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Introducing People to Bach

 

 

Introducing People to Bach

Matthew Westphal
wrote (October 19, 2003):
I also appreciated Carol's message, which was a wonderful reminder of why, fundamentally, we're all so excited about Bach's music that we spend all this time and energy discussing (and sometimes arguing about) it.

Carol, you wrote: "I have a copy of one recording strictly for the purpose of lending to people I know who have never heard Bach's vocal music." I'm curious -- what recording of what piece do you use for this?

That's an interesting topic for discussion, I think.

What recording would you use to introduce a complete newcomer to -

- Bach's vocal music?

- Bach's orchestral/ensemble music?

- Bach's chamber music?

- Bach's keyboard music?

Emily L. Ferguson wrote (October 19, 2003):
Matthew Westphal wrote: < curious -- what recording of what piece do you use for this?
That's an interesting topic for discussion, I think.
What recording would you use to introduce a complete newcomer to -
- Bach's vocal music? >
fergeddit. This is advanced stuff in an age with a 2 minute attention span and no literacy in either religion or language.

< - Bach's orchestral/ensemble music? >
Damned Air for the G string

< - Bach's chamber music? >
5th Brandenburg with piano or double fiddle concerto

< - Bach's keyboard music? >
WTC I prelude 1

Speaking of the 5th Brandenburg with piano, I heard Parahia's version the other day on the radio. It was simply not adequate, in my opinion. You really can't make a piano be part of the ensemble, because the quality of the sound is too dominant, and he couldn't keep the cadenza clean enough to not blur.

Nice try, but no cigar....

I'll say one thing for that piece. It must be horribly tempting for pianists. The whole cadenza is such a gas, especially if you're in to minimalist music or a contemplative harmonic rhythm. And if you want a digital challenge, there is is - shining before your eyes, beckoning you to twirl your fingers around those arpeggiated figures. But then you think, somehow, that you can contribute to the continuo as well, and that's where it bogs down, to me. I know the piano could actually play softly enough to not dominate, but Perahia, who has a lovely soft touch, didn't.

Bradley Lehman wrote (October 19, 2003):
Matthew asked: < What recording would you use to introduce a complete newcomer to -
- Bach's vocal music? >
Cantatas BWV 54, BWV 170, and "Agnus Dei" - Alfred Deller

< - Bach's orchestral/ensemble music? >
Shepherd's Song from the Xmas O - Leopold Stokowski

< - Bach's chamber music? >
Flute sonata in E major - Musica Antiqua Koeln

< - Bach's keyboard music? >
Partitas (Bach's own choice for publication as Opus 1) - Edward Parmentier

Joost wrote (October 19, 2003):
Matthew wrote: < What recording would you use to introduce a complete newcomer to -
- Bach's vocal music? >
Cantatas BWV 106 and BWV 4, showing the versality of the genre (Leonhardt for BWV 106, Koopman or Jeffrey Thomas for BWV 4)

< - Bach's orchestral/ensemble music? >
BWV 1060 for violin and oboe, being one of the 'easy' works for novices (preferably with Suzuki, because of the extraordinary Marcel Ponseele)

< - Bach's chamber music? >
I agree with Brad: one of the flute sonatas (Musica Antiqua Koln will do fine)

< - Bach's keyboard music? >
Italian Concerto, as it is an accessible piece (and not too long - which is quite important when introducing someone to something entirely new). Bob van Asperen will do - he is stilish, and not too spectacular

Pete Blue wrote (October 19, 2003):
Matthew Westphal wrote:: < What recording would you use to introduce a complete newcomer to [Bach?] >
Fun question! I believe the answers should depend on what background the newcomer is coming from. The following recorded performances IMO provide the most arresting introductions to, yet the smallest "bumps" into, the music of Bach.

If he/she is coming from a nonclassical background, I wouldn't even have to think before choosing the D Minor Toccata and Fugue (E. Power Biggs? Stokowski?).

If the newcomer likes opera and lieder or at least is not averse to classically trained voices, my choices would be "Erbarme Dich" (Marian Anderson?) and "Sheep May Safely Graze" (Elly Ameling?) .

