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HIP (Historically Informed Performance)
Part 16

Continue from Part 15

Period rehearsals

Continue of discussion from: Eric J. Milnes & Montreal Baroque - Bach Cantatas - General Discussions [Performers]

Doug Cowling wrote (July 16, 2005):
Chris Kern wrote:
< We know that many Baroque and Classical concerts and performances were done without rehearsals, but nobody considers that an essential part of HIP even though that would significantly alter the results. >
I'm hope you're not suggesting that those performances were sub-standard and sloppy because of lack of rehearsals. For good musicians playing every day in their contemporary style, there is every reason to believe that performances were at least competent. The papal choir in the Sistine Chapel was famous for its pride in being able to sight read new works in performance! Bach would never have written his music the way he did he thought a ten year old boy could not have sung it on three or four days' notice.

Thomas Braatz wrote (July 17, 2005):
Chris Kern wrote:
>>We know that many Baroque and Classical concerts and performances were done without rehearsals, but nobody considers that an essential part of HIP even though that would significantly alter the results.<<
Doug Cowling wrote:
>>I'm hope you're not suggesting that those performances were sub-standard and sloppy because of lack of rehearsals. For good musicians playing every day in their contemporary style, there is every reason to believe that performances were at least competent. The papal choir in the Sistine Chapel was famous for its pride in being able to sight read new works in performance! Bach would never have written his music the way he did he thought a ten year old boy could not have sung it on three or four days' notice.<<
Most likely the best boys were able to sing their parts extremely well at sight and with only one rehearsal (the one which served as a dress rehearsal as well) at the Saturday Prayer Services. It was the boys who were not as good and sang primarily the cantus firmus chorale parts in the introductory mvts. to the chorale cantatas and the simpler final chorales who benefited from additional practice of singing and practicing the chorale melodies throughout the week in school during their singing classes (usually not directed by Bach.)

Of course, Bach, like his predecessors in Leipzig, would have experienced years when the talent pool may not have lived up entirely to his expectations. During Bach's tenure in Leipzig, he experienced times when the selection of good boy singers was dwindling with little prospect of improvement; however, had the quality of performance deteriorated to the point that it would have been noticeable, there certainly would be contemporary reports that we could point to now. Kuhnau, Bach's immediate predecessor in Leipzig, personally reported that his first few years in Leipzig with the Thomanerchor were very difficult. As he comments, "the Thomanerchor had reached a very sad, low level of performance ability since the otherwise supporting university students who normally sang along in the cantata performances were all more interested in performing in Telemann's 'Singspiele' and with the 'Collegium musicum." [".der Thomanerchor hatte eine betrübliche niedrige Stufe der Leistungsfähigkeit erreicht: die früher hilfsbereiten Studenten suchten die Singspiele des Mons. Telemann oder sein Collegium musicum auf." - reported by Arnold Schering in his article "Über die Kirchenkantaten vorbachischer Thomaskantoren" in the Bach Journal (1912, p. 117.) It would appear that Bach never had difficulty recruiting and retaining good talent among university students and those who had graduated from St. Thomas School despite the complaints registered in the Entwurff where Bach essentially was pleading for more money to be granted to university students for their services rendered in performing the cantatas, etc. in church.

A very similar situation is true with HIP renditions of the tromba parts (particularly those known as 'Clarino' parts.) This has been discussed on this list numerous times and finds some listeners actually defending poor performances on these instruments (reconstructions of trombae) claiming that they were played and heard this way in Bach's time. The list of problematical flaws that are condoned by such listeners (and certainly the conductor and players involved) includes obvious wrong notes, intonation problems (the claim being that the player is using a special non-equal temperament and playing on a natural trumpet), unequal volume on the notes of a scale with some notes being very loud and other very soft and out of tune (the rather silly argument here being that Bach intentionally included certain notes not in the natural tone row of a natural trumpet (the tromba) so as to underline certain aspects of the text [word-painting as in BWV 77/5 where some experts even have claimed that such a part could not have been played cleanly/accurately by the likes of Gottfried Reiche and Ulrich Heinrich Ruhe under Bach's direction], and blaring attacks on certain notes.

