoncourt's stance there is correct. Here is what Harnoncourt actually says (the interview in question is from the notes to his 2nd recording of the B minor Mass; the interviewer is Manfred Wagner):

"I take a critical attitude towards any interpretation of a work. I would prefer to get hold of as much as possible without anyone else's interpretations - but always remaining aware of the fact that the results of this interpretation are only valid for myself, and that others may come to different conclusions. Every edition is also an interpretation by its editor. The greater its claim to objectivity, the more it annoys me when the edition clearly indicates the interpretations of its editor. My critical view of the Bach edition [here, he refers specifically to Friedrich Smend's edition of the B minor Mass for the NBA] is due to the fact that it contains very serious errors. The Scotch snap rhythm of the Domine Deus is mentioned neither in the volume nor in the critical commentary [this is true - I checked], yet the piece has an entirely different character depending on whether it is executed in that way or not. In the autograph parts this rhythm is quite clearly notated. In the old Bach edition it was retained at least for the flute part, though not in the string parts. [I am not sure if that's accurate. I only have the old Bach edition score: there the rhythm does not appear anywhere in main text, but there is a note in the introduction that points out its presence in the flute part; in reality, it also appears in the 2nd violin and viola parts, once in each, as Gerhard HErz pointed out. I have not seen the parts of the Bach edition, so maybe Harnoncourt is right about those. However, no performance based on the Bach-Gesellschaft edition features the Lombard rhythm]. Apart from that, it is an imposition on the interpreter to have to read and study a vast amount of material in order to discover how the editor arrived at his text In this edition the parts - i. E. the performance material which was either written out by Bach or else by his closest associates and corrected by him - have been virtually disregarded. That is unforgivable, since the tempo marks and articulation are indicated on the parts. The argument that the user can glean this information from the critical commentary is of doubtful value, because I know of no user other than myself who does this. When I have read a critical commentary I am usually in need of a holiday. It should surely be possible to incorporate the information required for the Auffuherungspraxis in the main volume, and to dispense with the highfalutin' padding."

That's the official translation. The German original is as follows:

"Ich stehe generell jeder Deutung eines Werkes kritisch gegenüber. Ich möchte soviel nur möglich ungedeutet in die Hand bekommen und meine Deutungen selbst finden -- das allerdings mit dem Bewußtsein, daß die Ergebnisse dieser Deutung nur für mich selbst Gültigkeit haben, andere können ja zu anderen Ergebnissen kommen. Und jede Ausgabe ist zugleich die Deutung des Herausgebers. Je größer der Anspruch auf Objektivität ist, desto störender ist für mich, wenn in der Ausgabe die Deutung des Herausgebers offenkundig ist. Meine kritische Einstellung zur Bachausgabe rührt daher, daß ganz schwere Fehler enthalten sind: der Lombardische rhyhmus des "Domine Deus" wird weder im Band noch in Revisionsbericht erwähnt, da das Stück eine völlig anderen Charakter hat, ob man den Rhythmus spielt oder nicht. Dieser Rhythmus ist in den Autographenstimmen eindeutig notiert. In der alten Bachausgabe hat man diesen Rhythmus wenigstens in der Flötenstimme festgehalten, in den Streicherstimmen allerdings auch nicht. Außerdem ist es eine Zumutung für den Interpreten, eine Unmenge von Informationen lesen und studieren zu müssen, um zu erfahren, auf welche Weise der Herausgeber zu seinem Text gekommen ist. Die Stimmen – also das Aufführungsmaterial, das von Bach selbst gekommen ist oder von seiner nächsten Umgebung und von ihm korregiert wurde -- sind in der Ausgabe praktisch nicht berücksichtigt. Das ist unverzeihlich, denn in den Stimmen stehen Tempobezeichnungen und die Artikulation. Das Argument, der Benützer könne sich
>diese Informationen aus dem Revisionsbericht holen, ist zweifelhaft, denn ich kenne außer mir keinen Benützer, der das tut. Nach der Lektüre eines Revisionsberichtes bin ich in der Regel urlaufbsreif. Es müßte doch möglich sein, die für die Aufführungspraxis wichtigen Informationen in den Band hineinzunehmen und hochtrabenden Ballast wegzulassen".

Is there any other interview where Harnoncourt addresses the same issues -- and where he states that he does not read critical commentaries? Here, as far as I understand, he states that he does read them; though his implications that he's the only one who does so is arrogant and wrong.