If he/she is a classical concertgoer or collector (orchestral, piano, chamber), I would choose three: The 6th Brandenburg (in a vital -- Casals? -- but not extreme -- Goebel? -- performance); to me there's something lush and Tschaikovksian about that piece. The E Flat Major Cello Suite (or the Courante movements of any of the others played by Paolo Beschi like a force of nature). And the Goldberg Variations, played by one's choice of keyboardist and/or by the Canadian string trio Triskelion; and possibly supplemented by that weird, interesting movie with an actor playing Glenn Gould playing the Gouldbergs.

David Glenn Lebut Jr. wrote (October 19, 2003):
[To Matthew Westphal] Actually, I have a series set I would recommend. It is called "Bach: Made in Germany" and covers almost all of Bach's oeuvre in performances by German (mostly by Leipzig ensembles) performers and ensembles. You could find the complete set at Amazon.de.com. Another good set is the "Originals" series (which is a reproduction of an LP series made [I assume] during the 1960s and 1970s of music from earliest times to the Classical Era). Finally I would probably recommend any of the "Complete Editions" or I would pick and choose amongst the following: Karl Richter (Kantaten, Messe h-Moll, Matthaeuspassion, Weinachtsoratorium, and Orchesterwerke), Leonhardt (Klavierkonzerte), Rilling (Weinachtsoratorium), Ramin (Johannespassion), Thomas (Weinachtsoratorium), Mauersberger (Matthaeuspassion), Stockmeier (die Orgelwerke), Hurford (die Orgelwerke), Ruebsam (die Orgelwerke), Schreier (Weltliche Kantaten), and the recordings of the Kammermusik on the Philips or Naxos lables. Iwould also recommend the Musikalisches Opfer and the Die Kunst der Fuge of Leonhardt.

Bob Henderson wrote (October 19, 2003):
Keyboard: Goulds first Goldbergs. It drew so many to Bach. A real sensation. Still is.

Vocal: Cantata BWV 140. Beautiful with well known choruses. Ristenpart.

Orchestral: O no! Not Stokie! He turned as many away as toward. Try the Suites with Hogwood. A good compromise.

Organ: Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor. Of course. Turn up the volume. Hurford.

Bradley Lehman wrote (October 19, 2003):
David Glenn Lebut Jr. wrote: < (...)Iwould also recommend the Musikalisches Opfer and the Die Kunst der Fuge of Leonhardt. >
They're fine, but are you sure they'd make any sense to a beginner who has never listened to Bach before? And that was the question. I agree with Emily's comment about people's (lack of) attention spans.

I asked my wife what Bach a beginner should hear first, and she said, "Something simple and dance-like, maybe some minuets or something."

Nessie Russell wrote (October 19, 2003):
I got turned on to Bach when I was a teenager by the Walter/Wendy Carlos "Switched on Bach" recordings. This lead to Glenn Gould, organ lessons, harpsichord
lessons .......

Emily L. Ferguson wrote (October 19, 2003):
Bradley Lehman wrote: < They're fine, but are you sure they'd make any sense to a beginner who has never listened to Bach before? And that was the question. I agree with Emily's comment about people's (lack of) attention spans. >
Not to mention their abject lack of context. When Disney got ahold of Stokey and did Fantasia, everyone had a basic sense of music as defined by what happened there. Jazz still lived in that context - remember Brandenburg Gate? "Classical" music was the reference point for most people.

Now we've had eight or ten generations of people for whom music is variously defined as three chord country, your basic blues, or simply racket - noise without any melody or harmonic structure at all. Those whose entire concepof music is rap aren't going to understand the Grateful Dead much less Bach.

Those who listen to the Grateful Dead, however, are. As will those who listen to jazz.

Keep in mind that we live in a culture in which both jazz and "classical" music are confined to public radio and less and less even there.

