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Why not?

Francine Renee Hall wrote (March 21, 2002):
Why not have lots of interpretations of the same work? Not only are we searching for our Holy Grails but different interpretations help suit our different moods as well as opening our ears and minds....

Kirk McElhearn wrote (March 21, 2002):
[To Francine Renee Hall] That's how I explain my habit to others.... though I am starting to realize that there are some I can get rid of, that I definitely would not miss.

Juozas Rimas wrote (Maarch 21, 2002):
[To Francine Renee Hall] Yes, different renditions are essential to have. Unless you indeed find your Holy Grail. Then having other versions seems pointless because you don't know why you would want to listen to them.

I have found at least one Holy Grail for me in Bach - it's Dieskau as a low male voice. I haven't heard or wasn't recommended a better voice. When he sings a seemingly bland recitative "Am Abend da es kuehle war" in Richter's SMP (BWV 244), every other singer on the record and any other Bach singers in any other records I've heard seem to be dirty mortals to me. And it's not something on the technical side - I bet there are technically excellent versions of the same parts Dieskau sings but he does it on a completely different level. As if an NBA star would come to a kindergarten to play basketball with kids.

Of course, the feeling whether you need other interpretations or not is completely subjective.

Joost wrote (March 21, 2002):
Juozas Rimas Jr wrote:
< [snip] Yes, different renditions are essential to have. Unless you indeed find your Holy Grail. Then having other versions seems pointless because you don't know why you would want to listen to them. >
In my view a Holy Grail can only be considered as such by comparing it to lesser Holy ones. Therefore I need to be able to listen to more than one.And besides, one's taste may change in the course of time.


Literal vs. non-literal interpretation

Dale Gedcke wrote (December 18, 2003):
Bradley Lehman wrote, regarding OT: faith and doubt]

Johan van Veen wrote: >> I don't like off-topic discussions on mailing lists, and I very much hope this one will not go on. It will bring people who are against that kind of things in a difficult position, when things are said they strongly disagree with.<<
Agreed; and I certainly am not trying to start such a discussion of creationism/evolutionism/whatever, or any other of the topics in Shermer's book.

I was simply responding to Charles' equation of Braatz' supposedly empirical approach with good science (which he appeared to be casting as the evolutionists), and my own approach with flimflam smoke and mirrors (which he appeared to be casting as the creationists). Charles has that assignment turned around backwards, an incorrect parallelism.

I mentioned Gish, Hovind, et al as a simple illustration of the way Charles has it backwards: that those two particular creationists use the invalid methods of argumentation (i.e. filmflam presentation, and a negative case against opponents instead of building up positive evidence of their own side), against the evolutionists who engage them in debate. These particular creationists are the anti-empiricists. The point is: those METHODS of inquiry make no sense...whether they are used in that field, or music, or anywhere else.

The belief in an infallible musical score of Bach, complete in every supposedly scientific detail anyone would ever need to know for an adequate performance, to be interpreted as literally and naively as possible for best results (but "literally" according to later rules of interpretation from a different culture!), is akin to other areas of anti-science and anti-scholarship. And, sure enough, the same invalid types of arguments are being used here to "support" it. That can be seen here day to day. This is the idolatry of a written text held above all practical considerations, and yanked out of the context of its origin, and "supported" with feverish attempts to discredit all other approaches. That idolatry is anti-intellectual, anti-education, and dare I say, anti-music.

Meanwhile, at my page I already presented the positive case for shortening notes, a practical one backed up by the scientific findings of the scholarly community. A positive, empirical case. Charles, for whatever reasons are known only to himself, refuses to accept that and has tried to twist it around with a backwards parallel. That twisting just looks to me like yet another smoke-and-mirrors trick from a literalist "camp" that has presented no sufficient positive case of its own; from a "camp" that can mount only a series of negative campaigns against people who specialize in the field, empty and invalid argumentation instead of addressing the substance of the music. >
Composers write music with a particular sound and style in mind. Artists apply their own interpretation and style to that music, while Conductors guide the artists to achieve the style and interpretation the Conductor fancies. Thus, we inevitably end up listening to the same composition performed in different styles by different groups. That's what makes for a rich listening opportunity.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and in the ear of the listener. That's why some enjoy Bach, others Beethoven, and still others groove on jazz. Chances are, one particular rendition of Bach's cantata will appeal to you, whereas others may prefer a different performance. There is room for both a literal and a non-literal interpretation of the original score, because there will always be some audience for either. If an interpretation is particularly undesirable for more than 90% of the potential audience, it will likely vanish with time. Likewise, the most marketable style may change with time and culture.

