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Herbert von Karajan
Bach’s Vocal Works
General Discussions

Karajan admiration is not misplaced!

Steven Langley Guy = SLG
Teri Noel Towe = TNT
(February 13-15, 2002)

SLG: I can see that many people have warm and fuzzy feelings about the recordings of Landowska, Casals and, perhaps, even Beecham.

TNT: It has nothing to do with "warm and fuzzy feelings". It has everything to do with revelling in the charisma and the passion of the performances given by recreative artists who were geniuses, recreative artists whose engagement with the scores of creative geniuses resulted in listening experiences of such quality and conviction that they transcend and render moot any and all issues of "authenticity" or "textual accuracy".

SLG: But Herbert von Karajan?

TNT: Yes, Karajan! His 1950 Vienna Bach Festival performances of the B Minor Mass and the St. Matthew Passion and his spectacular interpretations of the Handel Concerti grossi, Op. 6, are "desert island" recordings for me.

SLG: I think that many will have been brought up on his recordings of 19th century music and, in particular, his recordings of the Beethoven symphonies. But I never liked his Bach even as a child - when I first heard them.

TNT: You certainly were entitled not to like those performances when you heard then, and you are entitled not to like the same performances now.

SLG: I guess that these were made at a time when conductors were expected to record all the major repertoire and the Brandenburg concerti and the B minor mass were fair game for any famous conductor.

TNT: It was a time when conductors had not yet been intimidated, cowed, and browbeaten by the gang of Performance Practice Puritans, HIP-ocrites, cultural fascists, and self-appointed guardians of our musical morals, into abandoning whole segments of the repertory to which they are as entitled as any other musician.

SLG: Karajan's Brandenburg's are a real example of how the details of Bach's scores got trashed in older recordings.

TNT: Really? It has been some time since I have listened to either of his complete recordings of the Brandenburgs, I admit, but I have always had a fondness for the second set, the one that was released in 1980. (I find it is hard to believe that it is 22 years since I gave the American broadcast premiere of those recordings on my WBAI radio show!) William Tim Read, who flew to Europe at Karajan's request expressly to record the 5th Brandenburg, gives one of the truly great harpsichord performances of the 65 bar cadenza, and, if my recollection is correct, No. 3 is one instrument to each part. The problem with many of Karajan's later recordings, of Bach and other composers, is the artificial nature of the recorded sound. One of the truly unsatisfying Karajan performances is his recording of the Magnificat. The balances are best described as "weird". By that stage in his career, Karajan was so potent a force that they couldn't keep him from tampering with the balances and the sound.

SLG: For many, in those days, the inclusion of a harpsichord in the ensemble was as much 'authenticity' as anyone expected or could understand.

TNT: There is no law that says, as you imply, that a performance has to "authentic" to be valid.

If that were the case, you would have to take Bach to task for playing Frescobaldi on the organ of the Himmelsburg in Weimar or on his big Harrass double manual harpsichord. You would have to scold Beethoven for thrilling listeners with Preludes and Fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier on the fortepiano, and chastize Chopin for playing Scarlatti on his Erard.

To be valid, a performance must move the listener. Nothing more and nothing less.

SLG: Of course, today music lovers are more sophisticated and would expect a lot more awareness from an orchestra - even one using traditional modern (well, C20, at least) instruments.

TNT: I beg to differ. If audiences will swallow, hook, line, and sinker, as I saw one do several weeks ago when I went to hear Andreas Scholl and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, performances of "orchestral" works by Bach and Corelli that were tossed off in a totally "faux" neo-authentic fashion that reeked of the slapdash and stank of total ignorance of Affect and the rules of embellishment, they will cheer for anything. And that Scholl, an HIP icon and a superb singer, would pander to that audience with those ghastly Dmitri Tiomkinesque folk song arrangements that he sang that night, shamelessly promoting that gruesome cross-over record that he recently had made, is cogent evidence of the widespread moral emptiness and hypocrisy within the HIP movement and is proof positive of the total lack of sophisitication, taste, and essential knowledge of the majority of the listeners who paid as much as $95 for a single seat.

SLG: For my money, Karl Richter was far better bet than Herbert von Karajan in Bach or Handel - even though Richter's recordings do fall into many of the traps that musicians and conductors fell into before more research was done. (His trumpets are far too loud, for instance)

TNT: Richter's trumpets were too loud? Certainly not for performances by the forces of the magnitude that Richter customarily employed. The Munich Bach Choir was usually about 80 members strong.