Aryeh Oron wrote (October 19, 2003):
[To Pete Blue] Background is important, but not the most important factor. Love for music in general (any kind of music) and open mind are the two basic factors, necessary to turn somebody without real familiarity with Bach's music into Bach's lover. From my experience I have learnt that almost any piece of Bach's music can do the job, given that it is heard couple of times in a raw.

During mid 2001 I had twice the opportunity of having a long ride with another employee of my company. In both cases the stack of the CD player in my car was already loaded with CD's of the weekly cantata. Each time I suggested to my companion hearing different recordings of the same movement. In the first case it was the aria for soprano (Mvt. 2) from Cantata BWV 74, and in the second, the opening chorus (Mvt. 1) from Cantata BWV 39. My companions had interesting observations regarding the individual merits of each rendition. These observations can be read in the relevant pages of the BCW. But what I have found as even more important is that both ladies said that they loved the piece of music they had just heard and would like to hear more of the same stuff. Do I have to add that both movements are rarely to be found in the short list of introductory pieces to the world of Bach?

About the same time the local distributor of Polygram issued a 3-CD album called 'The Spirit of Bach'. It includes movements from various works of Bach, most of them can be considered as popular. The first CD is dedicated to orchestral music and concertos; the second to chamber music and music for keyboard; the third to vocal music. I gave both of them the album as a present for their birthday. Both said that they have heard it endless times. One of them told me couple of days ago that her son (4 years old) asked her to hear the vocal CD before going to sleep. So two victims and are half were already hooked! I bought more copies of this album and gave it as a birthday present to other people I like. Most of them reacted in similar way.

Conclusion? Almost any piece of Bach can do it. The second movement from last week cantata BWV 204 is still ringing in my head, and I am looking for more potential victims.

Charles Francis wrote (October 19, 2003):
Matthew Westphal wrote: < What recording would you use to introduce a complete newcomer to -
- Bach's vocal music? >
Forget it.

< - Bach's orchestral/ensemble music? >
The final movement of Brandenburg number 4. This is the piece that got me hooked as a kid.

< - Bach's chamber music? >
Dunno.

< - Bach's keyboard music? >
Book 1 of the Well Tempered Clavier.

Leila Batarseh wrote (October 19, 2003):
< What recording would you use to introduce a complete newcomer to - >
Well, I haven't been listening to Bach all that long myself, only a year or two really. So I guess I would just play them the recordings that I truly loved the first time I heard them, the ones that got me hooked: Herreweghe's St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244), the Manze/AAM violin concertos, Fournier's cello suites, the Kuijken/Kuijken/Leonhardt Musical Offering, and the Gould Goldbergs. (Of course, then I'd make them listen to at least the Goldbergs on the harpsichord - maybe Kipnis? - He's fun to listen to and doesn't use too wacky temperaments.)

Leila Batarseh wrote (October 19, 2003):
David Glenn Lebut Jr. wrote: << (...)Iwould also recommend the Musikalisches Opfer and the Die Kunst der Fuge of Leonhardt. >>
< They're fine, but are you sure they'd make any sense to a beginner who has never listened to Bach before? And that was the question. I agree with Emily's comment about people's (lack of) attention spans. >
One of the very first Bach recordings I ever listened to was that Musical Offering. It stayed in my CD player for weeks. I couldn't get it out of my head. I was sort of obsessed. It might not work for everybody, but it sure worked for me. (The same did not hold true, however, for the AoF.)

Thomas Radleff wrote (October 19, 2003):
I agree with Emily and Aryeh, that without a minimum of attention and open ears any suggestion is futile. As for vocal music, the person should be used somehow to academically trained voices, and s/he should have no unpleasant associations around anything sacred and church-like (...same for the sound of an organ!).