Listening to and critiquing different styles is the main benefit of the Bach Cantatas discussion group.

Still, the pure researcher finds enjoyment in trying to deduce what the original composer intended. That's what researchers like to do. I often find the comments of researchers interesting from an historical perspective. But, that interest doesn't compel me to like a literal interpretation more than a non-literal style, and vice-versa.

The further we try to look back in time to determine what the situation really was, the more difficult it becomes. But that doesn't stifle the enjoyment of those curious about the history.

Vive la discussion!


Bach interpretations: interesting ones, vs ego-trips

Bradley Lehman wrote (February 6, 2004):
- General questions about aesthetics.
- Mention of several Rubsam and Gould recordings that I enjoy.
- Some suggestions about writing reviews that respect performers' "intentions" without second-guessing them, and respect other listeners' preferences.
- Some follow-up questions about the Anderszewski recording that was reviewed.


In a review of Anderszewski's recording of partita #6, the following was
< (...) I began to notice some interesting interpretations that were not necessarily pushed to an extreme. As the recording progressed, I listened even more closely until the final Gigue really caught my attention. I knew at that point that here was a true revelation well suited to all the available characteristics of a piano. This interpretation was truly serving Bach's music and was not simply an ego-trip for the performing artist. (...) >
From the way this is written, the implication is that some performances are nothing more than ego-trips, in the opinion of that reviewer. Care to elaborate and list examples? How may a listener recognize the boundary line between "interesting interpretations" and "ego-trip for the performing artist", and therefore avoid buying the wrong thing? How may one know that Bach's music is truly being served?

It would be helpful to see some guidelines that are not limited to "go look at the score and read it in such-and-such a way", principally because many members here do not read scores at all but are close and perceptive listeners anyway. Also, the appropriate methods of reading 18th-century sare not agreed-upon in this forum, any more than aesthetic standards are. Members here come to this with various levels of training and experience in the field, from zero on up. (And the mere accumulation of a large collection doesn't turn anybody into a connoisseur, in itself, any more than it does in any field other than music.)

Without a reliable set of aesthetic criteria for listening value, doesn't the whole thing just boil down to personal preference? What might sound like an ego-trip to one listener might sound like a brilliantly committed and respectful interpretation to, who's to say which is which? Competent musicians make all sorts of artistic and practical choices, for countless reasons that non-performers may not even be aware. Meanwhile, some listeners might believe they themselves know the only way it should go, and dismiss all dissenting performances as either an ego-trip, or based on ignorance and dishonesty...all just an elaborate way of saying, "Gee, I didn't fancy that." A preference, recast as a pseudo-objective assessment of value and motivations.

Ego trips in performances? I, for one, agree: if too much attention is drawn to the musicians themselves, during a performance, it's a distraction away from the music. I'd rather hear one where I as a listener can focus completely on the composition, if possible.

But again, who gets to decide what's a performer's ego-trip and what's not? How can anyone guess any performer's motivations or intentions? How can anyone guess what another listener finds objectionable, against "truly serving Bach's music"?


So, what are the aesthetic criteria (if any) we can trust, as listeners to Bach's music in recordings?

Is it important to know the aesthetic values of people who knew Bach and valued his work, to help us decide any differences between humble service of the music and ego-tripping? Such people, if anyone, might be the ones who knew best what the notation meant to the composer and contemporary performers, knew the sound-world he lived and worked in, knew the intended audiences for the music, and therefore can tell us what Bach expected of performers. Their writings could be of considerable help in understanding the music.

What does anyone here think about, for example, Quantz' chapter "How a Musician and a Musical Composition Are to be Judged", and "Introduction: Of the Qualities Required of Those Who Would Dedicate Themselves to Music" in his book On Playing the Flute (Berlin, 1752)?

[As an aside, here is Quantz' resume for his relevance:
- oboist and flautist, met JSB in Dresden in the 1720s (according to CPE Bach);
- was an ensemble-partner of Buffardin for whom JSB (later) wrote flute pieces;
- was a flute-maker who invented several technical improvements for it;
- was a longtime colleague of CPE Bach in the court of King Frederick,
probably meeting and hearing JSB again there in 1747, as he was Frederick's flute teacher since 1741;
- praised JSB's musicianship, especially his keyboard and organ-playing, very highly in his book.
Who else would have taught the Musical Offering's trio sonata, and Bach's other flute pieces, to the king?]


There, I've stated one possible set of aesthetic criteria that I personally value: as a listener, enjoying the music played (as far as possible) according to musical principles reported by Quantz. And, judging musical efforts according to standards he said were important to the musicians and connoisseurs he knew!

