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Nikolaus Harnoncourt & Concentus Musicus Wien

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Bach Cantatas & Other Vocal Works

General Discussions - Part 7

Continue from Part 6

Harnoncourt's perf of BWV 21

Charles Francis wrote (October 7, 2004):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
< Have you even listened to a piece by Bach today? This evening I enjoyed the duo-harpsichord disc of Sempe and Fortin; fun! >
As it happens, I've been working my way through the H&L cantata series recently, on the principle that its better to compare like with like, than with other performers. Currently, I'm at BWV 21: a nice orchestral opening (Harononcourt is in his natural element here), but the usual issues arise when the choir enters: a somewhat muffled sound, unclear articulation, and a heroic Wagnerian mush reminding one of the Lord of Flies, not to mention the timing problems towards the end of the Sinfonia (was the speed of sound the issue here or did someone wave their arm at the wrong time?). In the later movements, there's the anachronistic countertenor, and, of course, the inevitably affected closing choral. But all in all, one of the better performances, which I did rather enjoy.

Bradley Lehman wrote (October 7, 2004):
[To Charles Francis] Faint praise indeed.

"How well prepared are you to get right up there today on stage and do it better?"
- A. 0%
- B. 1%
- C. 2%
- D. 3%
- E. Other _____+(provide curriculum vitae, three letters of professional recommendation from people we've heard of, and an unedited recording of representative work)

 

A new. 'improved' Harnoncourt?

Neil Halliday wrote (October 8, 2004):
As someone who has been driven to distraction by some of Harnoncourt's practices, in performances of Bach's cantatas, I was pleasantly surprised by this 2001 release of cantatas BWV 140 and BWV 147. Amazon.com

[I take it that this is not the same as the 1985 release which was part of the H/L Cantata cycle? Eg, the tenor is listed as Rampf, not Equiluz].

I like practically every movement (apart from an unaccompanied recitative); and noteworthy is the absence of the attenuation on the final syllables of the chorale phrases and/or hiatuses between each word, features which I have found annoying in the past, with Harnoncourt.

Also interesting is that fact that this is the only recording (among Richter, Rilling, Gardiner, Parrot and this one) in which I can clearly hear the trills on the trumpet in the 'Jesu joy' chorale, a detail that Dale (I think) mentioned; and the tempo of this chorale is closer to Rilling than the much faster Gardiner or Parrott; and I like the slow tempo of the opening choruses, even if BWV 147's opening movement cannot be danced to - does not have the joy and elation - of the Richter and Gardiner recordings.

The pendulum that Thomas spoke of some time ago is perhaps on its return swing between 'overtly HIP' and 'romantic' performances of Bach.

I hope so, because I am more interested in hearing Bach's music, rather then any particular 'style'.

Riccardo Nughes wrote (October 8, 2004):
Neil Halliday wrote:
<
Amazon.com
[I take it that this is not the same as the 1985 release which was part of the H/L Cantata cycle? Eg, the tenor is listed as Rampf, not Equiluz]. >

It's the same recording featured in the Cantata cycle, Rampf is the solo alto from Tölzer Knabenchor in BWV 147.

Neil Halliday wrote (October 8, 2004):
[To Riccardo Nughes] Thanks, Riccardo.

Notice how Harnoncourt treats the final movement (chorale) of BWV 140 - without the (IMO, annoying) shortening of the final syllables of phrases, as was often his practice.

IMO, he also very nearly has the correct tempo for the opening chorus of BWV 140; Richter sounds much too slow, and Rilling too fast, in comparison.

(BWV 147's opening chorus seems to stand a wider range of tempi, but I would not like to hazzard a guess as to why this may be so. In any case, Richter and Gardiner have the same fast tempo, while Rilling and Harnoncourt have almost identical slow tempos; but they are all very enjoyable, IMO.

Aryeh Oron wrote (October 8, 2004):
Neil Halliday wrote:
< As someone who has been driven to distraction by some of Harnoncourt's practices, in performances of Bach's cantatas, I was pleasantly surprised by this 2001 release of cantatas
BWV 140 and BWV 147. Amazon.com
[I take it that this is not the same as the 1985 release which was part of the H/L Cantata cycle? Eg, the tenor is listed as Rampf, not Equiluz]. >
AFAIK, this CD is one of many reissues from the H&L original cantata cycle. The names of the soloists for each cantata can be found at the following pages:
BWV 140: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV140.htm [19]
BWV 147: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV147.htm [9]
[Rampf is a boy alto and not a tenor)

The only Harnoncourt remake of complete Bach sacred cantatas, of which I am aware is:
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Performers/H&L-Rec3.htm [L-8]
This DVD includes Cantatas BWV 61, BWV 147 and Magnificat BWV 243.
Kirk McElhearn wrote a review and there were some discussions of this DVD:
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Performers/H&L-L8.htm

Following your message I re-listend to both recordings of Cantata BWV 147 by Harnoncourt, 24 years apart. Here is a short comparison between the two:

Singers: In the older recording Harnoncourt used boys for the soprano and alto parts. Both boys have fine voices, good tecnique and are very enjoyable to listen to. In the new recordings he prefers famale singers for both parts. Christine Schäffer is a soprano with strong voice, almost boyish timbre and mature intrpretation. Always a joy to listen to her. Bernarda Fink is less to my liking. Some unpleasant vibrato enters her singing once in a while, and she sounds as if she is struggling with her part rather than simply conveying it. Ian Bostridge, has a beautiful voice, but when comparing to Kurt Equiluz, I have the feeling that his main focus is presenting the beauties of his voice. Equiluz serves the music and the text in a way that few other tenors can, not even Bostridge. On the other hand, Christopher Maltman has an extra depth to his voice. Next to him Thomas Hampson's intepretation sounds rather superficial.
Choir & Orchestra: The CMW version in the newer rendition is much bigger than in the older one. Both edtions use, of course, original instruments. The Arnold Schoenberg Choir is an excellent modern mixed big choir, where the Tölzer Knabenchor was one the best boy choir of their day when they recorded this cantata with Harnoncourt.
Interpretation: Based on this recording, the contemporary Harnoncourt is not any longer the revolutionary Bach interpreter he used to be when he did his joint cantata cycle with Leonhardt in the 1970's and the 1980's. The opening chorus could be called main-stream. Gone are the brisk tempi, the fragmentary phrases, the problematic balance. Along the years Harnoncourt has learnt to master the combined forces of choir and orchestra and to moderate his interpretation.