Here are my suggestions:
Vocal music:
- for German native speakers: the (latin) b-minor mass (BWV 232).
- for anyone else: the (german) Weihnachtsoratorium (BWV 248).
Orchestral:
- Brandenburg 1, 2 and 4; by Savall or Goodman.
- Orchestral Suites, maybe the fast version by Malloch.
Chamber:
- many alternative instrumentations: brass quintet (chorales, preludes & fugues, many more), or saxophone quartet (Choralpartiten, AoF a.o.)
- violin S&P by Lucy van Dael.
- lute works on guitar.
Keyboard:
- WTC I on harpsichord (Jacottet?)
- Goldbergs on piano, by Ekaterina Dershavina and Vladimir Feltsman.
- the six Trio Sonatas on organ, or a guitar + hpsi version.
- the Partitas on piano (Rübsam?)
- some French Suites for guitar duo.
- Capriccio BWV 992 on piano or harpsichord.

Some of these suggestions already have been proved as successful, with some refreshing results.

It was mostly the terrible design of these "Best of..." or "Bach for Breakfast" compilations that kept me from taking a closer look, but such a greatest-hit-suite might serve well - actually I am compiling such CDs by myself, depending on the interests, the habits and patience of the person.

Pablo Fagoaga wrote (October 20, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] I agree. MO and AoF may be a bit too "abstract". Surely monumental to those who have technical formation, enjoyable for those of us who don't have too much technical knowledge BUT lot's of Bach music in our heads, but absolutely tedious for begginers.

It's like introducing someone to The Beatles with Revolution 9. Bad move.

I'd go for the violin concertos (1041 to 1043)... may be the double concerto, and Book I of WTC, particularly most of the preludes.

Leila Batarseh wrote (October 20, 2003):
I'm a bit surprised so many people have suggested the WTC as a good introduction to Bach's keyboard music. Am I the only one who just didn't like it until I'd heard it several times? I actually fell asleep the first time I tried to listen to it - of course, it was Kirkpatrick's on clavichord, so maybe that was just because I couldn't hear it! :~)

Alpha H. Walker wrote (October 20, 2003):
Most people I know really fall in love with Glenn Gould’s “The Little Bach Book.” Children especially get really turned onto it. My daughter had to have that album to fall asleep to for many years of her childhood.

François Haidon wrote (October 20, 2003):
Leila Batarseh wrote: " I'm a bit surprised so many people have suggested the WTC as a good introduction to Bach's keyboard music. Am I the only one who just didn't like it until I'd heard it several times?"
I wouldn't have thought of it myself this way, but on the other hand one of the things I enjoy about the WTC is that although it's such a massive compendium, you can also hear it as a series of very short though intellectually stimulating bi-sectional works who stand perfectly on their own, while demanding a limited time investment from the listener. Plus there are 48 to choose from! :)

François Haidon wrote (October 20, 2003):
Pablo Fagoaga wrote: "I agree. MO and AoF may be a bit too "abstract". Surely monumental to those who have technical formation, enjoyable for those of us who don't have too much technical knowledge BUT lot's of Bach music in our heads, but absolutely tedious for begginers."
Well, the AoF was among the first Bach works I heard, and while I obviously couldn't grasp the more complex technical aspects of the writing (I'm not that much better at it today, i'm a...), I immediately took to its hypnotic quality, the fact that you have a single theme to look out for throughout, so I'd say that in this respect the AoF is a remarkably "newbie-friendly" experience compared to being bombarded with themes and melodies by, say, a Mozart Piano Concerto...

François (three years into Bach and forever a newbie)

David Glenn Lebut Jr. wrote (October 21, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] I agree. The problem, though, becomes how does one treat Bach's later works? That is why I recommended the two Leonhardt recordings. The Musikalisches Opfer and the Die Kunst der Fuge in a way go hand-in-hand. They represent the "final thoughts" Bach had on canonical and fugal writing. Also, the Musikalisches Opfer does offer something in the way of dance-like movements-especially in the Triosonate movement. And there are dance-rhythms in the Die Kunst der Fuge as well.

David Glenn Lebut Jr. wrote (October 21, 2003):
[To Leila Batarseh] Like other areas of Bach's Oeuvre, Keyboard music spans pretty much his whole life. That is why I personally would not recommend solely theDas Wohltemperierte Klavier as a representative work to introduce listeners to Bach's music. It might be good at an intermediary point, but I would actually start off by recommending works that represent the different facets of his career. That is why I would recommend the following: The Capriccios B-Dur and E-Dur BWV 992-993, the Tokkaten BWV 910-916 (including BWV 912a), the Klavierbuechleinen fuer Wilhelm Friedemann and Anna Magdalena Bach, the French and English Suites, the four parts of the Klavieruebung, and the Die Kunst der Fuge.