Bach composed his music in such a way that it was eminently playable/singable by those whom he directed and certainly listenable without attacking the listener with uncouth sounds. D. Speer, in his "Grund-richtiger.Unterricht" [Ulm, 1697, p. 219] exhorts the would-be composer to avoid the tones on the tromba which might be too loud or too soft so that the listener, whether someone who understands music or not, would not get an earache from listening to these martyred semitones: "damit die Zuhörer, sie seyn Music-Verständige oder nicht, von solchen heraus gemarterten Semitonien den Ohren-Zwang nicht bekommen mögen: Denn es lassen sich ja wohl selbe noch zwingen, aber mit größter Mühe, und das gehöret vor rechte Künstler." The last part of this quote states that such difficult tones can be forced to come out [and still sound appropriately musical] with the greatest of effort, and that is something best left for true, expert trumpeters. Did Bach have such trumpeters at his disposal? Yes, as indicated above. Did he have to put up with some of the poor playing of trombae by HIP artists in performance, on CD and DVD as we do today? No. Trumpet specialists such as Friedemann Immer and Edward H. Tarr have agreed that all Bach's trumpet parts are playable on historic instruments (long trumpets using only the natural tone row - no valves, pistons, key holes, etc.) If the results that you hear played on such instruments do not always sound satisfactory, Immer and Tarr maintain, the fault lies not with Bach, not with the listener who does not understand what is possible, but rather with the present-day trumpeters who are still trying to learn how to master the true and difficult art of clarino playing. Jozsef Csiba, in his book, "Die Blechblasinstrumente in J. S. Bachs Werken" [Merseburger, Kassel, 1994] comes essentially to the same conclusion.

Summary Conclusion

1. Listeners should be wary of any claims and false arguments made by HIP practitioners (such as one made regarding the recorded Leusink cantata series that since he recorded all the cantatas within a short time frame, the imperfections in these recordings were understandable and comparable to what Bach was able to accomplish during his lifetime with at least weekly performances of new, different cantatas being the norm.)

2. HIP practitioners are 'setting their sights' too low and making excuses for their poor quality of playing when they express such thoughts or allow others to create such fiction such as 'actually Bach's own performances were not that good' or 'Bach intentionally made his music unsingable and unplayable in spots because he was attempting to express something in the text.'

3. Not having more than a single rehearsal of a cantata before the Sunday perforin both main churches in Leipzig, did not significantly affect the excellent quality of these performances under Bach's direction because he knew and insisted and relied upon the ability of his singers and players to sight-read their parts flawlessly and expressively at the same time.

Eric Bergerud wrote (July 17, 2005):
[To Thomas Braatz] As usual Mr. Braatz argues his case with well. However, I am not sure that the many musicologists that have argued that actual performance standards during the Baroque era might have been often low are wrong. There is an argument that Wolf makes that I've cited before on this list that I think requires attention. Wolf argues that the leitmotiv of Bach's career was the pursuit of "perfection." A perfect beauty, but a beauty not as understood in later years as moving the individual heart but as manifestation of natural order. Wolf also notes, "Bach's idea of musical perfection, as Birnbaum affirmed, included the goal of perfect execution. He was well aware, however, that performances, especially of larger ensemble works, would not necessarily match the degree of perfection represented in the musical composition." At Bach's urging Birnbaum elaborated in 1739: "It is true, one does not judge a composition principally and predominantly by the impression of its performance. But if such judgment, which indeed may be deceiving, is not to be considered, I see no other way of judging than to view the work as it has been set down in notes." (Epilogue, p. 470)

If Birnbaum's argument, as quoted by Wolf, is not an elegant way of saying "Bach's works would sound a lot better if they were played right" then I would like to know what it does mean. And let's not forget that whether one is considering the boys at St. Thomas or the volunteers from the University, Bach's music (outside of solo keyboard works) was played by amateurs even by baroque standards.

As for Leusink, I think his defenders are spot on. Unless the artists of the baroque had powers long lost by mortals in our time, it would stand to reason, I think, that a performance today that receives extensive rehearsal and then a full dose of digital editing is going to sound more "polished" than something that's out the barn door in a week. This will be double so if you kick the boys out and employ very experienced adult singers exclusively. I am describing the contemporary approach to cantata recording fairly I think. Perhaps such music ends in a place close to Bach's idea of ideal beauty. The music made by contemporary ensembles is certainly lovely to the ear. It does not, however, sound anything like what was produced in Leipzig 270 years ago. Perhaps that should be irrelevant. It isn't to me.

Ken Edmonds wrote (July 17, 2005):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
< Trumpet specialists such as Friedemann Immer and Edward H. Tarr have agreed that all Bach's trumpet parts are playable on historic instruments (long trumpets using only the natural tone row – no valves, pistons, key holes, etc.) If the results that you hear played on such instruments do not always sound satisfactory, Immer and Tarr maintain, the fault lies not with Bach, not with the listener who does not understand what is possible, but rather with the present-day trumpeters who are still trying to learn how to master the true and difficult art of clarino playing. >
And yet when Immer plays the Brandenburg concerto on the Baroque trumpet, he always plays with vent holes. [International Trumpet Guild Journal, May 1996]. He probably has performed that work more than any other trumpet player in history. (Over 200 times as of '96.) Also, when I saw him play the MBM (BWV 232) with Boston Baroque, he used a vented trumpet. So Immer must still need some work on that ventless natural trumpet in order to play those works. If I only had his 'deficiencies'.