Or, other people's aesthetic criteria could be just as valid. Not everybody in the discussion has to have the same ones; that would be ludicrous! (There goes free thought, replaced by bullying from one side or another.) A person doesn't even have to have the same criteria himself/herself consistently during a single day!

For example, I very much enjoy Wolfgang Rübsam's recording of the inventions and sinfonias; I feel he really lets the music breathe nicely, plays it with plenty of grace and elegance, and it matches pretty well a manner of delivery Quantz said was appropriate to "artful pieces" such as this (as opposed to "galant"; his distinction). In Rubsam's performance, as I hear it, the music speaks eloquently, and it's intensely interesting, and the delivery completely focuses my listening on the composition's riches...not on the performer, or even on the sound of the instrument. It comes across to me as very well-focused thought about the music, and deep respect of it: both in beautiful surface and in analytical clarity. This performance makes me forget I'm listening to a piano, and focus instead on the life-and-times of all the lines of the music at once: a good thing, in my priorities as a listener.

But I also enjoy listening to Glenn Gould's recording of these; and some others. With a completely different interpretive surface (much more uniform, in many ways, especially as to metric regularity), the composition still comes through clearly, and my attention as a listener is drawn to interesting features in it, not to the performer. By that criterion of quality, Gould's is a terrific recording; while by Quantz' standards this performance is completely foreign to the content of the music. The rhythmic profile, the accentuation, the instrument are all "wrong". Still, many people including myself enjoy this Gould recording very much. (And his other recordings of the sinfonias, also; not just the familiar studio one.)

I've also heard some other performances of these pieces, on various instruments, that are more one-dimensional than either of these.

In comparison, who's to say that one of these two (Rübsam vs Gould) is merely an ego-trip while the other one respects and "truly serves" Bach's music? Anybody can prefer one over the other, or like both equally, or dislike both equally, for any number of reasons (stated or unstated!). But who can say, with absolute objectivity, that one is an ego-trip and the other is not? Can't both these performances, and more, "truly serve" the music?


So, "ego-trips" in recordings? I suggest that the problem is in that wording of such a review, and an attitude that shapes such wording, along with an unwillingness to state (or admit to) any set of aesthetic criteria...which might be entirely different from someone else's!

At least, that's the problem I have with it personally as a reader of the review. The review itself looks to me like an ego-trip, where the writer may believe he has the only true knowledge of "serving Bach's music" to the exclusion of all other approaches. I'd rather read about how the musical performance actually sounds, its objective details, so I can decide if I want to go buy it. Anybody's written review that is merely an ego-trip tells me nothing reliable, one way or another, about the music that is being reviewed.


Getting back to Anderszewski (whose recording of partita #6 I haven't heard yet), and a way to write inviting and respectful reviews....

The quote at the top of this message was part of a mostly-favorable review, or at least it appeared that way; let's see it again.
>>I began to notice some interesting interpretations that were not necessarily pushed to an extreme. As the recording progressed, I listened even more closely until the final Gigue really caught my attention. I knew at that point that here was a true revelation well suited to all the available characteristics of a piano. This interpretation was truly serving Bach's music and was not simply an ego-trip for the performing artist.<<

If there aren't going to be any aesthetic criteria stated, such as Quantz' or whosever, then I suggest the quote should perhaps be boiled down to a more direct statement of preference. The review would be stronger and more helpful that way: to see the writer's enthusiasm stated as positively as possible.

That is, there should be some way to write it without all the pseudo-objective trappings of "ego-trip" and "truly serving Bach's music", which really say nothing about the sound of the performance, and serve only to alienate other readers and listeners whose enjoyment and expectations are different. Something likethis paraphrase, perhaps:
"I enjoyed the way Anderszewski made full use of his piano's resources. And his performance allowed me to focus on enjoying the music, instead of thinking about the player himself during it. At the same time, Anderszewski's interesting ideas helped to hold my attention, especially in the Gigue."

Isn't that a clearer way of saying basically the same thing, more invitingly, and more respectfully of other performances/approaches as well?

And then, more specifically, the reviewer could describe those "interesting" things that Anderszewski does in the music, to some extent less than an "extreme". Rhythmic nuances? Dynamic? Something with tone color? Tempo? Improvised ornamentation? More? What features give this performance more value than a computer-generated and undifferentiated delivery of all the notes?


In this same piece, partita #6, I have the Gould and Rübsam recordings among many others, and have enjoyed them for a long time. My reasons on those two are similar to those given above, in the paragraphs about the inventions/sinfonias. So, now in consideration of Anderszewski's, what would compel me to buy his CD additionally? What positive features in his could enrich my understanding and enjoyment of the piece? That's what I look to learn from a review.

