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Performance of Bach’s Vocal Works

General Discussions - Part 5

 

 

Continue from Part 4

Bach expecting players to make mistakes

Continue of discussion from: Helmuth Rilling – General Discussions – Part 4

Bradley Lehman wrote (July 17, 2003):

< Thomas Braatz wrote: [quoting Michael Marissen in his “The Social and Religious
Designs of J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos”]
“Bach’s trumpet obbligato in cantata
BWV 77 "or, to be more precise, his specific treatment of the instrument there" probably did in fact have something to do with internal factors. The aria text reads, “Oh, there bides in my loving still nothing but imperfection.” What more effective way was there at the time to help express this imperfection than to have the natural (valveless) trumpet struggling through material that is exceedingly unnatural for the instrument?“ >
Bach expecting his players to make mistakes (or to sound like it), on purpose? Definitely! Here's another example from cantata BWV 78, the tenor recitative:
http://www.cs.ualberta.ca/~wfb/cantatas/78.html

"Will ich den Schaden nicht verhehlen,
So kann ich nicht, wie oft ich fehle, zählen."

That is: "I can't even count the number of times I make mistakes."

At that point, the bass line jumps all over the place, rapidly, and every chord is a diminished seventh. The figured bass numerals are just about impossible to read, stacks of altered notes. It's certainly playable without mistakes, once one has worked out what it is (straightforward diminished sevenths)...but musically it still sounds like a bunch of random chords with no direction to them. It illustrates the text. Bach was good at this. This entire recitative is packed with diminished sevenths and other deliberately ugly bits, until it resolves into a sweet and lovely progression finally in the last few bars, as the singer throws his many sins onto Jesus to let Jesus deal with them mercifully.

We performed this one, plus the following aria "Das Blut", a few weeks ago (June 19th). Since we didn't have an organ in that concert hall, I was playing harpsichord. When the tenor got to that point about the countless mistakes, I played all the diminished chords very loudly and roughly, emphasizing how the music deliberately doesn't make any sense, and how it can sound frustrated and frustrating. The cellist really whacked those notes, too. I trust that this interpretation, bringing out the musical effects as strongly as possible, was quite in line with Bach's intentions.

In rehearsal our singer jokingly referred to this recitative as "Schoenberg's worst nightmare." I jokingly referred to it as "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" (a reference to the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?) because of the first line of the recitative's text, and the overall character.

English translations:
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV78.htm

Robert Sherman wrote (July 17, 2003):
< Thomas Braatz wrote: All of these characteristics [cracking high notes, restricted dynamic range, splatty low notes, and dead foggy tone] of genuinely historic valveless trumpets (trombae) (without nodal finger holes) need not be present if the instruments are properly reconstructed according to the original instruments which do exist in museums throughout Europe and then properly played upon. >
Tom, can you refer me to a recording in which this is done?

Thomas Braatz wrote (July 18, 2003):
Bradley Lehman stated: >>Bach expecting his players to make mistakes (or to sound like it), on purpose? Definitely!<<
Another one of Brad's imaginative exaggerations which have no foundation in a reality that is based upon historical evidence!

From the necrologue written by C.P.E. Bach, Agricola, Mizler, and Venzky (Leipzig, 1754):

"Sein [Bachs] Gehör war so fein, daß er bey den vollstimmigsten Musiken, auch den geringsten Fehler zu entdecken vermögend war."

[Bach's hearing was so 'fine' [= sensitive and capable of making very fine distinctions, in other words, a delicate sense of hearing] that he was capable of uncovering [=hearing] even the slightest error in the midst of a composition written for the largest number of musicians (a composition that had the greatest number of separate parts/voices.)]

Bach did NOT expect his players to make mistakes the way some HIP conductors countenance the sloppy playing and singing of their musical forces. On the contrary, he only made his players 'sweat a little more' when the text called for it, and even if the audience may not have noticed it, at least the musicians were aware of what Bach was doing with the music. Bach spoke musically on various levels. See also my article on the use of "Kreuz"/cross/sharp": http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Articles/Esoteric.htm

and another quote (from the same document) that bears repeating since it counters much of what Brad currently stands for (imprecision, etc.):

"Im Dirigieren war er [Bach] sehr accurat, und im Zeitmaaße, welches er gemeiniglich sehr lebhaft nahm, überaus sicher."