In shor, no rendition is perfect, but both have some strong points.

John Pike wrote (October 27, 2004):
Aryeh Oron wrote:
< Interpretation: Based on this recording, the contemporary Harnoncourt is not any longer the revolutionary Bach interpreter he used to be when he did his joint cantata cycle with Leonhardt in the 1970's and the 1980's. >
The key phrase here must surely be "Based on this recording..."

Surely, Aryeh, Harnoncourt's latest recording of the St Matthew Passion (BWV 244) (2000, I think) must open your judgement below to some serious questioning. I think it is one of the finest recordings of the SMP (BWV 244) around.

Uri Golomb wrote (October 27, 2004):
[To John Pike] I agree about Harnoncourt's recent SMP (BWV 244), but I am not sure you understood what Aryeh was saying: (http://launch.groups.yahoo.com/group/BachCantatas/message/10152). I don't think he's saying Harnoncourt's performances have gone worse, but rather that his recent performances incorporate more "mainstream" features than his earlier ones. That, in itself, is neither praise nor condemnation; and as a description I believe it has much truth in it, though in my view the process can be detected within the cantata cycle (whereas Aryeh seems to imply that the change only started afterwards).

Harnoncourt has certainly started to employ more "mainstream" features in his performances. Throughout the cantata cycle (except for cantata 199, which features soprano Barbara Bonney), he used all-male vocal forces; but even within that cycle, he increasingly employed legato articulation, slower tempi (though his fastest tempi remained quite fast), a wider dynamic range -- all features which people tend to associate with "modern"/"mainstream" performances. Some people see this as a negative development, others welcome it. Either way, I think one could argue that Harnoncourt's earlier style was a rejection of mainstream practices (which he experienced closely as a cellist in the Vienna Symphony Orchestra), whereas his later performances display a synthesis of "mainstream" and "period" features.I think, however, that there remains a revolutionary element even in Harnoncourt's new style. His synthesis is not simply a comfortable compromise. Doubt, discomfort and unease can lurk beneath deceptively comforting surfaces: full, sensuous sonorities; legato phrasing; and a general avoidance of sharp edges and clipped note- and phrase-endings. But this is combined with internal restlessness. The "legato" often consists of "sostenuto fragments": short spans of smooth articulation, their caesuras rubbing against the beat and clashing with similar caesuras in other voices. Dynamic and agogic nuances are constantly manipulated. Discomfort arises from the accumulated effect of such small gestures. Not that this is always the case -- sometimes, the independent shaping of simultaneous lines "simply" leads to a sense of lively, complex dialogue.

I think this sense of discomfort explains some (not all) of the fierce criticism Harnoncourt's performances have attracted; but for me, this is among the strengths of his performances -- especially from the late 1970s onwards (to my ears, his 1960s and early 1970s recordings are often dull and uninflected by comparison).

John Pike wrote (October 28, 2004):
[To Uri Golomb] Thanks for this, Uri. Most interesting. I can see, on re-reading Aryeh's e mail that I read things into it that weren't there. I was just trying to rush through some of the backlog that accumulated while I was on holiday.

 

Harnoncourt citation

Eric Bergerud wrote (April 26, 2005):
I'm a great fan of the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt cantata cycle but can hardly voice any opinion on musical issues raised recently. However, I do believe that Harnoncourt touches on some of the matters raised in his essay written in 1970 that accompanies his (to my ears) wonderful SMP (BWV 244).

"The difference between the notation of the Evangelist's recitatives in the score and in the holograph organ part is rather striking.

This discrepancy has led to a great deal of confused speculation. The score was written after 1741, and the parts, it seems, shortly afterwards. As is well known, it is standard musicological practice to regard the chronologically latest source as an expression of the composer's final will. In this case the version contained in the parts is taken to represent an emendation of the score. However, apart from the fact that it would have been most unusual if Bach had wanted to make such significant alterations after having devoted more than 15 years to this work, it is quite implausible that he would suddenly have wanted to introduce a new style of accompanying recitatives in the St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244). In all the sacred and secular cantatas and in the St John Passion (BWV 245) he had notated the recitatives as in the score of the St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244).

In the booklet for our recording of the St John Passion (BWV 245) we pointed out the difference between what is notated and the actual performance of the recitatives. In secco recitatives, going by rules that were repeatedly written down, each bass note was only allowed to be played briefly (by the cello and accompanying keyboard instrument). This convention was well understood by ever continuo player at the time. However, the notation had to show the correct harmonies between the vocal line and the bass, whereby in practice the bass note continued to sound only in the listener's imagination. In this way it was always possible to understand the text quite clearly. Similarly, there are differences between what is written and what is played in the case of final appoggiaturas (here, in the above example, the two c1 had to be notated on "aber" because a dissonance would be incorrect at this juncture. However, going by the rules, the singer sings d1 c1). In the continuo part Bach exceptionally notated what was actually played and not the normal and orthographically correct long bass notes, as in the score. He probably wanted to ensure that the differences between the short notes in the Evangelist's recitative and the full note values in the recitativo accompangnato of Christ's recitatives, which were hardly noticeable in the part, would not lead to confusion. There is in fact no difference between the original scores of the St Matthew Passion (BWV 244) and the St John Passion (BWV 245). Differences only exist in modern reprints because the parts are incorrectly interpreted as being Bach's revisions.

Bach was clearly at pains to write down everything as precisely as possible for the musician. This ran counter to the freedom usually accorded to performers in the 18th century, when it was the practice to allow singers and instrumentalists to improvise embellishments in solos and sometimes even in accompanying parts. Bach did not want to leave such things to chance in his works, and thus wrote out all the embellishments in full. Many of Bach's melismas and coloratura passages must be understood as written-out ornaments, and these of course have to be played far more lightly than essential melody notes.

