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Performance of Bach’s Vocal Works
General Discussions - Part 17

Continue from Part 16

Bradley Lehman wrote (April 1, 2006):
"reiteration of performance mannerisms"

< At the risk of creating yet another outcry and controversy through the reiteration of performance mannerisms found particularly among historically informed performers using 'reconstructions' of original instruments and attempting to recreate an 'authentic sound' that might resemble what Bach might have heard, here are a few important characteristics (excessive mannerisms) that come to mind (...) >
Some straightforward solutions to this complaint come readily to mind.

1. Don't fancy some of the recordings one has bought, particularly those by Nikolaus Harnoncourt in the 1970s (which are obviously the prime object of disaffection here)? Problem easily solved: stop listening to them, or resell them to somebody who appreciates/fancies that musicianship more readily. (i.e., Why waste too much time/energy listening to something one does not personally enjoy or understand?)

2. Disturbed by allegedly inappropriate mannerisms of performers? Problem easily solved: apply oneself to become a certified teacher of performers, and an experienced practitioner of the music oneself, the better to instruct a generation to do it the right way henceforth. Bach himself instructed primarily by musical example, not by disseminating to the public any written prose about the alleged shortcomings of performers. (And when he did have a complaint along those lines, he took it to his employers, not to the public.) What is supposed to be accomplished through a self-appointed program of vigilante justice, against the careers of people who have earned the wings to perform these services?

3. If performers and scholars are supposed to get (and take to heart) the controversial point that we're unfit for our jobs, and should be doing those jobs a whole lot better according to prescribed guidelines: we might be a bit more receptive if such advice were offered with a sense of kindness and understanding, not a constant stream of vitriol. "One can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar."

Neil Mason wrote (April 1, 2006):
[To Thomas Braatz] You will know already that I don't agree with much of this. I just want to mention just one point.

If there is a difference of opinion in how the chorales should be performed, it does not follow that any of these views is "improper".

I simply don't understand why you can't accept that there can be valid differences of opinion on such matters.

Yang Jingfeng wrote (April 1, 2006):
Bradley Lehman wrote
< 1. Don't fancy some of the recordings one has bought, particularly those by Nikolaus Harnoncourt in the 1970s (which are obviously the prime object of disaffection here)? Problem easily solved: stop listening to them, or resell them to somebody who appreciates/fancies that musicianship more readily. (i.e., Why waste too much time/energy listening to something one does not personally enjoy or understand?) >
Thanks to Mr. Braatz, it would be good news for me if someone here on the list bothers to resell the H/L recordings at a reasonable price. :))

Ludwig wrote (April 1, 2006):
[To Yang Jingfeng] I would be interested in finishing up my collection set of the Harnoncourt recordings on cd. I have just about every volume except the last few volumes but I will have to check the collection to know which ones. For those of us who actually perform these Cantatas---I find them a nice reference work---although I do not always agree with the way things are being done---but that is artistic license.

I would also be interested in the Dorati Haydn Symphonies set on CD if the price is reasonable.

Raymond Joly wrote (April 1, 2006):
[To bwv846_893] No, sorry, dear Wohltemperiert, that will no do. Some people discussing performance styles are well informed, some are not; some are circumspect, some are dogmatic. Some are smug enough to think rhat everything can be ascertained methodically, leading to undisputable conclusions (their own). But those who think everything boils down to taste and feeling are every bit as far off the mark. There is room for rational discourse and exchange in those matters.

Thomas Braatz wrote (April 2, 2006):
Neil Mason wrote:
>>If there is a difference of opinion in how the chorales should be performed, it does not follow that any of these views is "improper".<<
I see no simple equal difference of opinion. Some matters may appear to be open to interpretation, but with the singing of chorales there can be certain interpretations which are contrary to about just everything that musicology with its historical sources can tell us. To be sure, we are not discussing here the overly romanticized interpretations of Bach's chorales by conductors who have recorded them up the the early 70s (and even after that date such as Solti's SMP, etc.) but rather those like the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt cantata cycle which prides itself in being well-founded in presenting reasonably 'authentic' performances with the almost exclusive use of boys' voices, imitation original instruments, and Baroque performance practices; in short, those things we have now come to expect from historically informed performances of Bach's music. There really should be no difference of opinion regarding the long-standing tradition of chorale/hymn-singing in the German Lutheran churches up through the time of Bach's use and performance of chorales as part of his church compositions. This is a matter of historical record amply covered by German musicologists and more recently summarized by Robert L. Marshall and Robin A. Leaver in the Grove Music Online. The connection between the 'cantional' and congregational singing is firmly established; and, although Bach's congregations in Leipzig, as far as it can be determined, did not join in the singing of the 4-pt. chorales that were part of his figural music, Bach's choirs, when performing his 4-pt. chorales, were singing by proxy and emulating the powerful singing of an entire congregation.

One of the goals in learning how to sing in Bach's time was to be able to sing notes, phrases, coloraturas, etc. as long as possible without taking a breath. This allowed singers, whether boys in a choir or adult men, to able to sing an entire phrase (or one line of the verse) in a chorale up to the punctuation mark, fermata, and/or marking for a pause/rest without taking a single breath.. With sustained, legato singing, the natural flow and ebb in the sound or volume of the voice(s) would be clearly and evenly audible from the beginning to the end of the phrase or line. Bach would have practiced this technique with the Thomanerchor just as many other cantors before him had done. There would be no unnatural 'poking and thrusting' of each note with a decided drop-off on any unaccented syllables, particularly at the end of the musical line where unaccented syllables would tend to be swallowed up. Bach would strive for a cantabile line supported by inner conviction, not for a special effect created by the use of artificially accented syllables which resemble an army of marching and stomping feet.