I shall never, ever forget the visceral thrill of a performance of Singet dem Herrn ein Neues Lied -- sung a capella by a professional chorus of 36 -- that Karl Richter conducted in Avery Fisher Hall in 1980. HIP? No! Authentic? No! Compelling and convincing? Yes!

SLG: I don't really feel any nostalgia for the older recordings of Baroque music - they can be interesting but only as a way of hearing how far we have come in the interpretation of this music.

TNT: Nostalgia has nothing to do with it, except in the sense of a woolly mammoth like me longing for the occasional live performance of the 6th Brandenburg Concerto played by a batallion of violas, 'cellos, and double basses. The performances of Casals, Landowska, Beecham, Karajan, Tureck, Dupre, and, oh, so many others are much more than interesting, believe me. They are powerful statements, monuments of and to genius. Theirs are performances so inspired that they are taken on their own terms, pure and simple.

SLG: I like to listen to Sir Charles Mackerras' recordings of 'Saul', 'Israel in Egypt' and 'Hail Bright, Cecilia' occasionally.

TNT: For once, we agree on something. And remember that Sir Charles was in the vanguard of the movement to record "early music" in accurate editions and with instruments that, at the least, approximated the instruments that the composers would have recognized. Don't forget that Mackerras's was the first recording of Messiah to include a significant number of alternate versions and also the first commercial recording to feature a countertenor soloist.

SLG: I am not a rich man and I like to spend my money of good modern recordings which take into account what is known about Baroque music and use the instruments that the composer expected.

TNT: I have lived throuigh too many HIP fads, alas, to be have much confidence in the day to day. month to month, year to year accuracy of "what is known about Baroque music".

SLG: I wouldn't want to hear Shostakovich's 24 Preludes & Fugues played on the harpsichord because they were not written for this instrument.

TNT: Do you mean to tell me that you are denying yourself the joy of Skip Sempe and Olivier Fortin playing the Buxtehude Passacaglia in D Minor in their arrangement for two harpsichords merely because Buxtehude wrote the Passacaglia for organ? Do you mean to tell me that you are not going to listen to Frans Brüggen play Bach 'Cello Suites on the alto recorder merely because Bach did not indicate that such an alternate instrumentation was authorized?

My goodness, that is indeed a narrow, inflexible, and authoritarian position to take! You are missing out on a lot of great stuff!

And, as far as the Shostakovitch 24 Preludes and Fugues on the harpsichord is concerned, for me it would depend on the harpsichordist and the instrument on which he or she chose toplay. I now even more regret the recent death of my good friend Igor Kipnis. I would have copied Igor in on this e-mail and asked for his opinion about which of the Preludes and Fugues might be playable on the harpsichord and what kind of instrument he would have chosen to play them on. And I doubt that Shostakovitch would have had a problem with it, either. After all, there is a recording of him playing one of the pianos in a concert performance of the Bach Concerto in D Minor for Three Claviers, BWV 1063, and he made most unusual and delightfully sardonic arrangements of Scarlatti Sonatas.

SLG: I agree that it might be an interesting experiment but that is all it would be.

TNT: No, it would depend on the quality of the performance. Regardless of the instrument, is the performance good music making, does it inspire the listener?

SLG: Schütz and Gabrieli played by modern brass ensembles does [not] really tell us very much about the music other that than give us a basic idea about the structure of the music and the order of the notes.

TNT: Once again, it depends on the quality of the performance and the sincerity of the music making.

SLG: How can a modern orchestra play Monteverdi, Bertali, Biber, Tolar, Lully, Rameau, Schmelzer, Cavalli, Rosenmüller, Charpentier, Schütz, Buxtehude or Gabrieli without some sort of compromised or 'half-baked' HIP anyway?

TNT: Very easily, funnily enough. The modern orchestra plays the music essentially as written on the instruments that are the nearest modern equivalents, and it avoids like the clicheed plague the kind of "pseudo authentic" trappings and "neo Baroque" claptrap that made those Orpheus performances of Corelli and Bach in early December so shallow, so gutless, so cynically insincere.

SLG: The moment you include a harpsichord or lute or start to realise the continuo you've started down the path of Historically Informed Performance!

TNT: Perhaps, but most take only a couple of halting steps down the path or flagrantly violate the rules of the road as they barrel down it!

SLG: We are faced with the questions - how much do we care about this music and how can we make it live with grace, style and colour in our time?