One arrives at the natural tempo by extrapolating the actual motif in its unembellished form..."

Doug Cowling wrote (April 26, 2005):
Eric Bergerud wrote:
< He probably wanted to ensure that the differences between the short notes in the Evangelist's recitative and the full note values in the recitativo accompangnato of Christ's recitatives, which were hardly noticeable in the part, would not lead to confusion. There is in fact no difference between the original scores of the St Matthew Passion
(BWV 244) and theSt John Passion (BWV 245). >
Does the bass part of the SMP (BWV 244) have any marking such as "accompagnato" to signal the sustained string recitatives?

Bradley Lehman wrote (April 26, 2005):
Harnoncourt citation (SMP b.c.)

[To Doug Cowling] No. (Presuming you mean the b.c. part of orchestra 1, with which Jesus sings.) Neither does the "Eli, Eli" spot where there aren't any sustained upper strings but only the b.c. And even there, there are only two sustained notes as opposed to the normal detached crotchets. The two sustained notes are Bb under a shifty noodling Bb-minor, and Eb under a shifty Eb-minor. [C minor and F minor from the perspective of the temperament...visiting two of the most troubled and gloomy-sounding keys.] The shiftiness is tonic-subdominant-dimseventh-tonic, in each case, over the pedal point.

Even though the b.c. parts are clear enough for the SMP (BWV 244), I prefer to play from the score...there's just so much other stuff happening, as to quick changes of mood and tempo that need attention. So, I've never really given the lack of any accompagnato designation here any thought; I just look higher on the page and there are the strings doing their thing....

 

Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt

Jason Marmaras wrote (April 26, 2005):
[To Bradley Lehman] I have never been hostile to the H/L series, but there is a certain statement' of mine about which I would greatly appreciate your opinion.

> Note: After listening to BWV 21 'Ich hatte viel bekümmernis' from Harnoncourt (or Leonhardt?), the series has fallen quite a bit in my esteem. The boys' singing of the first chorus is very aggressive and stressed, and changes to something much more calm in the "erquicken meine Seele" part. Any opinions on this? Did H/L get carried away from the meaning of the words and the Affekte in pursuing the stylistically correct or rather free-from-19th-century-preoccupation execution? <
It is not as though I am attacking N. Harnoncourt; I am just seeking help to restore what part of my hero has fallen... (!) I request your musical/rhetorical opinion on this recording (and any other such examples perhaps).

This is clearly addressed to generally "H/L-friendly" members... I would appreciate anyone explaining/interpreting/expressing insight into Harnoncourt's performance -- and yes, I like his Brandenburg's, as I do many of his Cantata's.

Bradley Lehman wrote (April 26, 2005):
> Note: After listening to BWV 21 'Ich hatte viel bekümmernis' from Harnoncourt (or Leonhardt?), the series has fallen quite a bit in my esteem. The boys' singing of the first chorus is very aggressive and stressed, and changes to something much more calm in the "erquicken meine Seele" part. Any opinions on this? Did H/L get carried away from the meaning of the words and the Affekte in pursuing the stylistically correct or rather free-from-19th-century-preoccupation execution? <
Harnoncourt on this one. I enjoy the instrumental phrasing in this recording. That opening sinfonia grabs me immediately with its gracefulness and poise.

Doesn't "erquicken meine Seele" have something to do with being refreshed or delighted, personally changed by an encounter? And, doesn't that imply a setting-apart for contrast, for transformation? The interpretation in this movement just sounds to me like intensely expressive musicianship, a willingness to present the message of the music and text clearly.

1972 sure was a long time ago!

Who's playing oboe in this recording? Schaeftlein?

Joost wrote (April 26, 2005):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
< Who's playing oboe in this recording [
BWV 21]? Schaeftlein? >
Good guess, Brad!

 

Harnoncourt & faith...and Herreweghe

Bradley Lehman wrote (August 7, 2005):
Eric Bergerud wrote:
< I'm not sure I'd be shy about using the word inspiration when discussing the works of Harnoncourt, Koopman, Suzuki, Cleobury, Parrott, Gardiner and several others. If we can believe Gardiner and Suzuki faith of some kind can help out too. >
Not to slight Harnoncourt either, in this department: see especially the booklet notes for both his recordings of the Mozart Requiem, where each time (20+ years apart) he offers thoughts about personal faith in the face of death, and personal reaction to the powerful spiritual range of the music, its ability to grip us at non-intellectual levels. Likewise, his two interpretations of the piece here suggest that the spiritual content of the work guides the way he chooses to deliver this music--with the meaning of the text and its themes having more weight in his decision-making than musicology does.

His essay from the first recording is also available in his book The Musical Dialogue: Thoughts on Monteverdi, Bach and Mozart pp 211-213; different translation, but substantially the same essay. Excerpts: "(...) The entire work seems to me to be a deeply personal confrontation; terrifying and upsetting, since the composer normally made a clearcut distinction between his personal life and his art. (...) Death is not only a gentle friend, but the doorway to the feared judgment. Here I find for the first time, perhaps like Mozart himself, that the official liturgical text becomes a personal, stirring confrontation. Death comes at some time to everyone--but what will happen to me! (...) I understand Mozart's special religious and musical attachment to this movement [Recordare] because he has the personal element of the relationship to God emerge so strongly. The possibility of loving mildness of the Judge who was previously described as implacably severe is now represented with great feeling. (...) [In Confutatis] I hear the voice of Mozart himself, pleading on his own behalf with all the urgency at his command, like a sickly child who looks trustingly at his mother, and all fear disappears."

Not to neglect Philippe Herreweghe either. His specialty is (if anything) the sacred repertoire for voices and instruments, from pre-Monteverdi through at least the Faure Requiem, and the shattering Gorli Requiem--composed in the 1980s for one of Herreweghe's chamber choirs. He uses different styles and instruments as appropriate to whatever repertoire he's working with, but the common thread in his work is (at least as it seems to me) his spiritual focus on the meaning of the music, plus his uncanny ability to get his instrumentalists to play like they're singing the text.