Thomas Braatz wrote (July 17, 2005):
[To Ken Edmonds] Perhaps, after using modernized forms of trumpets (as in the Rilling Bach Cantata Series,) he has now been finally converted to a non-vented trumpet (with out the finger holes) since the statement that I quoted was from a symposium "Blechbläser-Praxis zur Bach-Zeit" held at the summer academy of the International Bachakademie in Stuttgart from Aug 28 to Aug 30, 1998. Immer and Tarr do refer specifically to the historical 'long' trombae using only the available "Naturtonreihe" [the tone 'row'/scale of the natural trumpet.]

Thomas Braatz wrote (July 17, 2005):
Eric Bergerud wrote:
>>And let's not forget that whether one is considering the boys at St. Thomas or the volunteers from the University, Bach's music (outside of solo keyboard works) was played by amateurs even by baroque standards.<<
Yes, amateurs like Telemann et al as I pointed out a few weeks ago at: http://launch.groups.yahoo.com/group/BachCantatas/message/14551

"There were highly talented musicians among the university students who were anything but 'amateurs': Telemann performed under Kuhnau's direction. as well as Melchior Hoffmann, Christoph Graupner, Johann David Heinichen, and Johann Georg Pisendel to name only a few 'amateurs' that Kuhnau could draw upon. Bach, likewise, had a talent pool of university students and graduates from St. Thomas School from which he could select only the best.<<

>>Perhaps such music [as performed and recorded by Leusink] ends in a place close to Bach's idea of ideal beauty.<<

This is certainly what they would want you to believe.

Ken Edmonds wrote (July 17, 2005):
[To Thomas Braatz] The Rilling series was completed by 1984 (I believe), a dozen years prior to the ITG article. The performance I saw him in the MBM (BWV 232) was in the spring of 1999, which was after the symposium you mentioned.

Robert Sherman wrote (July 17, 2005):
[To Ken Edmonds] Ken is right. I have yet to hear an in-tune trumpet performance by anyone that relied purely on the natural harmonics of a long-tube trumpet, without vents or valves. We'd all like to believe that what Bach heard was even, in-tune scales, but that doesn't make it so.

Among other things, consider that it's unavoidable physics that if you play the 11th harmonic right in the center, you are going to get a note between F and F#. Similarly, if you play the 7th harmonic right in the center you will get a flat Bb. So to get an in-tune F, F#, or Bb on an uncompensated trumpet you have to play off-center, and this makes the note weaker than those around it.

Today we accept the reality that, for example, players on the French horn are going to get more wrong notes than players on other instruments. We don't like it, we just live with it. It seems perfectly plausible that Bach's attitude toward trumpet evenness and intonation was similar.

Eric Bergerud wrote (July 17, 2005):
[To Thomas Braatz] Three things:

1. Is Mr. Braatz suggesting that day in day out Bach was able to employ some of Europe's best musicians at Leipzig? I think the examples cited, coming not from Bach's tenure regardless, were the exception rather than the rule. There must have been some reason for Telemann to find "greener grass" when he turned down the same position Bach accepted at Leipzig. Oh perhaps Bach was simply in a contrary mood when he wrote the famous Entwurf.

2. Although I am sure it was unintentional, Mr. Braatz managed to alter 180 degrees one of the points made in my last post. (Up, in other words, became down.) Here is Mr. Braatz's edited version of my post:
>>Perhaps such music [as performed and recorded by Leusink] ends in a place close to Bach's idea of ideal beauty.<<
< This is certainly what they would want you to believe. >

Here is what I did say:

As for Leusink, I think his defenders are spot on. Unless the artists of the baroque had powers lost by mortals in our time, it would stand to reason, I think, that a performance today that receives extensive rehearsal and then a full dose of digital editing is going to sound more "polished" than something that's out the barn door in a week. This will be double so if you kick the boys out and employ very experienced adult singers exclusively. I am describing the contemporary approach to cantata recording fairly I think. Perhaps such music ends in a place close to Bach's idea of ideal beauty. The music made by contemporary ensembles is certainly lovely to the ear. It does not, however, sound anything like what was produced in Leipzig 270 years ago.

Perhaps I should have been more specific, but I was describing not Leusink but Koopman, Suzuki or some of the other major ensembles active today. (I could hardly have been describing Leusink because he did not "kick out the boys" in his cycle.)