TNT: We can make it live with grace, style, and color in our time in any different ways, and we do not need any form of cultural police to tell us what rules and regulations we must follow in order to make it live with grace, style, and color in our time.

SLG: Are we willing to do the work and research to make this music live in a way that is congruent with what we know about the time of its

TNT: I certainly hope so, and I fervently wish that more HIP advocates would stop to consider the implications of the undeniable reality that the basic principles of performance practice on "modern instruments" changed radically and that it changed radically during the 1920s and 1930s. More HIP advocates need to read Robert Philip's Early Recordings and Musical Style and then stop and carefully consider the implications of Prof. Philip's researches. Those implications have the potential of shaking the very foundations of HIP as we know it, for the house may well be built upon the shifting sands.

SLG: If we get lazy and say "What the hell! Anything goes in Baroque music!" Then we lose the impetus to strive for better and higher standard recordings on period instruments.

TNT: That conclusion does not follow. That's like saying that if anything goes in the preparation of pasta, we will lose the impetus to strive for new kinds of sauces.

SLG: It is clear that Universal doesn't really care about ARCHIV - they planned to absorb it into the DGG yellow label - while they heavily promote their new 20/21 label.

TNT: A rose by any other name. Who cares what color the label is so long as the recordings continue to come out? And, if the DG newsletter that I received this morning may be taken at its face value, the folks at Universal are still upholding the commitment to early music and are mining the back catalogue as well. For instance, the Karl Richter Bach "orchestral music" recordings that you alluded to (I find them pretty heavy going myself.) are scheduled for re-release in the next couple of months.

SLG: We need to encourage musicians to learn to play old instruments and stick with them - because there will be audiences waiting for them after all their hard work.

TNT: I hope that you are right, but, if some of the half to two-thirds full small halls that I have seen recently when I have gone to early music concerts are any indication, those audiences might not turn out to be there in the numbers that you and I are hoping for.

SLG: To be bitter and sarcastic about a movement that has captivated both performers and audiences around the world is counter-productive and ultimately damaging to the careers of musicians (like myself) and the music of the aforementioned composers.

TNT: There is nothing bitter and sarcastic about lampooning bad music making, exposing hypocrisy and inconsistency for all to see, and fighting the puritanism and the fascism that has infected the HIP movement like Dutch Elm Disease.

The only careers that will be damaged are the careers of second and third rate musicians who should be doing something else to begin with. And I assure you that I have always bristled when some HIP-ophobe says that the only reason people are playing period instruments is they can't make a living playing the contemporary ones. There are just as many bad musicians, per capita, playing "new" instruments as there are playing "old" ones.

SLG: I play the cornetto - an instrument that takes years and years of hard work to master. But the rewards are great - the cornetto is an inegral part of a large percentage of Renaissance and Baroque music. Many years ago there were very few skilled cornetto players around and those who did play this instrument were trumpeters using trumpet mouthpieces which substantially alters the sound. So much of the music of composers like Antonio Bertali, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer and H. I. F. Biber had to wait until there were players available who could perform this music on the right instruments - cornetti, dulcians, sackbuts, cornettini and mute cornetts.

TNT: I have long admired the unique tone of the cornetto, and I certainly am sensitive to the difference between its sound and that of the "modern" substitutes. In fact, I sang in what may well have been the first performance since Bach's own of O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht, BWV 118, in which a cornetto was used. I also have had the pleasure and privilege of numbering Don Smithers among my friends, and for more than 20 years. And we all know how important Don's work has been to the revival of the cornetto.

SLG: Do we seriously want to go back to the time when the music of these composers lived only on dusty library shelves or in vastly compromised or inferior performances?

TNT: We certainly do not want it to live only on dusty library shelves, but what constitutes a "vastly compromised or inferior performance" is something that will always be the subject of disagreement and dispute.

SLG: Sure, play Bach on banjos, synthesizers, steinways and Wagnerian orchestras, but let's make sure that people know that this is experimenting with the music and turning it into something else and is not what Bach expected or imagined or even could have imagined.

TNT: And we should also warn people that Bach's arrangement of the Stabat Mater is not what Pergolesi expected or imagined or even could have imagined.

SLG: I rest easy at night knowing that as we discover how wonderful the music of a composer like Johann Rosenmüller is, for instance - modern orchestras and modern instrument playing musicians have no inclination or interest in performing his music (that is, if they are even aware of it which I seriously doubt!) and they are content to leave this music to people like me!