There's much more to say on the subject itself, but I don't have time to make a detailed contribution right now... I might come back to it later. Just one question -- which is more lazy, to take an editor at his word, or to check his words against the original material, and/or the work of other scholars? >
See also Harnoncourt's remarks from the first paragraph of that same interview. He's referring back to his first recording project of the B Minor Mass:

"At that time the new edition had just been published and, in the sweat of my brow, I read every single line of the extensive critical commentary."

Das ist: "Es war damals gerade die Neuausgabe erschienen und ich habe mir die saure Mühe gemacht, den umfangreichen Revisionsbericht Zeile für Zeile zu lesen."

C'est a dire: "A l'epoque la nouvelle edition Bach venait de paraitre et j'ai pris sur moi le travail de lire le vaste rapport de revision, ligne pour ligne."

Bradley Lehman wrote (June 7, 2003):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
< Harnoncourt’s fairly recent 'Don Giovanni' fiasco is an example of this type of thinking which assumes that the members of an audience have immured themselves completely so as to become oblivious to an ‘ordinary’ well-balanced performance and must therefore be reached through extreme measures of musical distortions and shock tactics. >
In Harnoncourt's 1988 recording of "Don Giovanni", what specifically is so far over-the-top such that it has become a "fiasco"? I'd like to know, so next time I listen to it I can make sure to skip those portions, or at least not to be moved by them anymore. Don Giovanni does bad things and then dies and goes to hell? Oh, OK, ho-hum.

Ivan Lalis wrote (June 7, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] I think Tom means H's DG from Salzburg this year (or was it 2002)? I heard it and saw a similar one in Zuerich Opera. And it's on DVD as well with La Bartoli as Donna Elvira. One word - yawn. A friend of mine called it Don Giovannidaemmerung, because it took almost that much time. Or it seemd like that :-) I heard Harnoncourt's interview where he said he tries to present it according to his research and that we should get used to it, because this is the correct way.



Francine Renee Hall wrote (July 17, 2003):
When Harnoncourt poured over dusty instruments and musical scores, incomplete and difficult to decipher, he became detective, scholar, conductor, and most important, creative muse. I told Harnoncourt that his Monteverdi project that no one had the gutsto venture into before was (and still is) awesome. Watch M's three operas (Orfeo, Ulysses, and Poppea) and I bet that you will think they are still fresh into the 21st century. His Brandenburgs (using natural trumpet), his Beethoven Symphony cycle (also using natural trumpet), are fresh, vibrant and thrilling. His cantatas using the Tolzer boys are daring and exciting. He uses both original and modern instruments as he sees fit now, and is considered one the last great conductors of the 20th century. By that I mean he has such a unique individual presence that he defies the now homogeneous HIP conductors of today where they all stay in the comfort somewhat bland zone. I love HIP, I love modern, I love the mixture of both. But I'm so tired of the Harnoncourt bashing that I no longer read all the cantata input because I already know what is going to be said. Being a critic is easy as compared to a being a conductor and musician, but a good critic will open up one's eyes, and not force one to put blinders on.


Harnoncourt/Leonhardt series, "HIP" debate, Bach expecting difficulty, et al
Early Leonhardt

Bradley Lehman wrote (July 21, 2003):
< It has been said: "The entire HIP debate on this list, including my own contributions, has consisted too much of philosophic generalities and not enough of discussions of specific recordings."

Yes, this is a problem, brought about by the fact that very few of us have access to more than one or two recordings of any given cantata, (if at all) - even Brad apparently does not have internet access to (and presumably, has not heard) all the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt series (he doesn't have DSL in his area), around which at least some of the debate swirls. >
I have 32 cantatas in the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt series, unless I've miscounted; plus several more currently on mail order. Also I have five or six of Leonhardt's earlier recordings of Bach cantatas from before this series was officially launched; recordings that were replaced by remakes (and a different approach, not necessarily better or worse).

You're correct that I can't listen to the internet transmission from that streaming site.

But that's for naught anyway; as I said a few months ago, and I've been committed to, I'm not intending to review specific recordings blow-by-blow anymore against other recordings. The comparison of existing recordings is not really a "HIP debate" at all, as practiced here on this list; rather, it degenerates into "I like this and I don't like that" but disguised as eternal truth, and (in some cases) prescriptive pontification by people who have very little--if any--actual performance experience. It's more annoying than helpful, and possibly libelous against professional musicians...why take it that far?

Such a comparison of recordings is merely about outcomes, not principles. Instead, I'm interested in the principles (those "philosophic generalities" that are an important basis before there can be any meaningful discussion). I'm interested, for example, in discussing John Butt's book where he outlines all the current philosophical and practical issues of an "historical" approach. Or, discussing analysis of the music itself (harmonic progressions, et al), more than discussing what any performer has made of it on a recording.