The Harnoncourt and Leonhardt renditions of Bach's chorales, specifically, the basic 4-pt. chorales ('stylus simplex') that are most often found at the end of cantatas are generally performed in a manner which does not at all conform to such an established tradition, but rather they represent an iconoclastic aberration from all that is known about the tradition of singing these chorales. One reason that can be surmised as to why these performers have chosen to pursue such an improper singing style is that both conductors are primarily specialized in playing instruments and lack a thorough, long-term vocal training as well as the necessary experience in singing sacred music from the 16th, 17th and early 18th centuries. Harnoncourt has even stated somewhere that his preference for short 2- to 3-note phases derives from what he understands as the inability of baroque violin bows to play legato beyond such very short phrases; accordingly, Harnoncbelieves that the vocal parts in a choir setting must follow suit.
There is also a misunderstanding/misapplication of the role of musical rhetoric which both Harnoncourt and Leonhardt perceive as requiring an expressiveness that can only occur when the text (along with the melodic lines) is more frequently interspersed with hiatuses and aided by strong accents. Upon hearing most of these chorale renditions, listeners will observe how the overall coherence and stability normally required of a 'song of faith' are lacking and the musical performances threaten to fall apart as they fail to express a direly needed unity and true conviction (having the boys scream and shout out the musical parts is no substitute for firm conviction in one's faith). In reality, and according to what is normally required from good choral (or even solo) singing, this Harnoncourt/Leonhardt approach is contrary to all the established ideas of what constitutes good singing: In Bach's day, and even a century or two before that time, the boys in a church choir were chosen based upon their natural musical talent and trained by the cantor (as also during Bach's lifetime) primarily at first by the daily singing of chorales. True cantabile singing was an extremely important goal. By perversely attempting to sing Bach's chorales in the manner which they have chosen, Harnoncourt and Leonhardt have lost their right to legitimately claim even the remotest element of authenticity and have instead created a caricature of chorale singing which cannot be taken seriously by those who are familiar with the German chorale-singing tradition.

Finally, here is a quote from Johann Mattheson's "Der vollkommene Capellmeister" Hamburg, 1739 p. 111:

"Der erste und wichtigste Uibelstand im Singen mag wol seyn, wenn durch gar zu öffteres und unzeitiges Athemholen die Worte und Gedancken des Vortrages getrennet, und die Läuffe unterbrochen oder zerrissen werden"

["The first and foremost deficiency in singing is probably when the singer breathes too frequently or at the wrong moment and thus causes a separation of the words and thoughts in a presentation and the coloraturas are interrupted or torn apart."]

Throughout this book, Mattheson repeatedly uses the term 'cantabile' and stresses how important this in composing and performing music, particularly vocal music. See:
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Topics/Recitatives.htm
and search for 'cantabile' on the BCW.

Now listen carefully to the performances (not just one or two, but at least 50 to 100) of the chorales in the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt Bach cantata series. Are they generally truly worthy of being considered as 'authentic' performances of Bach's music? Is there a flowing chorale melody present anywhere, a melody which inspires, and uplifts with true strength of conviction, or has the chorale been fractured and torn apart by heavy accents, muffled, unclear syllables, and unnecessary hiatuses?

[one extreme example occurs with an untexted chorale played in whole notes by a tromba in an aria - I cannot remember which cantata this was, but my report is in the BCW somewhere - with the chorale represented in whole notes, the trumpeter took a breath after almost every note thus ensuring the discontinuity of the chorale melody - I have no idea whether this was according to Harnoncourt's direction or whether the trumpeter simply lacked the capacity to retain sufficient breath to sustain the sound from one note to the next]

Neil Halliday wrote (April 2, 2006):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
< [one extreme example occurs with an untexted chorale played in whole notes by a tromba in an aria - I cannot remember which cantata this was, but my report is in the BCW somewhere - with the chorale represented in whole notes, the trumpeter took a breath after almost every note thus ensuring the discontinuity of the chorale melody - I have no idea whether this was according to Harnoncourt's direction or whether the trumpeter simply lacked the capacity to retain sufficient breath to sustain the sound from one note to the next] >
BWV 19/5, perhaps? Amazon.com

The trumpet here is certainly not satisfactory - it almost becomes inaudible in the first chorale line that is heard in the sample, and is a blemish on an otherwise pleasing performance of this beautiful music (with the strings sounding suprisingly rich and smooth flowing).

Eric Bergerud wrote (April 2, 2006):
Harnoncourt's views of tempo

[To Thomas Braatz] I'm sure that Mr. Braatz doesn't want me to speak for him. However, I do read his posts and unless I've seriously misunderstood him, he is not a fan of Harnoncourt, particularly the way that conductor approaches tempo in Bach's choral works. This is an issue that I think falls squarely into the "fact" realm of the fact or discretion equation. Harnoncourt has made quite clear that he believed in the late 1960's that his treatment of tempo in Bach was true to Bach performance technique - not something chosen as aesthetically most pleasing to Harnoncourt among interpretations a reasonable person chose. Obviously I can't offer an informed opinion on the issue myself. I am a fan, however, of Harnoncourt and would like to pass on some writings of his dating from 1968 that I think touch on some of Mr. Braatz's points.

First, I have reproduced some pages from the liner notes Harnoncourt wrote for his 1968 recording of the SMP:

"The difference between the notation of the Evangelist's recitatives in the score and in the holograph organ part is rather striking. This discrepancy has led to a great deal of confused speculation. The score was written after 1741, and the parts, it seems, shortly afterwards. As is well known, it is standard musicological practice to regard the chronologically latest source as an expression of the composer's final will. In this case the version contained in the parts is taken to represent an emendation of the score. However, apart from the fact that it would have been most unusual if Bach had wanted to make such significant alterations after having devoted more than 15 years to this work, it is quite implausible that he would suddenly have wanted to introduce a new style of accompanying recitatives in the St. Matthew Passion. In all the sacred and secular cantatas and in the St John Passion he had notated the recitatives as in the score of the St. Matthew Passion.