I've heard an earlier Anderszewski disc of Bach, with mixed feelings about it; and I similarly gave a mixed review to some of his Mozart:

What can a review tell me about the broader shape and details of the performance, that I haven't already heard in the excerpts of partita #6 at: ?

I do like what I hear there, so far, for the most part...although I'd prefer to hear slower tempos, personally. I remember the old anecdote about Arthur Rubinstein. Somebody challenged him about his interpretation of a piece, "Mr Rubinstein, why did you play it so fast?!" "Because I can!" (Not that excessive speed is always an ego-trip, but it might be sometimes....)

Uri Golomb wrote (February 7, 2004):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
< I remember the old anecdote about Arthur Rubinstein. Somebody challenged him about his interpretation of a piece, "Mr Rubinstein, why did you play it so fast?!" "Because I can!" >
Funny, that -- I remeber hearing the exact same anecdote about Jascha Heifetz. It would be interesting to know whether there is any basis in fact for it, about either artist (or perhaps yet another musician).


Continuuum of Interpretation

Douglas Cowling wrote (July 29, 2006):
Tom Hens wrote:
< To be honest, I'm not too sure their idea of what Bach was supposed to be about was all that much better than the English audiences' idea of what Handel was supposed to be about. And I tend to agree with Philippe Herreweghe (hey, he's my countryman, I have to agree with him just out of pattriotism) that Handel's music stands up a lot better to ridiculously outsized, 'romantic' performances than Bach's does. >
It is a peculiar conceit of this past half-century that we presume to have arrived at the End of Interpretation, that we perform Bach as Bach did and that's the end of the process. I first got to know Bach's choral works through Klemperer's Matthew Passion (BWV 244) and Grishkat's Mass in B Minor (BWV 232). I was both horrified and moved by Richter's "revolutionary" B Minor and amazed and thrilled by Harnoncourt's "authentic" Matthew Passion (BWV 244). I was enraged, intrigued and delighted by Rifkin's B Minor (BWV 232) ... And I am sure the process will go on.

Interpretation is self-disclosure by the performer, and we will go on hearing new concepts and techniques being applied to the works of Bach. I would even go as far as to say that any interpretation IS an arrangement. I applaud Gardiner for his Bach pilgrimage if only because he broke the stranglehold of the recording process which has removed Bach's music from public performance and given us the illusion of technical perfection as "authenticity". I'm prepared to hear wrong notes if they are sounded in historically-informed locations!

So let's look at Bach performance practice as a continuum and admire past conductors for what they did in their generation, just as I hope future lovers of Bach will look back on our efforts with some bemused affection.

Ed Myskowski wrote (July 30, 2006):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< It is a peculiar conceit of this past half-century that we presume to have arrived at the End of Interpretation, >
(1) Good Lord, man! Are you suggesting we don't know everything there is to know?

(2) It is not really a peculiar conceit, or limited to the past half-century. It is deep in all human cultures, the presumption that we have arrived at the acme of interpretation and knowledge. Then comes ice, volcano, flood, or something wicked (or scientific), and we have to rethink it . Which we have done repeatedly, with remarkable success, over the long haul. We, the maximum We, that is. Challenging days ahead.

Eric Bergerud wrote (July 30, 2006):
[To Douglas Cowling] I'm not so sure I agree with Doug on this one. Sure interpretation moves on and future artists will face the task in a different way. But I don't see the huge transformation in cantata performance that has taken place in the last 60 years repeated in the next 200. I can't imagine the big symphonies taking back any ground lost to the period instrument crowd, especially in subtle works like the cantatas that reward so greatly the quest for authenticity. Perhaps OVPP will continue it's continued march forward, but let's not forget that Rifkin first showed up over 20 years ago. I suppose there's a possibility that someone will stumble on documentary evidence that will clear up some of the questions that vex people on this list but I'm not holding my breath. We have a pretty good historic parallel. When stereo was reaching maturity it appeared (and partially made) the orchestral superstars of the late 50's to mid-70's. Everyone and their uncle did a Beethoven symphony and concerto cycle. (Far more than one in some cases.) Beethoven remains frequently recorded but a new symphony is fairly rare today - what's to be done that wasn't done by Karajan, Solti, Walter, Bernstein, Levine, Barenboim etc (or even Norrington, Gardiner and Hogwood for the period fans), especially as many reissues are mid-priced. Well, along comes Osmo Vanska doing an enhanced stereo cycle with the Minnesota orchestra (I'd guess that was "hook" that BIS was looking for) and the critics go gaga. Far be it from me to knock the Minnesota or Mr. Vanska: they're the home team. Because they're the home team I've heard the cycle in St. Paul two or three times a symphony at a time. They are good, very finely crafted and I'd bet they'd sound terrific on a good system. But could I pick them out from one of the earlier cycles assuming the engineering was also good? I sure doubt it. So no doubt in the future there will be an Osmo Vanska doing Bach cantatas and having the critics applauding loudly. But my guess is that the similarities between future works and the major categories of performance already created at present will far outweigh the differences. That doesn't mean we should weep. There are more good cantatas out there than ever. I fear there may be an oversupply and we'll see many renditions go out of print - hopefully new works will keep the ranks full. In any case, I doubt musicians will get better than they are today (I think for baroque music they are better than their counterparts before WWII); I can't see some new approach coming to shake things up like putting boys into OVPP. The only thing I could see that might really give a shake and rattle would be a truly international movement toward the acceptance of Western classical music. If that was the case, we might see some vinteresting things indeed.