Leila Batarseh wrote (October 21, 2003):
[To David Glenn Lebut Jr.] David, I think you're going to have to tie your victim, I mean your Bach beginner, to a chair to get him to submit to your program. (I have a friend who once made me listen to everything ever recorded by a singer I didn't like. This regimen did not have the desired effect.) Just teasing, you know,

David Glenn Lebut Jr. wrote (October 23, 2003):
[To Leila Batarseh] The point was instead of just one style, one should include a variety of styles. In other words, instead of just dance music (as per your suggestion), one should try to ecompass all genres. That is why I suggested the ones I did. They cover the gammut of Bach's Klavier writing in both time and style: Capriccio, Tokkate (or Praeludium), Invention, Sinfonie, Suite, dance movements, Partita, Choral, Vokalarie, Duett, Fuge, Kanon, Konzert, Choralfuge, Veraenderungen, and Triosonate and from early life to his last days. I could have just suggested the Klavierbuechleinen, but that would have been too narrow a scope in both time and style. That is the problem I find when people try to recommend things to novices. They try to pick only certain types representing a certain style and/or time period and then pass it off as representative of that composer's entire oeuvre. Have you ever stopped to look at the various samplers of Bach Orgelwerke, for instance. They take either works from the Weimar period or from the Leipzig period and pass them off as representative of his entire oeuvre for Organ. In point of fact, it is not representative of his entire oeuvre in that field of composition. It might be representative of that particular period of his organ composition, but not of his entire oeuvre. There are huge chunks left out. For instance, his earlier style was much more flamboyant and improvisatory than during his Weimar years, especially after ca. 1711, when he started to incorporate Italian elements and concerto style in his organ writing. However, many samplers ignore this period of his compositional life. The same goes for the time in Koethen, when he composed his most celebrated early organ works: the Orgelbuechlein (except for the later (familiar) versions of BWV 620, 630, and 631, and BWV 614 and 634) and the Praeludium (Phantasie) and Fuge g-Moll BWV 542 (although an earlier version of the Fuge was composed in Weimar, the Praeludium and the version of the Fuge we know today were products of his Hamburg visit and candidature in 1720).

Leila Batarseh wrote (October 23, 2003):
< That is the problem I find when people try to recommend things to novices. They try to pick only certain types representing a certain style and/or time period and then pass it off as representative of that composer's entire oeuvre. >
I understand your reasoning, but I still think the beginner will be overwhelmed by your long list of suggestions. I don't think most people would play the Goldbergs (or whatever) for someone and say "This is representative of all Bach's keyboard music." I think they would play the Goldbergs and say "This was written by Bach. Isn't it wonderful? Would you like to hear some other things he wrote?" Also a little confused by the "dance music" comment...

David Glenn Lebut Jr. wrote (October 23, 2003):
[To Leila Batarseh] Ahh....but they do! The idea is not to do that, but to show that, like any other artistic and/or human endeavor, composition evolves. A composer like Bach evolved his style over a long period of time. They have been influenced by immediatemodels and later by other models infiltrating their immediate circle. In Bach's case, for example, his earliest models were those that worked in the central German regions that he lived in. His brother Johann Christoph was the first to expose him to other German influences, both as a student of Johann Pachelbel (one of the finest representatives of the last generation of the South German Organ School of Composition) and through the manuscripts he had of works by such musicians as Buxtehude, Luebeck, Boehm, Reincken, Bruhns, Scheidt, Scheidemann, and Buttstedt of the North German Organ School and Pachelbel, Kerll, Froberger, and Fischer of the South German Organ School. Later in his adolescence he was exposed to the music of the Hugenot French refugees. During this time, he also learned under Boehm, Reincken, Luebeck, and (during his first official position in Arnstadt) Buxtehude. When in Weimar, he was exposed to the current Italian styles. Finally in Leipzig he came under the influence of the Rococo style. Therefore it is better to sample works from all periods of his life than to pick and choose amongst the popular ones (which oftentimes are not representative of his entire style devlopment but rather a small glimpse at it. The same reason goes for my recommendation of Rilling's 1997 recording of the Johannespassion. It is the only one (that I know of) to record all versions of the Johannespassion (BWV 245). It gives the same prinicple in miniature-a rare glimpse into the compositional process.