In the booklet for our recording of the St John Passion we pointed out the difference between what is notated and the actual performance of the recitatives. In secco recitatives, going by rules that were repeatedly written down, each bass note was only allowed to be played briefly (by the cello and accompanying keyboard instrument). This convention was well understood by ever continuo player at the time. However, the notation had to show the correct harmonies between the vocal line and the bass, whereby in practice the bass note continued to sound only in the listener's imagination. In this way it was always possible to understand the text quite clearly. Similarly, there are differences between what is written and what is played in the case of final appoggiaturas (here, in the above example, the two c1 had to be notated on "aber" because a dissonance would be incorrect at this juncture. However, going by the rules, the singer sings d1 c1). In the continuo part Bach exceptionally notated what was actually played and not the normal and orthographically correct long bass notes, as in the score. He probably wanted to ensure that the differences between the short notes in the Evangelist's recitative and the full note values in the recitativo accompangnato of Christ's recitatives, which were hardly noticeable in the part, would not lead to confusion. There is in fact no difference between the original scores of the St Matthew Passion and the St John Passion. Difonly exist in modern reprints because the parts are incorrectly interpreted as being Bach's revisions.

Bach was clearly at pains to write down everything as precisely as possible for the musician. This ran counter to the freedom usually accorded to performers in the 18th century, when it was the practice to allow singers and instrumentalists to improvise embellishments in solos and sometimes even in accompanying parts. Bach did not want to leave such things to chance in his works, and thus wrote out all the embellishments in full. Many of Bach's melismas and coloratura passages must be understood as written-out ornaments, and these of course have to be played far more lightly than essential melody notes.

One arrives at the natural tempo by extrapolating the actual motif in its unembellished form..."

Below is a page from the liner notes from the 1968 performance of the Mass in B (please excuse the lack of a few proper notation symbols):

TEMPO

The importance that the old masters attached to choosing the "correct metre" can hardly be overrated. There were repeated attempts to establish a basic metronome tempo so to speak, and there are enough sources (from all periods of musical history) for us to be able to make fairly clear statements on the tempi of all kinds of musical forms, The sign C for 4/4 and Cl for 2/2 still in use today are the remains of a complex system of signs that, in the earliest centuries of Western music, brought the various tempi into relation with an immutable basic tempo. A walking pace and the pulse played a decisive role as living references to this basic tempo, "integer valor". By means of these signs, the tempo relations could originally be calculated with almost mathematical precision. In Bach's time, parts of this system were still common musical knowledge. The tempo of a piece could be deduced without further explanation from three facts: the metric indication, the smallest occurring note value and the number of emphases per bar. The practical results gained from these traditions agree so exactly with other sources, e.g. the instructional works, that they represent an altogether credible and reliable source of information.

Of course, there were and there are never rigid rules, since the proper tempo was also determined by various extramusical factors such as the size of the choral and orchestral forces, the acoustics of the room etc. It was naturally known and taught in those times too that a big orchestra must play more slowly than a small one, that one must play or sing more slowly in resonant rooms than in "dry" ones and so forth. The same tempo can indeed sound different in various interpretations; here it is not only the size of the performing body and the acoustics that play an important role, but also the articulation. An ensemble that articulates well sounds faster and livelier than one playing broadly and uniformly.In general we can deduce from the sources that the old masters chose considerably faster tempi than one ascribes to them today, particularly in the slow movements. But fast movements as well were evidently played with great virtuosity and vitality, as can be substantiated if the pulse (taken at 80 per minute) and technical possibilities (that the semiquavers can still be played with single bow strokes by the strings and double tonguing by the wind) are used as a guide. Bach's son Philipp Emanuel said of him (as quoted in Forkel's Bach biography), "In the performance of his own pieces he usually chose a very lively tempo..."

The Italian tempo indications used today largely came into use in the 17th century. However, they did not determine the tempo by any means, but much more the musical expression (through which, of course, slight modifications of tempo could arise). We often find in the middle of an "Adagio" a Presto passage that is, however, only so marked in the part that plays the rapid notes, the basic tempo remaining the same. The Italian "expression" marks in the B minor Mass are to be understood in the same manner: Lente (Quitollis), Largo (Kyrie f), Molto Adagio (Kyrie !), Andante (Et in unum), Alia breve (Kyrie II, Gratias), Vivace (Gloria, Cum Sancto Spiritu),Vivace e Allegro (Et expecto). Particularly revealing is the Adagio indication in bar 121 of the Confitew: the time must remain almost the same here, the change of tempo and expression having been written into the composition. A change of tempo at the Adagio will be surely payed for at the very latest in the transitional passage to the Ei expects (bar 146), since a natural transition to the Vivace e Allegro can only be attained through a slight acceleration of the crotchets, new through a violent change of tempo.The Alia breve of the Confiteor, the Adagio and the Vivace e Allegro must therefore be performed at almost the same tempo.