 

ugly vs beautiful

Continue of discussion from: Recitatives in Bach’s Vocal Works - Part 14 [General Topics]

Nils Lid Hjort wrote (December 1, 2005):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
< After this, imho, I perceive a steady decline as Harnoncourt attempted to 'standardize' his approach by shifting away from some of his earlier practices to include more of those which tended towards extremes in shortening notes unnecessarily and paying much less attention to obtaining a 'beautiful, cantabile sound' than chopping Bach's wonderful phrases into many tiny bits. The change, as he documents in his writings, was toward emphasizing the 'ugly' because the 'beautiful' was too boring in his estimation. The 'beautiful' was identified with what the ordinary listener had come to expect from good classical music in performance, but now Harnoncourt decided it was time for something else. >
Interesting. Where precisely does Harnoncourt write about this, in CD booklets? Could you perhaps give us the original quote(s), if not in full then in the context of a full paragraph?

Thomas Braatz wrote (December 1, 2005):
Nils Lid Hjort wrote:
>>Where precisely does Harnoncourt write about this, in CD booklets? Could you perhaps give us the original quote(s), if not in full then in the context of a full paragraph?<<
In books like "Der musikalische Dialog" (1984) and "Musik als Klangrede" (1982) and "Was ist Wahrheit" (1995)

From "Musik als Klangrede"

p. 116 "Die Trompeten etwa waren stets der göttlichen oder weltlichen Herrschaft zugeordnet. Bach verwendet sie seoft in diesem Sinne, wobei er die unreinen Naturtöne (den 7., 11. und 13. Oberton, also b', f" und a") zur Darstellug des Schreckens, des Gräßlichen, des Teufels verwendet. Diese Töne klingen rauh und sind unrein - was aber den Hörern selbstverständlich war, weil sie die Naturtonreihe von der Trompeten- und Hornmusik her im Gehör hatten. Man sieht also, wie sowohl die Intonation als auch die Tonschönheit - ein sehr fragwürdiger Begriff - als Ausdrucksmittel eingesetzt wurden. In bestimmten Zusammenhängen deutet nur ein vom Komponisten vorgesehener "häßlicher" Klang die Wahrheit einer musikalischen Aussage."

"The trumpets were more or less always classified as belonging to heavenly or worldly power/rule. Bach uses them very often in this sense, in that he uses the impure natural tones (the 7th, 11th, and 13th overtone - that would be b above middle c, f above that and a above that) to represent terror, whatever is horrible, and the devil himself. These notes sound raw/rough/coarse/harsh and are impure (not in tune, forced or too soft as well) - which, however, was something that the listeners [back then] took for granted because they were used to hearing the natural tone row of natural {valveless} trumpets and horns played this way. And so you can see how both intonation and beautiful sound (the latter a very questionable concept) can be used for expressive means. In certain situations/contexts only the intended 'ugly' sound already provided by the composer will provide the {real} truth of a musical statement."

Unfortunately many current performers have grown up with propagandistic statements such as this, and they actually still believe Harnoncourt knows what he is talking about here and that 'ugly' music making was intended by Bach. However, just recently I shared information about what true experts have to say on this matter. We have their statements about the playability of Bach's trumpet parts and, most importantly, their demonstration of expertise in actually playing cleanly the notes that are not part of the natural tone row on valveless, long trombae without resorting to theories which would have present-day listeners believe that the 'bad' notes mean the devil and and 'good' notes are from a divine source.

By calling into question the concept of 'beautiful tone/sound' and 'correct intonation', Harnoncourt has opened up a veritable Pandora's box of permissible 'ugly' sounds which he believed Bach (and his listeners) would have condoned in the 1720s and 1730s in Leipzig. Elsewhere (I am not going to look this up now), Harnoncourt speaks of the 'aggressive' attacks which musicians were accustomed to using when playing their instruments. Likewise Harnoncourt fostered the notion of abbreviated, shortened, continuo-group accompaniment in secco recitatives based upon the vague, unproven myth that such accompaniment was an unspoken, never fully explained or clearly documented custom/rule among all continuo players in Bach's time. As a result, Harnoncourt's performances/recordings of such recitatives in Bach's sacred works, can easily sound ugly and disjointed. But this is precisely the effect that Harnoncourt was seeking.

Eric Bergerud wrote (December 1, 2005):
[To Thomas Braatz] I've never been able to track down a copy of Text and Act by famous (infamous) critic & musicologist Richard Taruskin. However, if I understand John Butt correctly in Playing with History this approach of Harnoncourt's is praised by Taruskin in contrast to other ensembles that attempt to "prettify and sanitize Bach's severe message in the Sacred Music". Can anyone out there verify or refute this?

Alain Bruguieres wrote (December 1, 2005):
[To Thomas Braatz] Surely the quotation marks are important here. <quote> 'ugly' </unquote> doesn't mean <quote> ugly </unquote>.

It means rather 'which may sound ugly if what one expects is sweetness'. Some of the best cheeses taste 'ugly'. I listen a lot to the Leonhardt/Harnoncourt integral (since it is the only integral I have); I also have quite a few recordings by Herreweghe and others. It is true that Harnouncourt is not always sweet... still by and large I enjoy very much his recordings. They are by no means ugly to me... Listening to different interpretations allow me to grasp many aspects of the same cantata, and certainly Harnoncourt's contribution is very enriching from this point of view.

I don't care too much on historicity since - for all respect due to musicologists - I believe that this science has its limits, notably regarding Bach, and this is very well illustrated by Thomas' very esteemable efforts to argue this or that point by referring to Bach's alas too few and Mattheson's (alas too many? ;-) ) writings. What Bach says is not too clear to me. What Mattheson says sounds very abstract (remote from actual music), his terms are far from objective andin any case he speaks a priori for himself, not for Bach. I believe that you cannot reach many conclusions in this field without referring implicitly or explicitly to your own aesthetic inclinations and / or your experience as a performer.