To me, an example such as the cantata 78 recitative I mentioned (Bach making it sound as if the keyboard player is playing wrong chords, even when it's played correctly, to give the effect of making mistakes) is obviously IN THE MUSIC and has nothing to do with any specific performance. A performance that brings out Bach's effects effectively (I can't resist saying it that way...) is a strong one, and one that hides Bach's effects (or lets them go by cluelessly, relegated merely to the background) is a weak one. It has nothing to do with "HIP", per se. It's the performer's alertness to the musical contents, and ability to present it with clarity and imagination.

Bach may not have WANTED performers to fail, in an ideal world, but he definitely EXPECTED them to fail in some instances, and turned this to musical advantage, illustrating how imperfect the world is. That's a valid message. Bach may have had a fine ear for detail as a performer (and I do, too: that's why colleagues and former professors have hired me as a production assistant in their recordings, to notice the details and problems that go shooting by almost everybody else). That's still not to say that a perfectly regular surface is automatically the highest goal, either for Bach himself or for us. I KNOW for myself that it's not, as I recognize how blisteringly boring a regularized approach is, and as I observe listeners' reactions to such performances. (For example, recently I watched an audience fall asleep to a Mozart chamber work that was played with no emphasis....) I can hear the "imperfections" and take them as artistic advantages, something that can even be (occasionally) cultivated on purpose to make the delivery more vivid.

I like to think that Bach, another eminently practical musician, had a similar philosophy about this. It is the surprising and unexpected elements that make music worth listening to, and coming back to again and again. Why else would he write music of such asymmetry and fine detail, so closely worked that it's almost impossible to perform with complete accuracy (or to catch at a single listening session), unless he relished the challenge, and unless he knew that no single performance could ever get all of it? Performers and listeners have to put their whole soul into it to get the music's contents; it's not light stuff that wears out its welcome during the first go. An insurmountable human task is part of the music, artistically; if all the difficulty is whitewashed out in a heavily edited recording, or in a performance that is so over-rehearsed that is has no spontaneity left in it, it dilutes the meaning of the music. As a professional performer, I KNOW from plenty of experience that Bach's music is some of the most difficult there is to perform; and it's VERY rare ever to hear any performance of his music (whether ensemble or solo) that is absolutely "perfect" in every detail, because it's so complex at so many levels, and because it's written with what seems to be (occasionally) a deliberate awkwardness, as a challenge to the performer's "chops" and stamina and concentration. That's part of it. Bach's music lives out there on the hairy edge of possibility, and seems to be deliberately outside the comfort zone; that's part of the message.

When an interesting detail exists in the music, anything unexpected or irregular, I believe it should be brought out so strongly that EVERYONE (not only the connoisseur following along with a score) notices it immediately. That's a principle I value highly. When I hear a featureless performance, especially in the areas of rhythm and articulation (and no awareness of "good and bad" notes, the hierarchies), it is a waste of my time; I have better things to go do. Why should I listen to performers who bring no appreciable insight to the work?

Only very occasionally will I say something about a recording or a piece that I especially enjoy: for example, someday I might write up more details about my delight with the Beringer recording of 34/93/100 (all cantatas that I hadn't heard before), or the Mertens/Kuijken recording of 82/49/58. Both of these are recent acquisitions of mine, and recordings that I didn't know existed until I read about them here. That sort of information is helpful: knowing what's out there, and knowing what listeners DO like. That's what I'd like to read here: people saying positive and encouraging things about the music-making (and the compositions) that move them. We're here because we enjoy the music, right?

Last week I spent an hour listening to a recording of the "Hercules" cantata (I won't say which recording), and thought the performance was so terrible (featureless and logy) I could hardly bear to get all the way through it. They just hit the notes all the same as one another, and brought out nothing. Ugh. A waste of plastic. And it was a fwell-respected conductor, too, although I can't see why on the evidence of this particular recording.... But, it doesn't do anyone much good to talk about that here, bashing professional work. Such recordings are out there, and some people might enjoy them, and they're welcome to them. I have better things to do than to listen to them twice, or to waste energy writing about it. The time is better spent reading good books, and practicing, and taking care of my family, and doing some other things, than arguing about recordings. I enjoyed the piece anyway, and it was fun to hear unfamiliar texts in music I already knew from the Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248). I liked it enough to go listen to a different recording which I liked a lot better. But it doesn't do anybody any good if I sit here saying that I believe such-and-such's music-making is next to worthless; why be incendiary about work that somebody deemed worthwhile enough to enshrine in publication? Besides, some people here evidently LIKE it when Bach's music sounds featureless and logy, when the interesting bits are steamrolled to blend into a dull two-dimensional (or one-dimensional) landscape.