The following is from Malcom Sargent's liner notes to his wonderful 1959 Messiah which illustrates that Harnoncourt is not alone flunking a "strict constructionist" test on baroque scores (one will note, however, that he lacks Harnoncourt's confidence that anything like a precise determination of correct tempo is possible):

"The instructions are so inadequate in the case of Handel that no conductor can direct a performance even of the first chord of the Messiah without making at least two arbitrary decisions. Handel does not even indicate in his score whether we are to start loudly or softly. He marks the first movement 'Grave', so that we know we must proceed slowly. But how slowly? The first note is a dotted crotchet, but composers in the 18th century often wrote a dotted note to indicate a double dotted note. I belive that in this case intended a dotted note, to be played as he wrote it, but many other conductors think otherwise, and no one knows which one is being truly Handelian. In the whole of the Messiah there is no indication of rallentando, of a crescendo or diminuendo; whole movements are written without one indication of loudness of softness, and with only a very indefinite indication of pace; marks of phrasing are non-existent, and bowings very occasional. Given the original score of the Messiah a conductor must make a personal decision at almost every bar."

One more point. I certainly agree with Mr. Braatz that McCreeh's Epiphany Mass is a wonderful recording. However, despite McCreesh's attempt to recapture something of the liturgical feel in the performance, I should think that the work overflows with "mannerisms" of all type. It is OVPP. No one will accuse McCreesh of taking his time. The two cantatas are both done in their entirety, when, as I understand it, they would have been segmented. Now we are clearly dealing with "discretion" and I have no quibble whatsoever. (Indeed, I see McCreesh has come out with a new Mozart Mass: here comes another dent to the bank book.) But if one is willing to give a wonderful but aggressive artist like McCreesh latitude, why not Harnoncourt and Leonhardt? I can't think of either, even in their wild youth, of being musical cowboys shooting up the saloon for the pure joy of wrecking period movement performance standards or being so drunk that they didn't know what they were doing.

Neil Mason wrote (April 2, 2006):
Neil Mason wrote:
>>If there is a difference of opinion in how the chorales should be performed, it does not follow that any of these views is "improper".<<
Thomas Braatz wrote:
< I see no simple equal difference of opinion. Some matters may appear to be open to interpretation, but with the singing of chorales there can be certain interpretations which are contrary to about just everything that musicology with its historical sources can tell us. To be sure, we are not discussing here the overly romanticized interpretations of Bach's chorales by conductors who have recorded them up the the early 70s (and even after that date such as Solti's SMP, etc.) but rather those like the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt cantata cycle which prides itself in being well-founded in presenting reasonably 'authentic' performances with the almost exclusive use of boys' voices, imitation original instruments, and Baroque performance practices; in , those things we have now come to expect from historically informed performances of Bach's music. >
I am not sure why you don't regard over romanticised interpretations improper but Harnoncout and Leonhardt to be improper. Consistency please.

< There really should be no difference of opinion regarding the long-standing tradition of chorale/hymn-singing in the German Lutheran churches up through the time of Bach's use and performance of chorales as part of his church compositions. This is a matter of historical record amply covered by German musicologists and more recently summarized by Robert L. Marshall and Robin A. Leaver in the Grove Music Online. The connection between the 'cantional' and congregational singing is firmly established; and, although Bach's congregations in Leipzig, as far as it can be determined, did not join in the singing of the 4-pt. chorales that were part of his figural music, Bach's choirs, when performing his 4-pt. chorales, were singing by proxy and emulating the powerful singing of an entire congregation. >
It is a big assumption that you make here. Choirs do not sing music in the same way that a congregation would. Choirs are, for example, much more able appropriately to colour the music in accordance with emotions within the text. Good choirs are better at this than less skilled choirs.

< One of the goals in learning how to sing in Bach's time was to be able to sing notes, phrases, coloraturas, etc. as long as possible without taking a breath. This allowed singers, whether boys in a choir or adult men, to able to sing an entire phrase (or one line of the verse) in a chorale up to the punctuation mark, fermata, and/or marking for a pause/rest without taking a single breath.. With sustained, legato singing, the natural flow and ebb in the sound or volume of the voice(s) would be clearly and evenly audible from the beginning to the end of the phrase or line. Bach would have practiced this technique with the Thomanerchor just as many other cantors before him had done. There would be no unnatural 'poking and thrusting' of each note with a decided drop-off on any unaccented syllables, particularly at the end of the musical line where unaccented syllables would tend to be swallowed up. >
Mmm... How do you know?

< Bach would strive for a cantabile line supported by inner conviction, not for a special effect created by the use of artificially accented syllables which resemble an army of marching and stomping feet. >
Ah yes, the familiar straw man argument.

< The Harnoncourt and Leonhardt renditions of Bach's chorales, specifically, the basic 4-pt. chorales ('stylus simplex') that are most often found at the end of cantatas are generally performed in a manner which does not at all conform to such an established tradition, but rather they represent an iconoclastic aberration from all that is known about the tradition of singing these chorales. One reason that can be surmised as to why these performers have chosen to pursue such an improper singing style is that both conductors are primarily specialized in playing instruments and lack a thorough, long-term vocal training as well as the necessary experience in singing sacred music from the 16th, 17th and early 18th centuries. Harnoncourt has even stated somewhere that his preference for short 2- to 3-note phases derives from what he understands as the inability of baroque violin bows to play legato beyond such very short phrases; accordingly, Harnoncourt believes that the vocal parts in a choir setting must follow suit. There is also a misunderstanding/misapplication of the role of musical rhetoric which both Harnoncourt and Leonhardt perceive as requiring an expressiveness that can only occur when the text (along with the melodic lines) is more frequently interspersed with hiatuses and aided by strong accents. Upon hearing most of these chorale renditions, listeners will observe how the overall coherence and stability normally required of a 'song of faith' are lacking and the musical performances threaten to fall apart as they fail to express a direly needed unity and true conviction (having the boys scream and shout out the musical parts is no substitute for firm conviction in one's faith). In reality, and according to what is normally required from good choral (or even solo) singing, this Harnoncourt/Leonhardt approach is contrary to all the established ideas of what constitutes good singing: In Bach's day, and even a century or two before that time, the boys in a church choir were chosen based upon their natural musical talent and trained by the cantor (as also during Bach's lifetime) primarily at first by the daily singing of chorales. True cantabile singing was an extremely important goal. By perversely attempting to sing Bach's chorales in the manner which they have chosen, Harnoncourt and Leonhardt have lost their right to legitimately claim even the remotest element of authenticity and have instead created a caricature of chorale singing which cannot be taken seriously by those who are familiar with the German chorale-singing tradition. >
Even if one were to concede that the singing is not good (and I don't) that does not make it improper.