Let me stress that I'm merely stating an overall impression as a scientist completely alien to the field, who nonetheless thinks that he is able to judge a scientific argument on the basis of its internal, formal logical coherence, irrespective of the ubject-matter.

Thomas Braatz wrote (December 1, 2005):
Eric Bergerud wrote:
>>I've never been able to track down a copy of Text and Act by famous (infamous) critic & musicologist Richard Taruskin. However, if I understand John Butt correctly in Playing with History this approach of Harnoncourt's is praised by Taruskin in contrast to other ensembles that attempt to "prettify and sanitize Bach's severe message in the Sacred Music". Can anyone out there verify or refute this?<<
On pp. 193-4 of Butt's "Playing with History", he speaks about this as follows:

"The desire for cleanness, consistency and accuracy has been described as a modernist strain within HIP, and as such is central to Taruskin's critique....The 'European' model of 'distressed' resotration is also common in America, such as at Colonial Williamsburg, and is equally strong within HIP from the earliest years of the movement as a large-scale recording phenomenon. In the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt complete recording of Bach cantatas, Harnoncourt, in particular, capitalized on the unfamiliarity of the old instruments and the players' relative lack of experience (together with the boys' voices and their lack of a fully formed adult technique) to produce a version of Bach that seemed to restore the wear and tear of history. We hear the works afresh in a version that is, literally, 'distressed', both evoking a foreign past and implying the patina of age. As performers become more skilled, the 'rough and ready' approach to HIP has somewhat receded, but the spirit of 'distressed' restoration (as opposed to 'clean' modern restoration) lives on in those performers who have cultivated improvisation or creative departures from musical texts that were once considered inviolable - what Taruskin would perhaps describe as the 'crooked' performers.

From footnote 32 on p. 220:
Butt summarizes the Harnoncourt approach as contained in Harnoncourt's "Baroque Music Today:Music as Speech", pp. 87-8:

>>One of Harnoncourt's central points about the HIP movement is that it should counteract our enculturated view of music as 'merely' beautiful: 'In some contexts, only the "ugly" sound intended by the composer can render the truth of a musical statement.'<<

This is essentially the thought which I presented in my translation yesterday from the original version of Harnoncourt's book.

Major points which bear closer examination are some of the following:

1. Bach, as a composer, intended and 'built into' his scores "ugly" sounds which a conductor and his performance group need to render as such.

2. "distressed", "rough and ready" performances

3. Capitalizing upon the players' unfamiliarity with their instruments or the boy singers' lack of adult technique

4. a deliberate attempt to restore the 'wearand tear' of music in performance

5. allowing the performer to have free reign over Bach's indications to the contrary

From Taruskin's "Text & Act" p. 311

In reference to the Bach cantata series, Taruskin states:

"Mr. Harnoncourt's style has taken on attributes that "performance practice" alone could never have vouchsafed. They can only have come from those "contemptible" Lutheran texts and their unaccommodating polemic. His increasingly hortatory and unbeautiful way of performing Bach reached a peak about halfway through the series, and the intervening decade has done nothing to lessen its power to shock -- or disgust. If you seek contact with the essential Bach at full hideous strength, Mr. Harnoncourt's performances remain the only place to go."

p. 312-3:

"...in Volume 41, released in 1988, the essential Bach speaks through Mr. Harnoncourt with a special vehemence. Cantata BWV 178, "Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält", begins with a French overture straight from hell, a portrait of a world without God in which (as Dostoyevsky later noted) all things are possible and there is no hope. Mr. Harnoncourt applies to the dotted rhythms the awful Gnashville sound he has gradually developed for such occasions, the strings of the Concentus Musicus hurling their bows at their instruments from a great height, producing as much scratch as tone.

The "chorale-recitative" that follows illustrates the futility of human effort with a bass that is continually and arbitrarily disrupted. It is played with greatly exaggerated dynamics to underscore -- needlessly, most proper authenticists would insist -- the bare message of the notes. After an aria depicting a Satan-engineered shipwreck with nauseous melismas and a chorale verse evoking persecution with a crowd of claustrophobically close and syncopated imitations, we reach the heart of the cantata.

A glossed chorale verse about raging beasts finally dispenses with word-painting, which depends on mechanisms of wit and can be taken as humor. It harks back instead to the wellsprings of the Baroque in grossly exaggerated speech contours, something akin to wild gesticulation.

Now Bach the anti-Enlightener comes into his own, with a frantic tenor aria, "Shut up, stumbling Reason!" ("Schweig nur, taumelnde Vernunft!"). Past the first line the message of the text is one of comfort: "To them who trust in Jesus ever, the Door of Mercy closes never," to quote the doggerel translation in the program booklet. But Bach is fixated on that fierce and derisive opening line -- indeed, on just the opening word. Out of it he builds practically the whole first section of his da capo aria, crowding all the rest into a cursory and soon superseded middle. Over and over the tenor shrieks, "Schweig nur, schweig!", leaping now a sixth, now a seventh, now an octave. Meanwhile, the accompanying orchestra, reason's surrogate, reels and lurches violently.

This is not for you, Dr. Burney. Hands off, Maestro Norrington. There is no way this music can ever be fun. In fact, it is terrifying -- perhaps more now than in Bach's own time, since we have greater reason than Bach's contemporaries ever had to wince at the sound of a high-pitched German voice stridently shouting reason down."

Douglas Cowling wrote (December 2, 2005):
Eric Bergerud wrote:
< However, he may have a point about some of Bach's works. A few of the cantatas are pretty strong medicine, and maybe "beauty" wasn't the real goal for all of the cantatas. I will let those qualified fight out the question of what Bach intended and how he intended to put it into practice. >
Bach certainly knew how to produce "shock and awe" effects: the shout of "Barrabam" still makes listeners jump in their seats.

Eric Bergerud wrote (December 2, 2005):
[To Thomas Braatz] Thankee for Mr. Braatz for doing the legwork I couldn't. Taruskin is a modernist (or post-modernist, or post-post modernist: take your pick) of course and appears like many of the breed to be searching for meaning in a godless universe. Tsk tsk: does tug at the heart strings.