3. If I Birnbaum wrong - that he was pleading for Bach's works to be judged as they were written as opposed to how it they were performed - I would be most interested in enlightenment. The argument as I read it clearly indicates that Bach (Birnbaum, according to Wolf, was acting as JSB's direct spokesman) was not at all pleased with performance standards particularly his choral works (singled out). If the point raised by Wolf/Birnbaum is unimportant that would also be of interest. I make no pretense toward expertise in musicology, so perhaps I have read it wrong. I'm not sure it should be ignored however. Just for clarity's sake, here again is what Wolf wrote:

"Bach's idea of musical perfection, as Birnbaum affirmed, included the goal of perfect execution. He was well aware, however, that performances, especially of larger ensemble works, would not necessarily match the degree of perfection represented in the musical composition." At Bach's urging Birnbaum elaborated in 1739: "It is true, one does not judge a composition principally and predominantly by the impression of its performance. But if such judgment, which indeed may be deceiving, is not to be considered, I see no other way of judging than to view the work as it has been set down in notes." (Epilogue, p. 470)

Chris Kern wrote (July 17, 2005):
Doug Cowling wrote:
< I'm hope you're not suggesting that those performances were sub-standard and sloppy because of lack of rehearsals. >
That's not quite what I was saying -- I am under the impression that Baroque and Classical performances would have sounded less polished and probably in some cases sloppy, due to the lack of rehearsals. If this is indeed the case, I don't think that HIP must emulate that by not rehearsing before playing. It would, of course, be highly interesting to hear the music exactly as Bach heard it, but since this is an impossible goal I don't see any problem with picking and choosing.

Robert Sherman wrote (July 17, 2005):
[To Chris Kern] Not only impossible, but undesirable except as a matter of historical curiousity. Musical defects may be authentic but they're still musical defects.

Doug Cowling wrote (July 17, 2005):
[To Robert Sherman] There was a very interesting review in the New Yorker about a month ago which was looking at two books about the recording industry and classical music. The point was made that when classical musicians began to listen to themselves on recordings there was a dramatic change in the way music was played. Higher technical standards began to be self-imposed so that fewer wrong notes were heard in performance, and many regional styles began to narrow towards an international style of playing (e.g. French horns began to sound more like Austrian horns).

The most interesting point was the rapid promotion of a culture of perfection by technology. Today's CD performances are rarely straight -through performances: they are cut and stitched from several takes. Even minor blemishes are edited out. In fact, we now hear perfected performances which could never be heard in a live performance.

This is of particular interest to this List as most of us will rarely have the opportunity to hear Bach cantatas performed live. Outside of perhaps a dozen famous works (BWV 4, BWV 140, BWV 51, BWV 106, BWV 82), they just aren't performed. I will probably never hear one of my favourites, Cantata BWV 78 - ever! It's a sobering thought to contemplate the Bach cantata forever available by technology and never available as live performances.

Thomas Braatz wrote (July 17, 2005):
Eric Bergerud wrote:
>>1. Is Mr. Braatz suggesting that day in day out Bach was able to employ some of Europe's best musicians at Leipzig? ...There must have been some reason for Telemann to find "greener grass" when he turned down the same position Bach accepted at Leipzig.<<
The problem is money, of course. This is why Bach was asking for monies (in the 'Entwurff') to be paid to Thomanerchor graduates and other university students who were also extremely musically talented. There is a report somewhere of two of Bach's most talented singers (former Thomanerchor members who had graduated) who wanted to leave for Dresden where their musical talents would be better appreciated ('the greener pastures' with substantially more money involved.)

>>Perhaps I should have been more specific, but I was describing not Leusink but Koopman, Suzuki or some of the other major ensembles active today.<<
Yes, that would have helped, but the difference between Leusink and Koopman/Suzuki is the lack of preparation and rehearsal time which is emphasized as a positive aspect by Leusink supporters as it supposedly makes their endeavor more comparable to what Bach was doing in Leipzig, thus equating the quality of their performances with those of Bach's.

>>...that he [Birnbaum] was pleading for Bach's works to be judged as they were written as opposed to how it they were performed....At Bach's urging Birnbaum elaborated in 1739: "It is true, one does not judge a composition principally and predominantly by the impression of its performance. But if such judgment, which indeed may be deceiving, is not to be considered, I see no other way of judging than to view the work as it has been set down in notes." (Epilogue, p. 470)<<
The performance of music may not be the only way to judge the merit of a composition. The key-word is 'may.' Only if the performance fails to convey the music properly, is it necessary to examine the score to judge the composition properly.