< Finally, here is a quote from Johann Mattheson's "Der vollkommene Capellmeister" Hamburg, 1739 p. 111:
"Der erste und wichtigste Uibelstand im Singen mag wol seyn, wenn durch gar zu öffteres und unzeitiges Athemholen die Worte und Gedancken des Vortrages getrennet, und die Läuffe unterbrochen oder zerrissen werden"
["The first and foremost deficiency in singing is probably when the singer breathes too frequently or at the wrong moment and thus causes a separation of the words and thoughts in a presentation and the coloraturas are interrupted or torn apart."]
Throughout this book, Mattheson repeatedly uses the term 'cantabile' and stresses how important this in composing and performing music, particularly vocal music. See:
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Topics/Recitatives.htm and search for 'cantabile' on the BCW.
Now listen carefully to the performances (not just one or two, but at least 50 to 100) of the chorales in the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt Bach cantata series. Are they generally truly worthy of being considered as 'authentic' performances of Bach's music? Is there a flowing chorale melody present anywhere, a melody which inspires, and uplifts with true strength of conviction, or has the chorale been fractured and torn apart by heavy accents, muffled, unclear syllables, and unnecessary hiatuses?
[one extreme example occurs with an untexted chorale played in whole notes by a tromba in an aria - I cannot remember which cantata this was, but my report is in the BCW somewhere - with the chorale represented in whole notes, the trumpeter took a breath after almost every note thus ensuring the discontinuity of the chorale melody - I have no idea whether this was according to Harnoncourt's direction or whether the trumpeter simply lacked the capacity to retain sufficient breath to sustain the sound from one note to the next] >
A very long reply to a simple statement, which however does not at any point relate to the meaning of the word "improper".

BWV846-893 wrote (April 2, 2006):
[To Raymond Joly] I was not suggesting that "everything boils down to taste and feeling." My point: aesthetics play a greater role in this discussion than is being acknowledged.

If someone prefers Richter's or Klemperer's Bach to Gardiner's, that is fine. But to say that Gardiner's Bach is "too fast" or somehow distorts Bach's intentions is an aesthetic judgment, since (among other things) we do not have metronome readings from Bach's performances.

I personally find Klemperer's SMP too slow. But that is relative. When the automobile was popularized at the beginning of the 20th century, people complained of neck-breaking speeds around 15 mph.

And BTW, "rational discourse" is not at odds with aesthetics, the philosophy of art. There is a rich tradition of "rational" discussion on issues of artistic "taste" that goes back to Pla's The Republic.

We can try, as best as possible, to honor Bach's intentions. But, ultimately, the notes on the manuscripts are symbols that have to be interpreted. One gauge, then, becomes the musical result.

I, too, find some of Harnoncourt's earlier readings of Bach to be abrasive and musically unsatisfactory - some of the oboes are "squawky," etc. But I think that his recent recording of St. Matthew's Passion is highly musical. A sign of maturity? Perhaps. Or maybe a better balance of sensitivity to the musical forces that Bach used and musicality.

Douglas Cowling wrote (April 2, 2006):
Choirs, Quartets & Congregations

Neil Mason wrote:
< It is a big assumption that you make here. Choirs do not sing music in the same way that a congregation would. Choirs are, for example, much more able appropriately to colour the music in accordance with emotions within the text. Good choirs are better at this than less skilled choirs. >
This is one of the most telling arguments against congregations singing Bach harmonizations of chorales. Bach's settings are full of word-painting and symbolic rhetoric. A congregation of 500 simply cannot express the nuances that even a medium-sized choir can manage.

The sheer weight of a congregation singing the melody obliterates inner voices, and so the organ has to "beef up" and everything becomes a muddy mass. There is nothing worse than a performance of the SMP in which the audience, in a mistaken gesture of "participation", sings along with those successive Passion chorales. All of Bach's exquisitely tortured harmonizations are lost.

And it get worse! Because Bach's vocal register in the chorales is so high, we often see modern hymnbooks using downward transposition. It is an act of desecration to transpose the celestial E flat of the closing chorale of "Wachet Auf" down to C major to accommodate congregational partipation. What's next? Transposing the final chorale of the SJP down a fourth so people can hit the high A flat in Bach's original?

Now -- set a congregation singing one of the original isometric chorale versions in unison and without organ accompaniment and you have real music-making! Or one of the block harmony settings by Schein - nary a
passing note - and you get a strong melody line which is simply and forcefully supported by the organ harmonies.

Julian Mincham wrote (April 2, 2006):
[To Thomas Braatz] Many thanks for the examples I asked for.

I was not wishing to stir up old controversies; however it is useful both to me (and I guess a number of other relatively new subscribers) to see some of the main objections listed on the one page.

Just 2 general points in response.