William Rowland (Ludwig) wrote (July 30, 2006):
[To Eric Bergerud] I have not heard the Minneapolis group do Bach. However, when my late friend Antal Dorati was in charge they did some memorable performances (some of which are recorded) such as Ravel's Daphnis and Cloe and the Tschaikovsky 1812---the recorded performance of which has yet to be surpassed by any living or past conductor aside from Dorati aside from the hoopla of the announcer (Hugh Downes?) playing up the cold war paranoia and phobia of the Soviet Union and the Red Scare of the 1950s. While I never asked Dorati the real reason why they did not go to Moscow to record----the truth probally is more like that Dorati escaped from Hungary during the 1956 Revolutionary period and attempt free Hungary from Soviet Domination and was afraid that he would be arrested if he went to Russia to record the 1812 with the Bells of the Kremlin.

Chris Rowson wrote (July 30, 2006):
Eric Bergerud wrote:
< I'm not so sure I agree with Doug on this one. Sure interpretation moves on and future artists will face the task in a different way. But I don't see the huge transformation in cantata performance that has taken place in the last 60 years repeated in the next 200. >
I do agree with Doug, I think there will be further developments. I am not thinking of people stumbling on documentary evidence, if anything more the reverse: that people will look up from their documents and start to swing. I think the progress that has been made is fine, but it is inherently historically oriented. Bach, in contrast, was performing the cantatas as new music.

Douglas Cowling wrote (July 30, 2006):
The New Global Musical Village

Eric Bergerud wrote:
< The only thing I could see that might really give a shake and rattle would be a truly international movement toward the acceptance of Western classical music. If that was the case, we might see some very interesting things indeed. >
I rememember when Seiji Ozawa was conductor of the Toronto Symphony in the late 60's, the press could not get over the idea that an Asian non-British musician had been appointed and discussed the novelty endlessly. Ozawa's trajectory is nothing compared with that of Masaaki Suzuki. The notion that he with the Bach Collegium Japan would achieve his present status as a magisiterial interpreter of Bach, displacing the Germans who have dominated the field for a century and a half, is remarkable.

But then so is the achievement of the other Suzuki. Despite the lingering oppostion of Euro-centric string players and pianists, the Suzuki Method continues to gather momentum in North America. Today music schools are seeing a demographic shift away from the children of Central European Jews to the children of Korean and Chinese immigrants. The old cliché of the pushy Jewish mother has been replaced by the new cliché of the pushy Asian mother.

What remains to be seen is if the centres of Western music shift to the Pacific Rim where audiences are growing not shrinking -- and China has hardly entered the scene. In the new Global Musical Village of the mid-21st century, European and North American students may well be heading to the East for training. Artists already include Tokyo, Seoul and Hong on their tours. They soon may be going there to record as well.

I wrote a children's theatre piece for actors and symphony orchestra about the life of Mozart. It's touring in the States and doing nicely. But it also had a full week of performances in Malayasia this past season and next year will be restaged in Chinese in Bejing. That's the new audience.

Eric Bergerud wrote (July 31, 2006):
[To Ludwig] The Minnesota like most big bands stays away from baroque and most classical. The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra does a pretty fair job with both, even though they've stuck with modern instruments. (Rilling visited last year to conduct some cantatas - I missed him by two days. Thud.) I certainly urge visitors to try to hear either. The Minnesota's concert hall is rather ugly on the outside but has terrific acoustics. The St. Paul plays in a wonderfully intimate modern hall. They've started an opera company but I've never heard it. Lovely city - almost Canadian in feel.


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Last update: July 31, 2006 20:22:50