Birnbaum, speaking about Bach in the 3rd person and expressing views on music in the 1st person (Birnbaum was not a musician, but a teacher of rhetoric at the university)at the same time as a quasi-mouthpiece for Bach states a few lines earlier (rough equivalent):

"Scheibe (who was a musician and well-known in musical circles) probably didn't hear Bach's music properly either because his musical hearing had failed him or because there may have been a bad performance of a specific work by Bach. But if this wasn't the case then any mistakes made by the musicians shouldn't be blamed on the composer. Basing a musical judgement only on just hearing a piece performed (which could turn out to be simply a poor performance) can be deceptive. You will really then have to look at the score to determine the true value of the composition."

I, personally, do not see how this would have to be a description of one of Bach's own performances with the Thomanerchor. Bach did lend out his scores (and had some bad experiences with this when they were not returned) and performed cantatas by other composers he considered worthy.

I read this statement to mean: 'If you do hear a performance of a Bach cantata, etc. anywhere and the music sounds confused (the choir, orchestra, and conductor are not acquainted with or used to performing Bach's more difficult style of figural music), don't immediately blamBach as a composer that it wasn't simple enough to perform, but rather take the time to examine the score and consider possible that the performers (and conductor) simply weren't up to it.

Bach Dokumente II, item 411

Scheibe on the difficulty (of performing) Bach's cantatas (in response to Mattheson's public letter regarding the essence of good melodic writing/composing:

"Bachische Kirchen-Stücke sind allemahl künstlicher und mühsamer; keinesweges aber von solchem Nachdrucke, Überzeugung, und von solchem vernünfftigen Nachdencken, als die Telemannischen und Graunischen Wercke." The following part is a possible quote or summary of Mattheson's presentation: "In der Vorrede des Kerns, wird an dem Orte, gegen welchen obige Einwürffe gerichtet sind, auf nichts anders gezielet, als daß man von solchen mühsamen Künstleyen in der Music keinesweges; sondern von dem natürlichen und leichtern melodischen Wesen, den Anfang machen solle. Man hat hohe Ursache zu glauben, daß ihnen ihre Wercke gar nicht schwer ankommen."

["Bach's cantatas are certainly more artistically crafted and more difficult to perform; and yet, in no way containing such emphasis, persuasion, and reasonable thoughts as those contained in the works of Telemann and Graun." The next is Scheibe's summary quote of what Mattheson had stated: "In the preface of this letter, in that place against which the above objections are directed, the focus was not at all upon such laborious/strenuous artistry for the sake of artistry in composing music, but rather upon the fact that a composer should begin to emphasize the natural and easier features of melody. You can easily have reason to believe that works by these (Telemann, Graun) composers will go down better with the audience {compared to Bach's compositions}."]

Bach-Dokumente II, Item #409 Leipzig, Beginning of January 1738

Birnbaum's Defense against Scheibe's Accusations regarding Bach

>>Nun will ich nimmermehr hoffen, daß der verfasser den Herrn Hof-Compositeur vor einen übertreter dieser regeln halten wird. Übrigens ist gewiß, daß die stimmen in den stücken dieses grossen meisters in der Music wundersam durcheinander arbeiten: allein alles ohne die geringste verwirrung. Sie gehen mit einander und wiedereinander; beydes wo es nöthig ist. Sie verlassen einander und finden sich doch alle zu rechter zeit wieder zusammen. Jede stimme macht sich vor der andern durch eine besondere veränderung kenntbar, ob sie gleich öfftermahls einander nachahmen. Sie fliehen und folgen einander, ohne daß man bey ihren beschäfftigungen, einander gleichsam zuvorzukommen, die geringste Unregelmäßigkeit bemercket. Wird dieses alles so, wie es seyn soll, zur execution gebracht; so ist nichts schöners, als diese harmonie. Verursachet aber die ungeschicklichkeit, oder nachläßigkeit, der instrumentalisten oder Sänger hierbey eine verwirrung ; so urtheilet man gewiß sehr abgeschmackt, wenn man deren fehler dem componisten zurechnet. Es kommt ohne dem in der Music alles auf die execution an. Die elendesten melodien fallen doch offt schön ins gehör, wenn sie wohl gespielet werden. Hingegen kann ein stück aus dessen composition man die schönste harmonie und melodie ersehen kann, alsdenn freylich dem gehör nicht gefallen, wenn die, so es executiren sollen ihre schuldigkeit weder beobachten können, noch wollen.<<