1) it occured to me that possibly only about 2% of my listening to Bach cantatas have been of live performances, simply because CDs are so accessable and live performances that one can actually attend are so few by comparison. I guess this might be true for a lot of other lovers of the works. But this inevitably slants the listening AND from this, almost certainly, ultimately the performances. By this I mean that, in terms of balance, accuracy, tempo, articulation etc performers are able to do things quite differently for a recording than for a live performance (one of the reasons that I support the conductors who do record live performances even if they might not always accord to my taste)

The problem is that recordings are yet another way of removing the artifact from its context and what might 'work' in a recording might not 'work' in live performance (and this presupposes a similarity of performance venues which, of course is a fallacy in itself). I am fascinated by the problems of non-contextual performance. A recording (or Covent Garden street performance) of a digeridoo gives nothing of its effect coming across the Australian desert at night--because the context is removed. So should the performer 'adapt' his performance in order to catch the attention of a listener who is never likely to hear it in its proper context?

This seems to me to be one of the most fundamental problems in the 'authenticities' debate. i.e. should we wish to try to hear what Bach expected to hear---but in our own sitting rooms--which we can't anyway? Or is there some leeway for the creative performer to say--'I wouldn't do it this way in a concert hall--but I think it serves the expression/character of the music better to do it this way on the recording, for such and such a reason?' And if we accept this degree of latitude (or performer's discretion) how far may it go before it becomes mannered or even grossly distorting? Here, I think there is also room for the discretion of the informed listener (and yes, I know the word ;informed' is here a hostage to fortune).

2) My view is that in the early days of 'authentic' performances it was the case that people were coming to grips with the demands of the instruments and singing styles for which 'lost' techniques and practices had to be re-found. Then ,I think, Thomas's point three was more valid. Today I do not think that technical definciency is acceptable or excusable in the context of a quest for 'authenticity'.

However I repeat a quotation I have circulated before from the conductor of the London Classical players (Norrington) that when you play some Beethoven movements on the original instruments at the tempo indicated by the metroname marking, you stretch technique to its limit and acquire a sense of stress and strain that slower performances on modern instruments do not achieve.

The 'wind and rage' tenor aria from BWV 81 is, to my mind one contender for this from Bach's works.

Chris Bowson wrote (April 2, 2006):
What is the thinking these days on Quantz“s statement that in common time Allegros are played at 80 beats per minute, or the faster sort at 160, while Adagios are played at 40 beats per minute, or the slower sort at 20?

Thomas Braatz wrote (April 2, 2006):
Neil Mason wrote:
>>I am not sure why you don't regard over romanticised interpretations improper but Harnoncout and Leonhardt
to be improper. Consistency please.<<

I tried to imply that they were outside the focus of discussion. Those overly 'romanticized' interpretations are certainly improper and if you were acquainted with Solti's treatment of the Bach chorales in the SMP, you would know that such interpretations are improper as well. I even had the 'pleasure' of hearing Solti's SMP in concert. It was singularly different as a unique interpretation by a great conductor, but it also demonstrated Solti's lack of understanding how Bach's chorales should be properly performed. Solti, with all his experience in symphonic and operatic music, 'brings to the table' his own, very personal encounter with Bach. Solti did not contend that Bach would have conducted this music the same way. Bach's music survives admirably such a treatment, but the emphasis in my recent post is upon those who take a stand, whether implicitly or explicitly, in favor of 'authentic' performances.

>>It is a big assumption that you make here. Choirs do not sing music in the same way that a congregation would. Choirs are, for example, much more able appropriately to colour the music in accordance with emotions within the text. Good choirs are better at this than less skilled choirs.<<

Good choirs steeped in the 'romanticized' treatment of Bach's music have done just that: 'color music with emotions within the text' and very likely they overdid this. There is a very fine line to be tread in matters such as 'expressivity' in the simple chorales.

In my statement I wished to express the notion that the choir singing the 'simple' chorales must nevertheless embody symbolically the firm strength and solid foundation in faith. Obviously such a choir cannot match the power of an entire congregation singing together only the melody line, but it also must not have its projection of the high point of the cantata undermined with expressive mannerisms/exaggerations that detract from conveying a strong sense of what each member of the congregation should be feeling at this point.

>>Mmm... How do you know?<<
By listening intand repeatedly to the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt cantata recordings, carefully following the full score, considering the aesthetic, musical aspects of the performance (for instance, 'Are the mannerisms employed detracting/distracting the listener from what is really important?) and attempting to determine if the message has been successfully delivered to the listener in a manner that is fitting but also moving.

>>Even if one were to concede that the singing is not good (and I don't) that does not make it improper.<<
Bad singing is bad and therefore also 'improper' (not appropriate) for performing Bach's music whether the attempt for authenticism is made or not. Actually, a higher standard must be applied and adhered to when the word 'authentic' is invoked. [Your lower standard in judging the H&L chorale performances simply means that you allow the performers to indulge in greater excesses, but this indulgence on your part does not automatically mean that these performances are ok or proper from a musical standpoint where certain things are expected, one of which is true musicality which does not offend the ears of most listeners.] In this regard, the pioneering Harnoncourt/Leonhardt Bach cantata series, with a few exceptions here and there and with some individual superb artists who survived by 'doing their own thing' (often a case of the conductors selecting tempi too fast to sing or play and/or orchestra too loud or non-supportive) should serve as a substandard example for later HIP organizations to improve upon. Unfortunately, many of the musically improper aspects which were introduced by Harnoncourt/Leonhardt have persisted and have been emulated by later HIP groups.