Santu De Silva wrote (October 23, 2003):
Matthew Westphal asked: < What recording would you use to introduce a complete newcomer to -
- Bach's vocal music? >
me: I would say the opening chorus of BWV 147. This is connected in an obvious way to the famous chorale that most people are likely to be familiar with.

In addition, I would look for an aria or duet or trio, and there are many to choose from, e.g. Mein gleibiges Herze (sp?) from BWV 68, and many numbers from the Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248), for instance, or the lovely soprano duet in the Credum of the B minor mass (BWV 232) (with the unigenitum part!)

< - Bach's orchestral/ensemble music? >
Well there's Brandenburgs 4, 5 and 6, and the jolly suites, esp 3 and 4!

The other concertos do beautifully here, too, e.g. 1060, or 1044, or maybe 1043.

< - Bach's chamber music? >
One of my favorites is the trio from the Musical Offering, with the crazy chromatic theme buried in it like a bunch of Easter eggs.

< - Bach's keyboard music? >
Trio sonata in E-flat (BWV 525?)

John Pike wrote (October 27, 2003):
[To Santu De Silva] A very good selection.

I, too, love the trio sonata from the Musical Offering, but I'm not sure I would suggest it for a newcomer to Bach's music.

I find the coffee cantata always goes down well.

Emily L. Ferguson wrote (October 27, 2003):
John Pike wrote: < I find the coffee cantata always goes down well. >
As long you provide it with cream and sugar and piping hot!

Bradley Lehman wrote (October 27, 2003):
John Pike wrote: < A very good selection. I, too, love the trio sonata from the Musical Offering, but I'm not sure I would suggest it for a newcomer to Bach's music. I find the coffee cantata always goes down well. >
And if you're ever near Berkeley California, check out this shop that is an early-music-CD and coffee shop, and the home of Wildboar Recordings. http://www.musicaloffering.com/

Until looking at their tribute to Joseph Spencer just now: http://www.musicaloffering.com/joseph.html
I hadn't been aware that he passed away on St Cecilia's Day (patron saint of music). It's hard to believe he's been gone almost two years already. I'm glad to have met him, unfortunately briefly.

Brad Lehman (producer of these two of their discs:
http://www.musicaloffering.com/wildboar/frans_schubert_bflat.html
http://www.musicaloffering.com/wildboar/frans_schubert_eflat.html

Stephen Benson wrote (October 31, 2003):
Bradley Lehman wrote: < And if you're ever near Berkeley California, check out this shop that is an early-music-CD and coffee shop, and the home of Wildboar Recordings: http://www.musicaloffering.com/ >
Thanks for the reference to Wildboar. For the past few years I've been stuck with a defective recording of the Parmentier Partitas (WLBR 9101), which I had purchased from Amazon. The last four tracks of the D Major Partita were a mess on the first copy I bought, and when Amazon promptly replaced it for me, I found the same defects on the replacement copy. At that point I decided a more effective course of action would be to contact Wildboar directly. Subsequently, hearing that Wildboar had gone under, I bit the bullet and reconciled myself to enjoying the remainder of the disc, which, despite its crippled condition, continues to get a lot of playing time as one of my favorite recordings of the Partitas.

Reading your post, however, and finding that Wildboar is still going strong, I emailed The Musical Offering and immediately received a response offering to replace my defective copy with a new one. It's heartening to find a business that wants to honor its commitment to its customers, and I'm excited about hearing the entire performance unencumbered with technical glitches.

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Last update: ıNovember 9, 2003 ı21:52:33