Riccardo Nughes wrote (July 21, 2003):
< Also I have five or six of Leonhardt's earlier recordings of Bach cantatas from before this series was officially launched; recordings that were replaced by remakes (and a different approach, not necessarily better or worse). >
Telefunken started to publish the full Cantata serie in 1971, using, sometimes, previous recordings conducted by Harnoncourt. AFIK before Leonhardt was involved in Bach Cantatas recordings as follows (never as conductor) :
-recordings with Alfred Deller ;
-recordings with J. Jürgens (BWV 198 a.o.);
-recordings of secular cantatas both with Concerto Amsterdam (A.Rieu) & Collegium Aureum.

Are you referring to these or I am missing something?

Bradley Lehman wrote (July 21, 2003):
[To Riccardo Nughes] Those are the ones. Incidentally, Leonhardt is credited as director on the 1954 record of BWV 54/BWV 170 with Deller; and in the Jürgens recordings the ensemble is credited as Leonhardt-Consort.

There should be some sort of party next May to commemorate 50 years of that Deller Vanguard recording.

Whatever became of Jürgens' recording career, anyway, after the several Bach cantatas and his Monteverdi with Harnoncourt?

I found Jakob Stämpfli in an odd role in a CD I bought yesterday: producer of somebody else's recordings of concerted works for Alphorn. (Claves 500, recorded 9/74 to 2/75.)

Riccardo Nughes wrote (July 21, 2003):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
< Those are the ones. Incidentally, Leonhardt is credited as director on the 1954 record of BWV 54/BWV 170 with Deller; >
You're right, Brad!

There should be some sort of party next May to commemorate 50 years of that
Deller Vanguard recording.

I don't know if there will be a party, but since October the Vanguard Bach Guild serie will be re-issued, possibly including some titles unreleased on CD:

Whatever became of Jürgens' recording career, anyway, after the several Bach cantatas and his Monteverdi with Harnoncourt?

I've found just this :

My 2 cents, while I'm here, for his Orfeo, with a great Nigel Rogers.


Leonhardt recorded concerts

Riccardo Nughes wrote (July 22, 2003):
Johan van Veen wrote:
< This is the reason Gustav Leonhardt usually refuses his concerts to be recorded. In order to communicate with the audience in the back of the hall he says he has to exaggerate things like articulation. But since the microphones are usually very close to the performer a recording would be terrible. I don't know how big this problem is and whether there is no solution to it. But having attended a number of his concerts I think it is a pity hardly any of them have ever been recorded. >
Luckly this is not true, Johan.

There are some recordings of his concerts coming from various sources. In the archives of RadioRai (Italian radio) there is a recording of a Rameau harpsichord recital recorded in Naples at the end of 60'es (it has been broadcasted a couple of times). 2/3 concert recordings with F.Bruggen & A.Bylsma are in the US Congress Library Here in Milan at the central Library, named "Sormani", you can listen to (without renting or making a copy...) the concerts of "Musica & Poesia a S.Maurizio", the most imporant early music serie in my hometown, running since 1976. The recording of the concerts is a condition of the performance contract. I must add that GL is a friend of MPSM manager, so it is possible that he won his reluctance to live taping after being assured that the same tapes will never circulated (and that it's how is going).

There are no commercial live recordings from GL but there are 2 curiosities:
1) In 1968 there was in Germany a TV broadcasting dedicated to German Classical Music Prizes. A promo LP featuring a live recording, coming from that broadcasting, of Corelli Variations upon La Follia (Op.5) performed by Leonhardt/Bruggen/Bylsma does exist.
2) There are 2 organ recitals issued by a private label : they were sold to raise funds for the restoration of the Amsterdam Nieuwe Kerk's organ. I know that copies of these 2 LP’s are available for listening at Amsterdam Central Library.


Some John Butt comments about the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt series, et al

Bradley Lehman wrote (July 23, 2003):
The following tidbits are in John Butt's article "Bach Recordings Since 1980: A Mirror of Historical Performance". The article is basically a write-up of a university seminar he taught in 1996. It's published in Bach Perspectives #4, ed. David Schulenberg (Lincoln & London, 1999), p181-98.

The article is already somewhat out of date, both chronologically [1996 was a long time ago already] and by the publication of Butt's new book Playing with History. It's interesting to read, anyway; he describes some of the trends and ideals among practitioners. But the book is much better. The article, by comparison, is just a trial run of some ideas he hadn't fully worked out yet....