However, he may have a point about some of Bach's works. A few of the cantatas are pretty strong medicine, and maybe "beauty" wasn't the real goal for all of the cantatas. I will let those qualified fight out the question of what Bach intended and how he intended to put it into practice. That said, there have been times when I've listened to, for instance, a Koopman performance and, although admiring it's musical polish, thinking that somehow the conductor had missed the point. Kinda hard to deliver the message of "do the right thing or spend eternity in hell" accompanied by a pretty tune. (Compare this with an appreciation of Mozart's religious works which I like a whole bunch. Mozart couldn't write a somber note if someone put a gun to his head - his masses and vespers all sound like operas. Maybe that's why I don't really like the Requiem very much, it's just out of character.)

This is not the case for all of the cantatas by any means. I can't judge Taruskin as a musicologist, but I'm not sure he's got his history quite right. Although I don't want to simplify a complex subject, I think it's safe to say that the Protestant faiths were "mellowing" by the 18th Century - putting a greater stress on God's love than "hell-fire." Even Jonathan Edwards (a brilliant figure in his own right who ironically affirmed free will - some Puritan) was pretty tame when compared to Calvin or Luther. Someone searching for "hideous strength" in Bach's church works would often be looking for the wrong item in the wrong place.

Nils Lid Hjort wrote (December 2, 2005):
ugly vs beautiful, scared vs impressed

[To Eric Bergerud] Re Eric Bergerud's comments to "ugly versus beautiful", and his claim that Mozart couldn't write a somber note, not even with the proverbial gun to his head:

" When you sing/listen to Verdi's Requiem, you are impressed. When you sing/listen to Mozart's Requiem, you are scared to death. "

[Uttered by the conductor Terje Kvam of the Oslo Cathedral Choir, ten minutes before a memorable performance of the Mozart, at 24:00 on January 31 1991, i.e. precisely 200 years after Mozart's death (and with half the Norwegian cabinet ministers in the audience). I found and find myself agreeing with Kvam. That is, I do find myself able to be seriously scared by e.g. "Dies Irae", and I'm not similarly scared of Verdi.

To make this somewhat more on-topic for the BCML, one might ask which parts of which cantatas have the power to make one "seriously scared", i.e. through the strong intention to achieve this by the composer. "Barrabam!" would be one example, outside the cantatas.]

Alain Bruguieres wrote (December 2, 2005):
< one might ask which parts of which cantatas have the power to make one "seriously scared", i.e. through the strong intention to achieve this by the composer. >
The first example which comes to my mind is the opening chorus of BWV 101. The recitative 'Ach, soll nicht dieser große Tag, / Der Welt Verfall...' also, on a diminutive scale, especially by contrast with the euphorizing previous aria, 'Hebt euer Haupt empor, ...'.

On the whole Bach is not 'gore'.

I wonder what others will pick, the question is so subjective!

By the way it was a good idea to question the etymology of 'HIP'. I vote against this silly terminology, too.

Alain Bruguieres wrote (December 2, 2005):
I forgot to say that the recitative and the previous aria are from BWV 70, but you all know it of course.

Eric Bergerud wrote (December 2, 2005):
[To Nils Lid Hjort] Do I get off the hook by pointing out that when playing the Requiem the conductor has to decide how much of the music was composed by Mozart and how much by an undistinguished student named Franz Sussmayr? (The notes to Hogwood's wonderful performance speculate that Sussmayr got the job only because the more able of Mozart's pupils found the task either daunting or unrewarding. Hogwood believed that so much of the work was Sussmayr's that he decided to jettison what didn't makthe grade as genuine Mozart. Consequently Hogwood treated the work like a "torso.") Yet it's pretty strong stuff, I admit. But Mozart was a genius who liked money and if someone paid him to write something somber I guess he could. But I'd still argue that something like "Exsultate jubilate" was more typical of Mozart's sacred music and that piece makes you want to skip rope.

I can't say that fear is an emotion that music generates in me. As we discussed a few months back, not many of Bach's librettos would be remembered without the music that accompanied them. That said the music is so sublime that it certainly invites some very serious thought. (As I have admitted previously, I do not normally listen to a Bach cantata with score in hand, contemplating the fine points of the music or theology. For a starter music as complex as that is over my head: I can look at it, but I don't really get it. I can read music at a basic level mind you, but reading and understanding aren't the same. Bach simply astounds.) The core of Bach does deal with the core of Christianity: sin, redemption, death and eternal life. And damnation. That's a powerful brew for a somewhat shaky believer with a long time fascination in theology such as yours truly. (A sweet combination is to go back to some of Jonathan Edward's great writings after a Bach warm-up. Edwards was probably the most famous American before Franklin - Dr. Johnson was a fan. Even Perry Miller, one of the greatest historians of the century and a self-described "card carrying atheist" considered Edwards a towering genius.)

Does this generate fear? Well....it's pretty hard not to ruminate over mortality if one listens deeply to almost any of Bach's cantatas. I think it's no accident that some of his greatest works can only be described as "bittersweet." For instance, 106 is a work of staggering beauty, but it won't make anyone want to skip rope. I suppose some of instrumental works are joyful affairs, but when I think of a great Bach instrumental works it would be Musical Offering or something similar. That man was deep.

John Pike wrote (December 2, 2005):
Eric Bergerud wrote:
< Mozart couldn't write a somber note if someone put a gun to his head >
This statement seems to stand on its own, or are you referring to the religious choral music only? I grant that the requiem can sound a bit operatic, but you can surely not be serious if the comment refers to Mozart's music as a whole. What about the violin and piano sonata in E minor, K. 304 (an early work), the C minor and D minor piano concertos, the D minor string quartet, K. 421, the G minor string quintet, the symphony no. 40 in G minor, the Adagio and Fugue in C minor for strings, some of the solo piano music in minor keys (eg A minor and C minor) and the serious bits in D minor from Don Giovanni, just for starters? And the sombreness never lies far below the surface in a lot of Mozart's music in major keys....some of it so tender, desolate and beautiful.

John Reese wrote (December 2, 2005):
[To John Pike] How about the Kyrie, K. 341? This seems to indicate that Mozart was definitely headed in a more somber direction with his sacred music.

