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Robert Shaw
Bach Cantatas & Other Vocal Works
General Discussions

Bach and Robert Shaw

Brach Jennings wrote (January 25, 2009):
Today is the tenth anniversary of Robert Shaw's death, and in honor of him, I was wondering what everyone thought about his Bach performances. For me, his 1960 B Minor Mass (BWV 232) remains my favorite performance of that work. Also, I find his 1958 BWV 4 to have a lot of emotional depth and spiritual understanding that sometimes is not present in other recordings, even though Shaw does permit a fair amount of vibrato from the choir.

What does everyone else think?

Aryeh Oron wrote (January 25, 2009):
[To Brach Jennings] About 5 years ago, I wrote a comparative review of the opening and concluding movements of 11 early recordings of the Mass in B minor BWV 232, including Shaw's 2nd (1960).

I wrote about Shaw:
"Robert Shaw's second recording of the MBM (his first has long been unavailable in any form) is the most impressive rendition regarding the quality of playing and singing. This man knew exactly what he wanted to get at and was successful in achieving his goal. Everything sounds so right in this rendition in both the Kyrie eleison and the Dona nobis pacem: the tempi, the size of the choir, the structure, the atmosphere. This is the kind of rendition to which you want to listen again and again."

I am not familiar with his recording of Cantata BWV 4. AFAIK, It has never been released in CD form.

Robert Shaw's recordings of Bach's vocal works are listed at:

William Hoffman wrote (January 26, 2009):
I had the fortune of hearing Shaw present the SJP, March 11, 1962 on a Northeast U.S. tour with the Robert Shaw Chorale at Washington's Constitution Hall. It was done with the prescribed instruments and in Henry Drinker's English translation. Paul Hume's review was headlined: "Reverence Tends To Obscure Genius Of Bach's 'Passion'." I still have the RCA Victor recording (without booklet) and the 1962 program with full translation. I am still overwhelmed by his performance.

Enhancing this has been my opportunity to sing Beethoven's 9th which he guest conducted with the New Mexico Symphony in the late 1970s. It was a homecoming of sorts as he had worked previously with the conductor Yoshimi Takeda in Cleveland and the chorale director John Clark in Atlanta. I also interviewed Shaw at length for a newspaper feature. He was most gracious and thoughtful. Here are excerpts:

With Toscanini, Shaw's Chorale recorded one of the greatest performances of Beethoven's Choral Symphony. and Shaw doesn't mince words about whether the work is too difficult for singers. "It's not Beethoven who's too strong but some people who might be too weak."

Of his accomplishments with the Chorale, Shaw observed: "I don't want to sound terribly proud but we established standards of performance for baroque works and demonstrated their viable humanity. Taking Bach's 'B Minor Mass' to South America, Russia and all over the United States showed that it was not a dusty library piece but a human, communicating document.

A religion major in college, Shaw refuses to exploit his religious background when doing the great choral works. "The composer is the preacher, not the performer. It's important how the composer felt about the text. Bach was a witness, not to the event, but to its meaning to him."

(In the interview, I asked Shaw about his old recordings of the Bach SMP (BWV 244) and SJP (BWV 245). Off the record, he said that he still preferred to perform them in English with Drinker's translation. By then, most recordings were in German and Bernstein had already done an abridged version of the SMP (BWV 244) in English using the Drinker translation. He said he was content with the work he did in the Latin B-Minor Mass (BWV 232), which he treasured above all other Bach works for both its musical and religious significance.)

Of the great impact he has made, he modestly observes: "Music belongs to the people. That's why I spend so much time in education."

Bruce Simonson wrote (January 26, 2009):
William Hoffman wrote:
< I had the fortune of hearing Shaw present the SJP (BWV 245), March 11, 1962 on a Northeast U.S. tour with the Robert Shaw Chorale at Washington's Constitution Hall. >
Very interesting, this. A very good friend of mine, and an established soloist, John d'Armand, was a member of Shaw's chorus of 32 that toured the BMM in the early 1960's. John lives here in Juneau, and has a wealth of stories about that experience (he drove the bus for the tour, as I recall), and John continues to solo in our cantata concerts.

I've thought of inviting him to the list, especially, as I see the BMM (BWV 232) discussion moderator is still open, later this year. Maybe I can persuade John to take the lead, from a soloist's perspective? John is also an excellent teacher, and has a tremendous wit. He might get a kick out of it ...


Robert Shaw: Short Biography | Robert Shaw Chorale | RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra | Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Recordings of Vocal Works:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | General Discussions
Individual Recordings:
BWV 232 - R. Shaw | BWV 243 - R. Shaw | BWV 245 - R. Shaw

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