Here are some of his comments about the end of the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt series of Bach cantatas:

"As the 1980s progress, both directors retain something of their respective styles, particularly in the choral sounds they seem to encourage. But whereas their earlier cantata recordings are striking for their dry, detached articulation, in the later recordings the note lengths are considerably longer, and the articulation, dynamic nuances, and tone are considerably more subtle. If anything, the two directors have become less easily distinguished from one another: Leonhardt takes some of the expressive force of Harnoncourt, and Harnoncourt in particular develops something close to the metrical pacing of Leonhardt. The last two cantatas of the set, BWV 198 and BWV 199, are apportioned to Leonhardt and Harnoncourt respectively. Both benefit from a more generous acoustic than the first recordings of the 1970s, and in both the performers seem to relish the sounds they produce. Harnoncourt calls on Barbara Bonney for the solo soprano part of BWV 199; she sounds a world apart from most of the boy soloists who grace virtually every disk in the collection (including the boy used for BWV 196, on the same disk). It is difficult to know how conscious the two directors were of the development; it is, after all, a persistent fault in recording reviewers to attribute absolutely every element of a performance to the director's intention. What is certain here is that the performers (particularly the instrumentalists) have iimmensely since 1971, that they may well be able to offer expressive possibilities that were simply not available before. Directors will often develop their own interpretative style as much in response to what they hear as from their own abstracted viewpoint." (p183)

And a comment about vocal styles in the 1980s, as a footnote in this article:

"It is interesting that virtually the only appearance of a modern (i.e. wobbly) soprano in a HIP recording during the 1980s occurs in Christopher Hogwood's recording of Händel's Athalia, on L'Oiseau-Lyre 417 126-2 (1986), where the title role is taken by Joan Sutherland; it is perhaps no accident that this sound was chosen at that time for one of the most evil women in Hebrew history." (p197)

[Yes, the "(i.e. wobbly)" is in the passage. And, in light of his own comments about Harnoncourt/Leonhardt, I wonder how much of the casting choice of "wobbly" Sutherland was from Hogwood's abstracted viewpoint or intentions? Or Händel's...?]

There's also a part of the article where he describes Kuijken's 1995 recording of Brandenburg #2:

"Kuijken explains that he uses horn instead of trumpet in Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 because he could not find a trumpet player with command of the historically correct playing technique ('without auxiliary valves and with the right bore'), whereas certain horn players can play without 'the present practice of compromise when it comes to tromba playing'. Thus it seems that the quest for instrumental purism was still so strong in 1995 that a director would rather opt for the wrong instruments at the wrong octave than for the right one played 'wrongly' (to my ear the musical result, in matters other than octave and timbre, is essentially similar); there is almost a sense of historical bookkeeping or a moral imperative that works more or less independently of the empirical results." (p184)

There are also comments about the Rifkin OVPP approach to the choral works, and Reinhard Goebel, and Philippe Herreweghe, and Andrew Parrott, et al; and about other recordings of the Brandenburgs and Goldbergs; and about the Bach cantata series that he played in himself (American Bach Soloists directed by Jeffrey Thomas); and about democratic vs autocratic approaches to directing ensemble music.


Harnoncourt’s Bach Cantatas

Henry Krinkle wrote (September 19, 2003):
I have a 4 CD Teldec set of Harnoncourt's Bach Cantatas. I have enjoyed them over the past few years. I was wondering how his style of conducting them compares to Rilling, Rifkin, whoever is on Harmonia Mundi, and others.

I don't mean " Harnoncourt is better than Rilling," but rather some sort of description of his approach in a comparative context.

Thomas Wood wrote (September 19, 2003):
[To Henry Krinkle] Harnoncourt uses period instruments and boy trebles in his cantata cycle (which was done in association with Gustav Leonhardt). His conducting is much edgier and raw but often more interesting and exciting than Rilling, who uses modern instruments and adult female singers often to good effect, but sometimes in a rather stodgy and heavy manner. Harnoncourt is good when he's good, but in some recordings his boys were tired or just couldn't quite hack the music -- and his brass players were often struggling with unfamilar, low-tech instruments.

Rifkin uses period instruments but female singers -- and believes that Bach typically performed his cantatas with one singer per part in the choruses, and not more than 2 violins per part in the orchestra. This isn't really a problem in itself. What makes his recordings dull and uninteresting is the meek, watery, walking-on-eggs style of performance he favors.

The guy on Harmonia Mundi is probably the Belgian Phillippe Herreweghe (although Rene Jacob has also recorded secular cantatas in that label). He uses period instruments and female singers. His performance style is precise and focussed, but with a great emphasis on a creamy, sensuous, "gorgeous" sonority -- which tips over into cloying at times. His fellow Lowlands Bach conductor Koopman and his Japanese pupil Suzuki provide much of the same in their cantata cycles. Koopman in his best moments can be bouncy and earthy, and Suzuki in his worse moments can really lay on the gorgeosity.