TNT: Fortunately, that was not always so. Rosenmüller might still be living on those dusty library shelves of yours had it not be for such enterprising folks as Curt Sachand Claude Crussard. Here is a list of the Rosenmüller recordings that appeared on 78s and on early LPs:

The Sonata for 2 Violins, 'Cello, and Organ in E Minor was recorded by the Bastian String Trio and Herman Poddick, organ , for Kantorei (Catalogue No.: K-9) about 1932.

The same Sonata was recorded a couple of years later by Claude Crussard and her Ars Rediviva Ensemble. It is a string orchestra performance with a concertino, if you will, of two violins; both harpsichord and organ are used for the continuo. It was a Disque Gramophone release (Catalogue No.: DB-5064). It also appeared on Victor in the USA.

In 1935 or thereabouts, the eminent musicologist and early music specialist recorded a Suite in C Major, for string orchestra, for the Anthologie Sonore (Catalogue No.: AS-52). A suite from the J. C. F. Fischer Journal de Printemps is on the "flip" side.

In the early '50s, Helen Boatwright and the St. Thomas Church Choir, New Haven, recorded four Rosenmüller sacred cantatas. And yet another recording of that same E Minor Sonata was made, this time with flute and oboe as the "melody" instruments, rather than 2 violins.

Finally the Saxon State Collegium Musicum made a recording of the Suite No. 9 in C Minor from the StudentenMusik of 1654 for Urania.

SLG: We also live in a time when cultures are respected and I deeply respect the culture and technological achievements of the 17th and 18th centuries and the wisdom and ingenuity of the composers and instrument makers who lived in those centuries. I also respect the freedoms and limitations inherent in the music of this age and in any society or culture.

TNT: I do not have to, nor will I deign to, defend myself and my performance credo against the implications of that polemic.

For some people, the form is more important than the substance. I am not one of those. I wholeheartedly agree with the majority opinion from the United States Supreme Court in Helvering v. Horst, in which the Court held that it is the substance of the transaction that governs, not the form that it takes.

Substance is much more important than the form. In other words, what I have come to call Duke Ellington's Law is the paramount consideration: "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing."

SLG: "Purist"? A pejorative word used by someone who isn't fussy about Baroque music and how it is approached?

TNT: As my beloved Mother's childhood friend Tallulah Bankhead put it, "Darling, I am as pure as the driven slush!" {:-{)}

SLG: A 'philistine', perhaps?

TNT: Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

SLG: Steven Langley Guy

TNT: My best and my thanks always,

Teri Noel Towe, aka the HIP Woolly Mammoth, aka Mamusia's Ghost, aka The Laughing Cavalier, and formerly aka Clonidine Aspidistra, the Dowager Duchess of Wickford-upon-Narragansett {;-{)}

The art of the conductor versus critics

Hugo Saldias wrote (April 22, 2003):
We have talked a lot about why conductors do this?
Why they do not do this?

Here is a short passage from the book:the art of the conductor by Paul Robinson:

Page 112:

Too often the critics seem to misunderstand what a musical performance is all about... The interpretation of the music score differs from the one wich the critics HAVE GROWN ACCUSTOMED TO or\from one which, IN THEIR VIEW, is more in keeping with the composer's intentions. If the later is the case, then they MUST AT LEAST TELLS US WHY THEIR interpretation of the composer intentions is SUPERIOR to the conductor. The "facts" on which they base their criticisms are not facts AT ALL but SUBJECTIVE interpretations, and these requiere some justifications...

Some critics consider their interpretations better because, IN THEIR VIEW, they are stylistically more correct. But style is a highly contentious matter and permits greater FLEXIBILITY than most critics would have us believe...Beyond certain superficial features score indications forte, piano, etc. indicated by the composer DEPENDS AS MUCH ON A CONDUCTOR'S IMAGINATION AS ON HIS MUSICAL TASTE... Critics must find a firmer basis for their arguments if they would have us accept their judgements.

This lines are dedicated to all those who put ANY Bach Cantatas conductor down (most recent with several Thomaskantors) without taking into consideration that they are nurtured by the glorious Leipzig tradition of musical performance of Bach's music.

Herbert von Karajan: Short Biography | Wiener Singverein | Berliner Philharmoniker | Recordings | General Discusions | BWV 232 - Karajan | BWV 244 – Karajan

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