["Never ever would I {Birnbaum} want to think that the author {Scheibe} would consider Mr. Court-Composer {J. S. Bach} to be one who has violated these rules {of composing music properly.} Moreover, it is certainly true that the various parts in the compositions of this great master of music are interwoven in a most wondrous way, but all this is accomplished without the slightest bit of confusion. Sometimes they move together, at other times they are pitted against each other; just as much as is necessary. They separate from each other and yet find themselves coming together at just the right point in the music. Each part distinguishes itself from the others by specific changes, even when they, at the same time, are imitating each other. They flee from each other and yet follow each other without ever having one preempt the importance of the other as they move and are modified throughout the course of the movement and without allowing even the smallest irregularity be noticed. And if all this is performed as it is intended, then there is nothing more beautiful than this type of harmony. If, however, the inaccuracy and carelessness of the instrumentalists or singers cause a confusion of parts to occur, then it would certainly be a stupid criticism to blame the composer for the mistakes made by the performers. In music, everything depends upon the execution of it. The most miserable melodies frequently can become appealing if they are played properly. In contrast, a passage from a
composition which can be judged/determined on sight to contain the most beautiful harmony and melody can, of course, be unpleasant to listen to if those who are supposed to perform it are neither capable nor willing to do what is necessary {they do properly fulfill their obligation to the music because they either are not sufficiently talented/skillful or do not want to give the music the respect that it deserves.}"]

Very simply put:

Scheibe criticizes the fact that Bach's compositions are more difficult to perform than those by other composers who were just as famous, if not more so, than Bach at that time. The subtlety contained in the Scheibe-Mattheson statement is that Bach's music is not 'bad' as such. It does demonstrate great artistry in composing; however, composers, including Bach, should begin trying to compose melodies easier to sing/play which then will sound more natural and be more easily received by all audiences.

Birnbaum, in the selection from his defense of Bach's music, states that Bach's music is wonderful just because of the intricacies and separate identities of each independent part which nevertheless work in harmony with the other parts due to a marvelous interdependency which is present at all times.

Of course, all of this great music can come to naught if it is not performed properly. Under Bach's own direction, a proper performance would take place. Bach did not allow his prefects to perform his major sacred works (cantatas, Passions, oratorios, etc.) Very likely he did this in order to ensure that this music would not receive a performance that failed to live up to his high standard. Why did he modify and often change the instrumental and vocal parts when he did repeat performances of his works? One possible reason was to ensure the best possible performances of his works when he directed them. Would this, however, be the case with other conductors having performers unaccustomed to Bach's style?

Do we have recorded any negative comments from those who heard Bach's own performances of his music? I have not found any as yet. I do not believe that this is so out of deference to Bach, but rather due to the reality that his performances were consistently first-class performances. But there are other comments such as those which I recently related here: Kuhnau's on the poor quality of singing of the Thomanerchor when unaided by university students and Speer on the existence of expert trumpeters who could play musical scales properly on existing trombae without 'martyring' the semitones. Thus we know that comments on and honest appraisals of the quality of performances do exist from Bach's time.

The lack of sufficient rehearsal time was not a weighty problem for Bach because

1. The selected singers and instrumentalists participating in the performances were of a very high quality in talent and skill

2. A major prerequisite for performance was performing accurately and expressively at sight any music that was set before the individual singers and instrumentalists

3. A proper, respectful attitude toward the music (enhanced by the presence of the composer) ensured that a moving performance would take place

Thomas Braatz wrote (July 17, 2005):
Ken Edmonds wrote:
>>The Rilling series was completed by 1984 (Ibelieve), a dozen years prior to the ITG article. The performance I saw him in the MBM was in the spring of 1999, which was after the symposium you mentioned.<<
Thanks for sharing this information.

Eric Bergerud wrote (July 17, 2005):
[To Doug Cowling] When I was in college some of my buddies were serious collectors of classical recordings from the 20's through early 50's: some even kept 78s. In any case, all of my friends agreed that technical standards of modern recordings (not sound, but performance and mixing) were considerably higher than in whatever "golden age" one wished to honor. Just as an example, the famous Furtwangler performance of Beethoven's 9th at Bayreuth, done in 1953 as I recall, was filled with bad notes. My friends not only accepted this, but rather rejoiced in it. Performers of the past, according to the party line, went beyond the notes to the spiritual heart of the music itself. (These gents were not usually fans of Toscanini as one might imagine.) As for myself, the mistakes or lack thereof didn't register at all. However, I decided that the great sacrifice made in sonic quality didn't justify the pursuit of artistic wizardry, particularly as the great performers and conductors of the 60's and 70's seemed to offer wonderful music that sounded great. Yet I distinctly remember that one of the years I was in Europe in the early 70's, Solti brought the Chicago over for a tour. Most reviewers were suitably impressed. One of the big name Brit reviewers, however, described Solti's band as a "machine without a soul" and proved the point by noting that they didn't make mistakes! I wonder what Sir George thought of that?

I will stand correction on this point, but as I understand it, Hogwood "dumbed down" his Beethoven symphonies to somehow recreate the shock that the musicians of the time had when confronted by the originals.