There are more Bach cantata conductors to comment on, but it's late and time to go to bed. Schlummert ein...

Andy Evans wrote (September 19, 2003):
Tom Wood has it exactly right - for me at least. Harnoncourt may be rougher, but there's a bounce and energy in the performances that I would put ahead of Herreweghe. I don't rate Rifkin. Don't have the other sets, but I greatly like Gardiner, who to me is - by and large - both technically good and well sung and conducted. I personally listen to Gardiner in the CDs he's made, and the rest in the complete Harnoncourt set. There are some good older performances (pre-HIP) which should be heard - Richter and guys like that. Good sense of gravitas, and some very good older singers.

Mazzolata wrote (September 19, 2003):
Thomas Wood wrote:
< The guy on Harmonia Mundi is probably the Belgian Phillippe Herreweghe (although Rene Jacob has also recorded secular cantatas in that label). He uses period instruments and female singers. His performance style is precise and focussed, but with a great emphasis on a creamy, sensuous, "gorgeous" sonority -- which tips over into cloying at times. His fellow Lowlands Bach conductor Koopman and his Japanese pupil Suzuki provide much of the same in their cantata cycles. Koopman in his best moments can be bouncy and earthy, and Suzuki in his worse moments can really lay on the gorgeosity. >
I'm inclined to agree on Herreweghe - wherever I've heard both, Gardiner is better, IMO. I like Leonhardt's Mass in B minor a lot, and Koopman's Christmas Oratorio is pretty nice.


Harnoncourt on authenticity

Thomas Braatz wrote (December 17, 2003):
Here are some quotations to reveal Harnoncourt’s thoughts, implied or otherwise, regarding ‘authenticity’ in the playing/singing of Bach’s music. While Harnoncourt frequently speaks of ‘truth’ in music which is not dependent simply upon playing ‘authentic’ instruments or in singing with a romanticized version of a Bach’s music, and while he even refers to the necessity of being ‘kissed by the muse’ (with which he obviously means himself, p. 130, “Musik als Klangrede” Kassel, 1982), Harnoncourt nevertheless refers to basing his Baroque performance practices upon the ‘musikalischen Prämissen von Bachs Zeit’ [‘the musical premises of Bach’s time’ = musicological research which determines what was ‘authentic’ practice in Bach’s time] [p. 113 of “Der musikalische Dialog” Kassel, 1999.]

In reference [p. 257] to his recording of the B minor Mass [which one is not indicated], he admits that he wanted ‘to restore the original sound quality’ [‘die Wiederherstellung der ursprünglichen Klanggestalt’] of this work by using practical solutions to performance practices as they existed in Bach’s time.

The ‘reconstruction’ of Bach’s intentions is dependent upon a long musical [‘university’?] education which involves doing research, studying old musical tracts, treatises, and textbooks, all with the view in mind for achieving the best possible performances: [“…das {was} man Rekonstruktion nennen könnte, es ist aber in Wirklichkeit nur ein etwas ausgedehnteres Musikstudium….muß man notgedrungen forschen, vergleichen, alte Lehrbücher studieren, dies alles aber nur als Mittel zum Zweck – nämlich der bestmöglichen Aufführung….Wir stellen einfach die {alte} Musik mit den besten uns erreichbaren Mitteln dar….wir kennen…die aufführungspraktischen Prämissen, und wir kennen die Klänge der verschiedenen Instrumentarien jener Epochen. Für den heutigen Aufführenden gibt es also eine freie Wahl der bestgeeigneten Mittel –wenn er sich ihrer nur bewußt ist.“] [That which you could call a reconstruction {of the performance of a work by Bach}, is in reality simply a somewhat more extended study of music {course of music study at a university level?}…you are forced to do some research, to make comparisons, and study old textbooks, all of which are simply a toward achieving a goal which is specifically obtaining the best possible performance…We simply present the music [Baroque] using the best means which are available to us…we are thoroughly acquainted with the premises upon which practical performance matters are based, and we know the sounds of the various instruments/instrumental groups of these earlier musical periods. For today’s performers there exists the free choice among all the means that are suitable (for such a performance), if the performer is simply aware that they exist.] [p. 115, “Musik als Klangrede,” Kassel, 1982.]