The fact that most of Mozart's sacred music was light and fluffy may be due to the fact that most of it was written in his early years. I think his discovery of Bach may have altered his thinking in this area a great deal.

(Like how I worked Bach in there?)

Neil Halliday wrote (December 2, 2005):
Alain Bruguieres wrote:
< The first example which comes to my mind is the opening chorus of BWV 101.>
Yes, a good example, especially if the trombones doubling the lower voices are well recorded.

Rilling is vigorous, perhaps too much so, because we need something besides vigour.

Surprisingly, Koopman has the tempo I was looking for, but this performance sounds rather gentlemanly. I can only hear the first bar of the choir in the sample - does he have trombones?

Ansermet, recorded not long before he died around 85 years of age in 1969, with a tempo the same as that later adopted by Koopman(!), has the trombone sound that impresses (and is scary at the same time); the only drawback is the somewhat insistent semi-staccato treatment of the continuo, but this is definitely the most impressively ominous performance I have heard.

Another chorus with hair-raising trombones is BWV 25/1: "There is nothing of health in my body".

Peter Bright wrote (December 2, 2005):
[To Nils Lid Hjort] Just as an aside, in today's (2 December) Guardian newspaper (UK), there is an absolutely demonic recent photo of Harnoncourt conducting - this really has to be seen to be believed... BTW, his new disc of Verdi's requiem gets a very good write up...

Santu de Silva wrote (December 2, 2005):
Fascinating! I am in awe of the articulateness of this man (Butt). Thanks for Tom Braatz for presenting this excerpt from Eric Bergerud's questions, and of Butt's quote of Taruskin, etc.

Butt:

"The desire for cleanness, consistency and accuracy has been described as a modernist strain within HIP, and as such is central to Taruskin's critique....The 'European' model of 'distressed' resotration is also common in America, such as at Colonial Williamsburg, and is equally strong within HIP from the earliest years of the movement as a large-scale recording phenomenon. In the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt complete recording of Bach cantatas, Harnoncourt, in particular, capitalized on the unfamiliarity of the old instruments and the players' relative lack of experience (together with the boys' voices and their lack of a fully formed adult technique) to produce a version of Bach that seemed to restore the wear and tear of history. We hear the works afresh in a version that is, literally, 'distressed', both evoking a foreign past and implying the patina of age."

There may be some truth in this, but I'm not ready to accept this as an axiom. Still, it is something on which we can hang our perceptions of both particular performances, and our satisfaction in them. At one time, I must say, I was attracted by the contrast
between Harnoncourt's recordings, and the too-smooth recordings available in the fifties. But I'm not quite ready - - and may never be ready - - to state that that was the only attraction.

Later, Mr Butt continues:

". . . As performers become more skilled, the 'rough and ready' approach to HIP has somewhat receded, but the spirit of 'distressed' restoration (as opposed to 'clean' modern restoration) lives on . . ."

Now we come to one issue that I am concerned with.

What is a 'clean' modern restoration?

I suggest that John Eliott Gardiner's Monteverdi Choir performances could be considered extreme examples of such.

In many ways, what we see in Colonial Williamsburg are folk living in a demonstration of colonial life, but with all the benefits of modern hygiene and medicine, to say nothing of laundry aids and louse medicine. We see nothing of the constant scratching of the heads, the various illnesses that so colored existence in those times. To be 'clean' today means something quite different from what it meant to be clean back then. (I remember someone else saying the same thing: my apologies for plagiarising them! I also realize that I'm conflating two meanings of the term "clean", but the meanings are arguably related.)

In the same sense, the inevitable consequence of listening to music on records has resulted in higher standards of intonation and sound quality than could have been achieved 250 years ago. Is a 'Clean Modern Restoration' what is best for this music?

A clean modern restoration of Williamsburg, at least in terms of the lives of the resident actors, is the only acceptable thing. In contrast, a Clean Modern restored performance of Bach simply tends to turn me off. Nor do I insist on a Harnoncourt-style 'distressed' performance at its most extreme. We need a middle ground, and such performers as Leusink, and even Harnoncourt/Leonard on good days, as well as Harry Christophers/Sixteen, provide good, clean performances, without the chromium-steel, laser-cannon perfectionof - - you know who I mean.

As to ugly sounds, I think most of us have a tolerance for them; we should be able to accommodate them just as we accommodate the excesses of such performers as Anne Sophie Mutter, and even enjoy them. And I can enjoy the rounded-out sounds in which the ugliness has been filtered out. And even something in-between.

Douglas Cowling wrote (December 2, 2005):
John Reese wrote:
< The fact that most of Mozart's sacred music was light and fluffy may be due to the fact that most of it was written in his early years. I think his discovery of Bach may have altered his thinking in this area a great deal. >
Don't forget the wonderful neo-Bachian chorale-prelude on "Ach Gott Vom Himmel" which the Two Armed Men sing in "Magic Flute".

Douglas Cowling wrote (December 2, 2005):
Eric Bergerud wrote:
< But Mozart was a genius who liked money and if someone paid him to write something somber I guess he could. But I'd still argue that something like "Exsultate jubilate" was more typical of Mozart's sacred music and that piece makes you want to skip rope. >
And Bach was a noble Byronic composer writing for art's sake? He wrote a small number of cantatas before Leipzig because he wasn't paid to do so. He wrote an enormous number of cantatas when he went to Leipzig because the new job required them. When he had finished his annual cycles he more or less ceased to write cantatas. He was as much a commercial composer as Mozart. And if you want to skip rope, let's put on the duet, "Wir Eilen" from Cantata BWV 78. Frankly, "Exultate Jubilate" is practically a sister work to the diva turn in "Jauchzet Gott in Allen Landen" (BWV 51). It's just bad history to make Mozart a friviolous, obescenity-spouting buffoon and Bach a sombre, bible-clasping prig.