Thomas Braatz wrote (April 2, 2006):
Neil Halliday wrote:
< BWV 19/5, perhaps? Amazon.com >
The trumpet here is certainly not satisfactory - it almost becomes inaudible in the first chorale line that is heard in the sample, and is a blemish on an otherwise pleasing performance of this beautiful music (with the strings sounding suprisingly rich and smooth flowing).<<

Thanks, Neil, that's it! See my discussion of it at: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV19-D.htm

Thomas Braatz wrote (April 2, 2006):
bwv846_893 wrote:
>>We can try, as best as possible, to honor Bach's intentions. But, ultimately, the notes on the manuscripts are symbols that have to be interpreted. One gauge, then, becomes the musical result.<<
Ultimately, yes, but not by side-stepping what is already meticulously indicated by Bach in his scores and parts by simply disregarding what is there, or devising/fabricating justifications for overriding Bach's intentions; for instance, that a 'p' does not mean a level of volume in Bach's scores or that an unwritten esoteric doctrine exists which is impossible to prove, but one to which every one of Bach's bc players adhered.

>>I, too, find some of Harnoncourt's earlier readings of Bach to be abrasive and musically unsatisfactory - some of the oboes are "squawky," etc.<<
Throughout most of the H&L Bach cantata series, Harnoncourt employed one or sometimes two oboists who simply never improved, yet Harnoncourt repeatedly chose them to represent what a Bach oboe must have sounded like.

Early in the series, Harnoncourt produced some interesting recordings. To be sure, there were some rough edges showing, but there was also an air of excitement which carried over to the listener. Harnoncourt was still experimenting using different vocal groups and soloists. Even the Tölz Boys Choir was still relatively unspoiled at first with the positive influence of the singing style used by their own choirmaster still quite perceptible. The recordings (these may have been with Leonhardt) with the Kings College Choir reflect a much higher level of choral mastery -- one wonders why this group was dropped after only a few recordings. Eventually, for the bulk of the cantata recordings, Harnoncourt managed to impose his inimitable choral singing style on the Tölz choir. Another choral group for which a listener might have high expectations is the Vienna Boys Choir. Very few, but remarkable solo arias by 'an unnamed boy' were truly excellent, but as a choir, the performances under Harnoncourt's direction suffered considerably producing inchoherent, insecure musical lines (except perhaps for the soprano and only sometimes the alto parts).

In short, the initial cantata recordings of both Harnoncourt and Leonhardt were indeed very promising, but these efforts could not be sustained. We will probably never know (and appreciate) the difficulties that were overcome in producing these early recordings, nor will we probably ever find out the reasons why the changes were made. But listeners, who have carefully studied and compared these results with other recordings (also HIP) have recorded their impressions of these performances on these lists (and the BCW). These accounts of their listening experiences along with the individual reader's encounter with these performances are perhaps much more important than discovering the background of political maneuvering that may have taken place to bring these recordings about.

Douglas Cowling wrote (April 2, 2006):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
< In my statement I wished to express the notion that the choir singing the 'simple' chorales must nevertheless embody symbolically the firm strength and solid foundation in faith. Obviously such a choir cannot match the power of an entire congregation singing together only the melody line, but it also must not have its projection of the high point of the cantata undermined with expressive mannerisms/exaggerations that detract from conveying a strong sense of what each member of the congregation should be feeling at this point. >
There are many examples where Bach's chorales are simply not "simple" and seem to imply dramatic effects.

Perhaps the most famous examples are the three settings of the Passion Chorale in the SMP (BWV 244) where Bach clearly has different "affects" in mind. No.53, "Befiefl du deine Wege" has a text which refers to "Wolken, Luft and Winden" and the inner parts are given a wafting wind figure. No.72, "Wenn ich einmal" is sung after the death of Jesus, and the lower parts are full of "dying" effects: the chromatic bass line in bar 5, the sinking syncopated tenor line in bar 6 and the final cadence on "Pein" which is delayed and fades away.

There are many other examples. The sudden attack of Satan in the second chorale of "Jesu Meine Freude" is depicted by aggressive angular lines. The point here is that none of these effects make any musical sense if the choir sings them in the same even manner. The gentle breezes in the SMP (BWV 244) are very different from the thunder and lightning of "Jesu Meine Freude".

And of course to have any of these harmonizations sung by the congregation would be to obliterate Bach's exquisite miniature effects in these chorales.

Thomas Braatz wrote (April 2, 2006):
Eric Bergerud wrote:
>>One more point. I certainly agree with Mr. Braatz that McCreeh's Epiphany Mass is a wonderful recording.
However, despite McCreesh's attempt to recapture something of the liturgical feel in the performance, I should think that the work overflows with "mannerisms" of all type. It is OVPP.<<

You are absolutely right here. Not only are there some extreme tempi, but also the horn parts are played at the higher octave. I really should also have included references to McCreesh's Praetorius Christmas Mass as I referred to the Roskilde congregation as participating in the recording. The singing of the Christmas music 'per choros' is truly exhilarating. I would not want to be without either of these recordings, which despite a few faults, nevertheless have been for me quite inspiring. Yes, I want the full sermons as well, delivered with a slight German representing the regions which are being postulated in each recording.

Thomas Braatz wrote (April 2, 2006):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
>>And of course to have any of these harmonizations sung by the congregation would be to obliterate Bach's
exquisite miniature effects in these chorales.<<

I hope that I have not, in any way, even by implication, stated that a congregation should ever sing a 4-pt. chorale setting by Bach if such a setting is part of figural music (cantatas, Passions, etc.).

The problem under discussion here is the use of extreme mannerisms (subtle expression of the chorale text is certainly allowable and desirable) that are intended to force the listener's attention to be unduly drawn to techniques of providing musical expression rather than to the more general impression which can be created without micro-managing every quaver and punctuation mark.

Bradley Lehman wrote (April 3, 2006):
< Yes, I want the full sermons as well, delivered with a slight German accent representing the regions which are being postulated in each recording. >
-- More HIP than anybody (the attempt to be in better command of more historical facts/principles);
-- Better antiquarian than anybody (Bach's music must be reproduced under as precise conditions of original circumstance as possible);
-- This particular consumer attempts to be better informed (and more picky and more particular) than musicians and scholars whose job it is to serve him these meals.