As for the cantatas, I share fully Doug's lament. Even though the Bay Area was once prominent in the HIP movement, it's a rare day when a Bach cantata is played by any group, professional or otherwise. Getting too old to emigrate, and I doubt that anyone would take me, so I have to live with it. But it's sad nonetheless.

Doug Cowling wrote (July 18, 2005):
Eric Bergerud wrote:
< Yet I distinctly remember that one of the years I was in Europe in the early 70's, Solti brought the Chicago over for a tour. Most reviewers were suitably impressed. One of the big name Brit reviewers, however, described Solti's band as a "machine without a soul" and proved the point by noting that they didn't make mistakes! I wonder what Sir George thought of that? >
This of course was the same criticism levelled against Von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. But then Von Karajan insisted on almost limitless rehearsal times and always held sectional rehearsals. I can't imagine a modern symphony orchestra allowing or submitting to sectional rehearsals. The wind-playing in the early Beethoven symphonies is truly virtuosic.

Robert Sherman wrote (July 18, 2005):
[To Eric Begerud] Good point about Chicago allegedly sounding like a "machine" because the players didn't make mistakes. Some commentators, whom I won't name because I don't want to start a negative exchange, have similarly argued, in effect that modern brass instruments have no "soul" because their notes are even, centered, and in tune.

Different strokes for different folks, I guess.

Doug Cowling wrote (July 18, 2005):
[To Robert Sherman] The recent papal ceremonies featured the Sistine Chapel choir prominently and their style of singing produced a wave of controversy on the choral Lists about men and boys choirs. The English school gives preeminence to tight ensemble, vibrato-less intonation and clean attacks. The Italian style allows independent rubato in polyphonic lines, broad vibrato on sustained notes, and portamento on initial notes. To "English" ears, Italians have lousy pitch, can't sing together and scoop their entries. I would never want to buy a CD of the Sistine singing Palestrina, but I am not prepared to say that they are inferior performers.

Boyd Pehrson wrote (July 18, 2005):
[To Eric Begerud] I haven't read anything here in BC where people argue "that modern brass instruments have no "soul" because their notes are even, centered, and in tune." (?!) Maybe I haven't followed that thread.

Regarding modern brass, you forgot to mention their metallic ringing sound.

Aryeh Oron wrote (July 18, 2005):
Doug Cowling wrote:
" This is of particular interest to this List as most of us will rarely have the opportunity to hear Bach cantatas performed live. Outside of perhaps a dozen famous works (BWV 4, BWV 140, BWV 51, BWV 106, BWV 82), they just aren't performed. I will probably never hear one of my favourites, Cantata BWV 78 - ever! It's a sobering thought to contemplate the Bach cantata forever available by technology and never available as live performances."

Aren't performed? There are a least 26 venues around the world where Bach Cantatas are performed regularly, aiming at a complete series within a certain period of time. See: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Links/Links-Festivals.htm
It means that at least some of us are able to hear rarely performed cantatas in live performances. Alas, neither of the cantata series is taking place in Canada nor in Israel (-:

Talking abouth Canada, the inagauguration of a new Bach Festival in Montreal
will take place in November 2005. See: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Concerts/Concert-2005-Canada.htm
Your favourite cantata, BWV 78, will be performed on November 28.

Neil Halliday wrote (July 18, 2005):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
<"Do we have recorded any negative comments from those who heard Bach's own performances of his music? I have not found any as yet.">
OTOH, we can read this comment in the Rilling booklet:

"....the very first cantata (BWV 75) performed in the church of St. Nicholai, May 30th 1723 did indeed attract the attention of the general public...we read in the chronicles of the "Acta Lipsiensium academica" that "Mr. Joh. Sebastion Bach, who has come here from the court of Coethen, has performed his first piece of music, which was greeted with great applause.""

And this was part of a church service, not a concert!

Roberet Sherman wrote (July 18, 2005):
[To Boyd Pehrson] I used a bit of literary license, but the content was in a thread a year or so ago. I won't get specific here because I don't want to start a firestorm of the kind we've had too much of.

Regarding tone quality, I agree that modern trumpets well played do have a glorious golden metallic ringing sound. That's what trumpets are for. Listen, for example, to the finale of Rilling's BWV 21, any of the recent solo recordings by Rolf Smedvig or Ludwig Güttler, or Harry Glantz in the big orchestral stuff under Toscanini. If a soft gentle sound is needed, that's what woodwinds are for.

I overstate, of course. A good trumpeter can get a gentle round lyric pianissimo out of a modern instrument. In the second movement of Beethoven 7, a phrase is bounced back and forth between the trumpet and flute, and a good trumpeter will come surprisingly close to the flute sound. But that's not what trumpets are generally called on to do.