John Pike wrote (December 2, 2005):
[To Santu de Silva] The Butt quotations were indeed most interesting and I agreed with them, but I am not sure who "chromium-steel, laser-cannon perfection" refers to, and I have a very great respect for Anne Sophie Mutter. Her earlier recording of the Brahms concerto is one of my favourites. I think she gets the mood of each movement very well. There are no excesses in the beautiful slow movement and she saves the fireworks for the last movement, where they belong.

Santu de Silva wrote (December 2, 2005):
John Pike wrote:
< The Butt quotations were indeed most interesting and I agreed with them, but I am not sure who "chromium-steel, laser-cannon perfection" refers to >

John Eliott Gardiner.

[Again, I must qualify; some of his work is very beautiful. The "Tief geb*ckt und voller reue" aria with Magdalena Kozena (BWV 199) was performed with such tenderness that it overcame the chromium steel. And Gardiner's B minor mass is (BWV 232) still the one I listen to most.

But in the vast majority of instances, I see Gardiner, not Bach, in my mind's eye when I listen to these recordings. With Harnoncourt - -perhaps because of the "distressed" effect- -I imagine Bach, despite Harnoncourt's very assertive personality.]

John Pike wrote (December 2, 2005):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< He wrote an enormous number of cantatas when he went to Leipzig because the new job required them. When he had finished his annual cycles he more or less ceased to write cantatas. He was as much a commercial composer as Mozart. >
Indeed. There's a lot of well known evidence that Bach thought a great deal about money, such as when he complained that the good weather in Leipzig had caused fewer deaths and so less money from funerals (in the medical profession, we refer to the money we are paid for completing cremation papers as "Ash Cash"). He also made money later on from trading in musical instruments and acting as an agent for selling sheet music (Wolff has quite a lot on this in his book: "JS Bach, The Learned Musician").

Douglas Cowling wrote (December 2, 2005):
[To John Pike] As well as selling librettos for the Sunday cantatas.

Douglas Cowling wrote (December 2, 2005):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< And Bach was a noble Byronic composer writing for art's sake? He wrote a small number of cantatas before Leipzig because he wasn't paid to do so. He wrote an enormous number of cantatas when he went to Leipzig because the new job required them. When he had finished his annual cycles he more or less ceased to write cantatas. He was as much a commercial composer as Mozart. And if you want to skip rope, let's put on the duet, "Wir Eilen" from Cantata BWV 78. Frankly, "Exultate Jubilate" is practically a sister work to the diva turn in "Jauchzet Gott in Allen Landen" (BWV 51). It's just bad history to make Mozart a friviolous, obescenity-spouting buffoon and Bach a sombre, bible-clasping prig. >
Ouch. I am a great Mozart fan. And I've read Wolf and others on Bach too. The point I was making perhaps dealt as much with epoch as with the individual. Artists cannot escape their era although a few, like Bach and Mozart, can transcend it. I do think it's safe to say that in Mozart's time elegance was at a premium. Mozart also composed during the late Enlightenment, an era that, for better or worse, spawned the notion of "progress." When the great art historian Kenneth Clark did his marvelous television series Civilization for the BBC a generation back, he entitled the episode dealing with the mature Enlightenment as "The Smile of Reason." Clark also chose Mozart as the musical embodiment of the era (perhaps to set up the use of Beethoven as a cultural sound-track for the tumult of the Romanticism which Clark correctly sees as the genesis for 20th century political utopian movements.) Many of those that made up Mozart's audience were, secretly perhaps, reading works like Candide. This wasn't a great period to dwell on doom and gloom - unless, of course, you were composing operas about ancient Greeks.

It isn't easy to use words to describe the emotive power of music. I'd certainly grant that Mozart could pen melancholy notes as well as anyone. (How about the adagio of the clarinet concerto or third part of the Grand Partita?) But "somber" is still not a word I'd use when describing Mozart. And I certainly grant that Bach created lovely melodies in prodigious numbers. How many works from any era are as simply pretty as "Sheep May Safely Graze?" I certainly wasn't trying to comment on either man's character. If Peter Gay, one of Mozart's latest biographers (and another genuinely great scholar) has it right, Mozart's later life was deeply troubled for reasons that are hard to analyze. (Gay argues that Mozart's constant money problems and often painful personal troubles reflected deeper problems: of course Gay also wrote a major biography of Freud.) On what we do know of Bach's life, I think one could rationally argue that he was the happier and better adjusted of the two. Bach apparently had a solid family life, the respect of his peers and students, and the friendship of the musical and intellectual elite of Leipzig. For the time, Bach lived a comfortable life and he didn't have to degrade himself every other week to beg for money. And if death visited the Bach household with startling frequency, he lived in a period that still maintained the psychological support mechanism that was purposefully designed to help in bearing grief. As for making money, Luther had repudiated the cult of poverty that, in theory, was held by Mother Church. Indeed, tending to the material wants of the family was considered the duty of a good Christian in most Protestant circles. (See Max Weber for the details.) Nor was it improper to down a beer with one's pals as long as it didn't get in the way of what was important. (I never thought of Bach as a "bible-claspinprig", but I'm not sure he would have approved of Anna Magdelana going off by her self to the spa for some relaxation and the discrete affair as Constanze apparantly did on occasion. Nor am I sure that Bach did much chasing after sopranos as Mozart was rumored to have done now and then.)

As much as I love Mozart what I don't find in his work is the "weight" that characterizes Bach at his best. Perhaps the era of Emperor Joseph didn't call for it. Look at Don Giovanni. The protagonist is ruthless philanderer who simply can't get enough of the ladies. His excess leads him straight to hell - literally. Yet included in the Don's story are some of the funniest scenes in the history of opera, especially Leporello's history of the Don's conquests. Side splitting stuff. Bach has lovely moments aplenty, and some of his secular cantatas display a sharp wit, but I can't recall getting a belly laugh from Bach. And did Bach compose anything like Mozart's lovely Divertimentos - music specifically designed to be pretty background noise? I'll stand corrected, but it strikes me that Bach's music cries for attention. In any case, it's quite a long road musically from the SMP (BWV 244) to the Don. That observation is made without making value judgements concerning the lives of two of our greatest artists.

 

Continue on Part 8

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
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