[I will grant that it's at least an admirable goal, even if it doesn't allow him ever to be satisfied!]

This (as it appears to me) is a crux of the matter, in this manner of criticism. No one is allowed to serve a meal--let alone even a piece of cake--that does not pass the inspection of this particular consumer, fancying himself to be the only person prepared well enough to understand Bach's intentions.

Every single detail must pass his satisfaction of expectations, even if it's impossible to deliver all at once; and even if it conflicts with the needs to serve any other listeners; and even if his own expectations are based on profoundly subjective interpretations of the evidence.

Professionals/experts are not allowed to do our jobs as we see fit, based on our own experience and/or training and/or thoughtful and careful research, and that of our betters. Nay; everything must be finessed around so the music may sound only and exactly the way the most-HIP and most-antiquarian amateur listener imagines it must be. And if we don't deliver that, we get our heads kicked in, in public. Sometimes it's straightforward kicks. Other times it's interminable argumentation, burning off the time/energy with which we could actually be going and doing the work. Everything offered, from doing the job as we see fit, gets subjected to doubt: and usually unreasonable doubt (or downright cynicism) at that.

And, then there's also the part where the consumer's inspection need not always involve the actual reading of source material, whether ancient or the product of modern musicology. Principles and rationalizations need not necessarily agree with material that is straightforward; it suffices to imagine what the author said, or should have said, instead of taking a look at what was actually delivered. Sometimes it suffices to refuse to read an article, and then to save face for half a dozen rounds of rationalization, instead of going to a decent library and spending half an hour reading the article.

Hence my frustration with this, in my attempts to be a musician and researcher, and holding rather good credentials in these areas as the result of 20 years seriously working at it. But nothing I do could ever possibly be good enough; and that's somehow judgeable without even bothering to read my articles or listen to my recordings. The consumer is already decided to be dissatisfied, and any other facts or evidence need not apply.

=====

Well, I have an article to go write, on a serious commission from a real publisher, with a deadline coming soon. My wife also has some major milestones to accomplish soon, and I should be putting in better energy as her supportive husband in that.

So, apparently I should not waste any more time/energy in this particular forum, until my draft of that real work is ready to turn in, and until she has achieved some of hers too. See y'all, sometime.

Neil Mason wrote (April 3, 2006):
[To Thomas Braatz, regading his response to Neil Mason]
ah, so "improper" to you simply means "inappropriate".

This is a matter of preconception. I have never heard Solti's Bach; however, if I were to do so, I would start with an open mind. If there were anything unexpected I would say to myself "I would probably do something different", not "Solti is improper".

One cannot determine what Bach heard or wished for by "listening carefully".

I do not believe it is true that I have a "lower standard" when judging singing; I just have different priorities. That does not make what you desire "proper" and what I desire "improper".

I am tiring of this discussion and will let you have the last word if you insist upon it.

Ed Myskowski wrote (April 3, 2006):
Brad Lehman wrote:
< See y'all, sometime. >
Actually, he wrote quite a bit more. I think he said it best some time back, to the effect:

If you have recordings you don't like, don't play them. Better yet, pass them along to someone who might enjoy them.

Raymond Joly wrote (April 3, 2006):
Neil Mason wrote:
< I am tiring of this discussion and will let you have the last word if you insist upon it. >
Neil Mason has had enough and suggests we stop. Right. I am tired too, and I am terribly sorry it turned out that way.

Thomas Braatz listed a series of points about which it is possible to gather evidence in order to come as close as possible to knowing what sounds Bach probably wanted to hear from his performers. This is a fruitful endeavour, I want more of it, though of course I am aware:

1) That it is impossible to reconstruct the experience of a cantata at St. Thomas (no joke intended), simply because we are not in the right place at the right time; that is, we are not the right people for this to happen. After all, MM. Hume and Kant have written a few little things, and we do not believe any more that we can grasp an object as if the subject grasping were not an essential part of the procedure. I am an 18th-century scholar, I am not an 18th-century person, and the question whether I can turn into a virtual one is foolish; I can just look at mental images the 18th century, not be in the real one;

2) It is legitimate to pursue other aims when performing Bach. I am not particularly interested, but who am I to forbid those who want those things? And I must confess that I have trained my ear not to hear Landowska's harpsichord while listening to the music she makes. -- Let me qualify my statement: some aims, not all aims. WELL-TEMPERED, 1st prelude, on Hawaiian guitar and mewing violins with push-the-button beat is not allowed.

Unfortunately, hubris has crept in, Aristoteles has been forgotten ("There is no science of the particular"), some people have seemed to behave as if historical "evidence" was as unambiguous as the calculation of solar eclipses. This is not new to this discussion, by the way, any more than marriage and adultery are new to society. There was a gentleman on this site, a few years ago, who asserted that nothing had ever changed in the least in Lutheran services since the time of Luther (a particularly efficient Pope, I realize). Reality beats men all the time: they fancy they are masters of it by knowledge. I even have read hints that a criterion for evaluating performances was whether they were redolent of true faith. Leaving alone the question of who knows who has the right faithful feeling and who has not, just consider what faith has produced in the way of sublime charity and spiritual elevation on the one side, of oppression and massacres on the other side, and say if you are very willing to enthrone it as a competent arbiter on matters like how long the bass notes are to be held in a recitative.

It is a pity we strayed off frrational discourse. I do not think that everyone just enjoying himself doing his own thing deserves the name of culture.

I agree with Neil Mason, though I am afraid he will smirk at me doing the opposite of what I preach. Maybe a part of our mental hygiene for the next couple of weeks should consist in listening to all sorts of music, just not Bach.

 

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