Despite Harnoncourt’s appeal for free choices on the part of creative musicians in the matter of producing a ‘true’ performance of Bach as he intended it, one which would speak to today’s audiences directly and not incorporate a slavish adherence to the results emanating from musicological research, Harnoncourt, nevertheless, despite his statements which seem to contradict it, persists in pursuing the path toward ‘authenticity.’ His thought on the performance of the SMP is simply put: the only way in this present day and age (probably referring to the early 1960s and 70s) to put on an authentic performance (one which comes closer to the ideal spirit and sound which Bach had envisioned and heard) is to skip over the romantic and late romantic sound expectations and go back directly to the ‘original.’ This type of statement clearly involves Harnoncourt in the active pursuit of ‘authenticity.’ [“Da es heute kein einigermaßen verbindliches musikalisches Idiom gibt, das eine echte Übertragung der Matthäus-Passion in Klang und Geist unserer Zeit erlaubt, bleibt wohl nur der andere Weg: die ja auch bereits historische und abgeschlossene Entwicklung der Romantik and Spätromantik zu überspringen und in Klang und Geist auf das Original zurückzugehen.“ p. 105, „Der musikalische Dialog“ Kassel, 1999.]

Later in this section on the SMP [p. 111 ff.], Harnoncourt demonstrates his true weakness and dependency upon the poorly researched information [his own and that of other musicologists] about the esoteric doctrine concerning the short accompaniment in Bach’s secco recitatives: “Die Begleitung der Rezitative war zu Bachs Zeit Regeln unterworfen, die damals jedem Musiker geläufig waren, heute aber vielfach unbekannt sind, sodaß die heutigen Interpretationen oft in geradezu elementarer Weise voneinander abweichen. Das geht weit über „Auffassungsunterschiede“ hinaus. So haben die Orgel und das Cello bei den Seccorezitativen die Baßtöne niemals ausgehalten. Die Notation in langen Notenwerten war eine orthographische Gewohnheit; das harmonische Geschehen zwischen der Singstimme und dem Baß (der allerdings nach dem Anschlag des Akkords nur noch in der Phantasie des Hörers weiterklang) ist im Notenbild sichtbar. Durch diese allgemein geübte Praxis, nur die jeweils neuen Akkorde kurz anzugeben, konnte man die Worte sehr gut verstehen.“ [„There were strict rules governing the recitatives in Bach’s time, rules which every musician was acquainted with, but which today are unknown, for the most part, and that is the reason why so many of today’s interpretations {of these recitatives}differ from each other in a very fundamental way. This is a matter that goes way beyond simply having ‘differences of opinion regarding the interpretation.’ So it is a fact that the organ and the violoncello never held out the bass notes in secco recitatives. The notation using long note values in the bc was an orthographical convention; the harmonic activity that takes place between the voice and the bc (the latter is, to be sure, only heard in the imagination of the listener once the chord has been struck {and released quickly by both the organ and cello} is clearly visible in the score’s notation. By applying this performance practice which was generally widespread, a practice which involved striking/playing each new chord with short note values, it was now possible that a listener could hear the words very well {for the words to be better understood.}”]

It is obvious to me that this authoritative statement by Harnoncourt contains all the elements of a belief in an unfounded, esoteric doctrine of authenticity that many HI performers desperately hold onto:

1) ‘the rules were strict’ (did Harnoncourt even bother to read Heinichen’s statement on this matter?) Currently some HI performers are ‘back pedaling’ a bit and hoping for a compromise by stating that there might be a few situations where some chords might be held a little longer or even, heaven forbid, for their full value. Here we encounter a ‘misch-masch’ based upon whatever happens to come to the mind of the musician at the moment.

2) ‘every musician knew about this’ If this is so, why is it so profoundly difficult to document this ‘convention?’ Ah, yes, it was an ‘esoteric’ doctrine! Aren’t we going in circles here?

3) ‘this is not simply a matter of musical interpretation because the results of the differences are quite apparent’ I have to agree with Harnoncourt on this one.

4) ‘it was an orthographical convention’ Bach was quite meticulous in documenting what he wanted to hear and what not. Why would he be afraid of writing in a few rests? At the speed at which he was composing, adding rests (whole-note, half-note, quarter-note) to only a single line of a recitative (almost always the shortest mvts. in a cantata) really would have made very little difference in the effort he needed to expend overall.

5) ‘the chords which were abruptly shortened (although clearly notated in the score) were actually meant to be heard as continuing to sound in the minds of the listeners’ What kind of lofty reasoning is this? And yet, this type of thinking is extolled by those who wish desperately to save this theory from collapsing under its own weight of inconclusive and even non-existent evidence.