Eric Bergerud wrote (July 18, 2005):
[To Robert Sherman] I played coronet for the worst junior high school band in the American midwest. I always thought we were simply very very bad. But maybe we actually had a surplus of soul. That's a pleasing thought in retrospect.

John Pike wrote (July 18, 2005):
[To Eric Bergerud] <> My experience of Leusink so far has been very good, although i must confess I was a little disappointed by his recording of last week's cantata, BWV 176.

I really twe will never know for certain how satisfied Bach was with his performers at any particular time. The anecdotal evidence we have is really limited to saying that only a small number of the musicians at his disposal were usable, and he rarely if ever praises a particular musician in effusive terms, so I think that speculation that the performances he knew were "flawless" is unsubstantiable. The scathing criticism of Thomas for several contemporary performances is also unsustainable. How much perfection does he expect? Maybe leusink's are not the very best recordings around but it is clear to me at any rate that an awful lot of work went into the cantata recordings I have heard so far. I really do think we should give due credit to the musicians concerned for what they have achived rather than nit-picking about small imperfections here and there. I listen to recordings to enjoy them, not to sit down with a full score and listen painstakingly for every small imperfection.

Of course, there will be details that are not perfect and there will be recordings that are downright lousy, but Leusink is certainly not in that category.

I found the comments on the Purcell quartet recording of early bach cantatas by the French critic (posted by Anandygan) laughable. OK, it is not terribly authentic to get some of the very finest male and female singers in this country to perform these works, but the sound is usually stunning. I think one can take this authenticity thing too far.

I haven't heard any Suzuki yet but I suspect that those who say he is very polished yet lacking soul etc are probably doing him a dis-service. it's a common criticism levelled at highly polished performances that often doesn't stand up to close scrutiny.

Charles Francis wrote (July 18, 2005):
John Pike wrote:
<> < My experience of Leusink so far has been very good, although i must confess I was a little disappointed by his recording of last week's cantata, BWV 176. >
I think we must accept that different listeners hear music in different ways. A contemporary once remarked that J. S. Bach could identify the smallest imperfection in a large ensemble; a complement, rather than a criticism, however.

Boyd Pehrson wrote (July 18, 2005):
[To Aryeh Oron] The music scene here in Southern California includes many Bach sacred music performances by College and University student ensembles. These are not professional performances, in fact, most of the singers will never go on to become professional singers. These are performances for exploring the art. The listener wearing a liberal ear will have, at times, even their sensibilities challenged by the low quality of the performances. However, the University and College scene does provide many Bach Cantata performances that otherwise may not be available professionally. Also, there are a number of larger local churches that sponsor amature singers performing Bach vocal works. It is rare that I am able to attend live professional performances of Bach sacred works, but I am impressed with the great interest in Bach's vocal works among the College and University crowd.

John Pike wrote (July 18, 2005):
[To Neil Halliday] I think it would be a mistake to read too much into this. I have just finished catching up on cantatas I missed while away etc. My feelings are that Leipzig must have been pretty impressed by the compositional skills of their new Cantor. There is some truly beautiful music in BWV 22, BWV 23, BWV 75 and BWV 76, especially, I thought BWV 22 and BWV 75. It must have come as quite a shock to them to hear music of such rare beauty as this. With the greatest possible respect to Bach's predecessors, none of them could have come near to this.

What is clear is that Bach had very exacting standards in every aspect of his art. i think he was a person who did not suffer fools gladly and was impatient with people who did not come close to his standards. The very difficulty of much of his music indicates that he expected a lot of people. There were probably a number of capable professionals in Leipzig who could put on good performances of his music, but I cannot believe that musicians with today's very high standards make a worse hash of it than those available to Bach, even with limited rehearsal time (then and now). I also suspect that many of today's choirs, boys and adult professional alike are capable of doing every bit as well as the choir Bach generally had available.

I also suspect that there are very few people today who play as well as or better than Bach himself. I think his playing must have been truly awesome.

Nicholas Johnson wrote (July 18, 2005):
[To John Pike] Indeed BWV 22 & BWV 23 have much to offer.

Given the difficulty of the vocal parts in the Bach arias my friends and I tend to allocate the voice part to an oboe/violin in much the same way as Bach himself must have been pragmatic as regards the exact scoring of his pieces. The flute or oboe have such a tiny repertoire in Bach's instrumental works ( Wolff tells us in his book that much has been lost) that flautists would do well to look to the cantatas for the real flute gems.

Continue of this part of the discussion, see: Flute in Bach's Vocal Works [General Topics]

 

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