6) ‘the singer’s words can be understood better if no instrument is playing’ This is a truism which, here, completely out of context [most likely referring to a type of Mozart operatic recitative which is sung/spoken very quickly] is used as a ‘proof’ that the esoteric convention actually existed in a completely different venue: the church cantata. With this kind of reasoning used as evidence to support a very shaky theory, I wonder how it is possible for university graduates in music/musicology to continue their unabashed support of such an obviously untenable theory.

Gabriel wrote (December 17, 2003):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
< Later in this section on the SMP [p. 111 ff.], Harnoncourt demonstrates his true weakness and dependency upon the poorly researched information [his own and that of other musicologists] about the esoteric doctrine concerning the short accompaniment in Bach’s secco recitatives >
I love it!! Thomas Braatz now knows more than Nicholas Harnoncourt about the performance of Bach's recitatives!

Riccardo Nughes wrote (December 17, 2003):
[To Gabriel] Didn't you know it? ;-)

Gabriel wrote (December 17, 2003):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
< ‘the chords which were abruptly shortened (although clearly notated in the score) were actually meant to be heard as continuing to sound in the minds of the listeners’ What kind of lofty reasoning is this? >
Thomas, this is not particularly "lofty reasoning" as you sarcastically put it but a statement of something fairly self-evident - that in the silence (or silence from the instrument(s) that played the chord) following a chord, that chord is/can be still in the listener's mind.

Dear oh dear!!

Johan van Veen wrote (December 17, 2003):
All these quotations show one thing: Harnoncourt never claimed 'authenticity' of his performances, only gave an insight in the way he has come to his solutions regarding the performance of music of the past.

In the ongoing campaign to discredit performers Mr Braatz does detest everything seems to be right.

Charles Francis wrote (December 17, 2003):
[To Johan van Veen] In my opinion, you have moved beyond civil discourse with your latest ad hominem against Mr. Braatz. Do not forget that Mr. Lehmann, who has repeatedly claimed exceptional scholarly credentials in the areof harpsichord performance practice, himself admits that the doctrine of shortened notes cannot be proved scientifically (i.e. empirically). He further admits that his application of this doctrine is an act of faith, arguing that Bach himself was a man of faith.

Your insinuation that Mr. Braatz is "distorting the facts and spreading lies" reminds me of certain Creationist diatribes against Evolutionists. Admittedly, God may have planted dinosaur bones to deceive the wicked (or for some other reason) and, yes, Bach may have written short notes as long notes and notated silent harmonic figures because of an unwritten oral tradition. But, you cannot proceed from there to accuse the doubting Thomas who demands empirical proof of "distorting the facts and spreading lies".

Peter Bright wrote (December 17, 2003):
[To Johan van Veen] It seems that some people are only going to be happy when everyone agrees with Brad. I have very great respect for Harnoncourt and rate some of his recordings (not only Bach) as among the very best and insightful available. I don't understand Thomas's diatribe against Harnoncourt, but, for goodness sake, stop just assuming that Brad knows everything and allow others to voice an opinion without their being abused! If everyone bows down before Brad and accepts everything he says, then where is the room for any kind of discussion? Both Thomas and Brad are incredibly inflexible in their respective views and I think most readers will take some kind of 'middle' view, particularly in those many areas of performance practice where there are no verifiable facts (and there are many uncertainties when it comes to getting a grasp on the music and its context from the Baroque period, despite the way the 'evidence' is presented in Brad's posts).

Johan van Veen wrote (December 17, 2003):
[To Peter Bright] Criticising Mr Braatz has nothing to do with "bowing down" before Brad. The point is that someone made a claim, which Mr Braatz tried to "prove" with a whole bunch of quotations, out of context, which just prove nothing. I don't think Mr Braatz is stupid, so he must know his quotations don't prove what he pretends them to prove.

Now that is what I consider "distorting the truth" and "telling lies". That has nothing to do with whether I share his or Brad's or Harnoncourt's views, but just with honesty and sincerity.


Continue on Part 7

Nikolaus Harnoncourt: Short Biography | Concentus Musicus Wien | Harnoncourt - Glorious Bach! (DVD) | Motets - Harnoncourt | BWV 232 - Harnoncourt | BWV 244 - Harnoncourt | BWV 245 - Harnoncourt-Gillesberger | BWV 248 - Harnoncourt
Gustav Leonhardt: Short Biography | BWV 232 - Leonhardt | BWV 244 - Leonhardt | Inventions & Sinfonias BWV 772-801 - Leonhardt | BWV 988 Goldberg Variations - Leonhardt
Harnoncourt & Leonhardt - Recordings:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
Harnoncourt & Leonhardt - General Discussions:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8
Table of recordings by BWV Number

Conductors of Vocal Works: Main Page | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z | Singers & Instrumentalists


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