[Bach was very accurate in conducting the performances of his music, and he was also extremely secure/certain about the tempi that he took, tempi which he generally took at a good (very animated/lively) pace.]

The notion that Bach allowed for sloppy, inaccurate, 'ugly' (blaring, splatting sounds from the brass, or uncontrolled 'falsettist-type' voices) is an inaccurate reading of the historical record and is used as an excuse by numerous HIP conductors who have transformed a vice which Bach watchfully eradicated wherever he could into a present-day virtue that listeners are asked to believe is historically accurate.

I had asked: "Why are there so few really good tromba players available for cantata recordings?"

Brad retorted: "You mean now, or 25 years ago when people were making the recordings you hate?"

Since Brad's eyes usually 'glaze over' when he sees my weekly cantata critiques, he would be blissfully unaware that I have been referring to the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt as well as to the relatively recent [Leusink] (and currently running) cantata series that have been recorded or are still continuing. Despite my occasionally direct criticisms of what I hear, I do not 'hate' recordings. I only feel that there are many that do no live up to a higher standard of a 'world-level' performance that is worthy of Bach's intentions. From that standpoint they are inferior, but for a rather 'normal' church choir to attempt these great works is, in any case, a worthwhile endeavor which is 'profitable' musically and spiritually for both musicians, singers and audience, especially as a live performance. It is, however, dangerous for most of these groups then to presume that they have a 'world-level' performance on their hands when they are being compared on recordings with other musical groups and soloists who are superior in their musical abilities to present this music in such a way as to have the fullest impact upon the listener who can return to such a recording again and again.

In any case, on the BCML there are only individual listeners who are voicing their opinions on these recordings. Despite the differing opinions, I do not believe that any individual's comments should be construed as the absolute 'truth,' but rather these should be examined and considered by others who read them so that they can begin to make up their own minds regarding the relative virtues inherent in the many recordings that do exist. The free flowing and exchanging of ideas that can lead to true understanding should not be impeded by some contributors trying to 'paint' individuals as belonging to only one side, being old-fashioned, or being boxed into a black/white category by those who wish to impose their own agenda upon others. I still believe that categorizations and labels are necessary unless we want taccept everything that is being produced on recordings as being equal in quality, a quality that will cause listeners to perceive equal enjoyment of the musical aspects as well as the emotional aspects that emanate from the cantata texts. However, I still hear these distinctions in quality although others may not or may not want to.

Arjen van Gijssel wrote (July 20, 2003):
Thomas Braatz wrote: "[...} an excuse by numerous HIP conductors who have transformed a vice which Bach watchfully eradicated wherever he could into a present-day virtue that listeners are asked to believe is historically accurate."
I do not understand one single bit of what you are arguing. With these kind of sentences (this one merely being an example from your postings) you show yourself Don Quichote fighting against windmills. In what world are you living???

Of course Bach was a great conductor, inspiring, with excellent ears, demanding and all that. Still, I believe that in actual performances, mistakes must have been made. In his early years he even had a quarrel on it (Zippelfagottist), which went out of hand.

Bach worked with youngsters, who in spite of being submerged in music as schoolboys, must have lost concentration sometimes, or didn't have enough rehearsal time. That is what is happening in real life, with real performances. That is unknown territory for people who only listen to music from their amplifier and boxes.

Do not exagerate, Thom, in attributing vices to HIP performers (= by the way, Brad is HIP?), especially if you haven't a clue of practitioning music.

Robert Sherman wrote (July 21, 2003):
[To Arjen van Gijssel] While Arjen's personal attack against Thomas Braatz strikes me as excessive and inappropriate, I have to agree with his basic point.

As I understand Tom's reasoning, repeatedly stated, it goes something like this:

(1) Bach had a fine ear and well understood the difference between good and bad performance.

(2) Therefore Bach would never have accepted bad performances, including splatty out-of-tune trumpets and so forth.

(3) Therefore Bach's performances must have been magnificent, free of splats, out-of-tune notes, and so forth.

In other words, what Bach wanted must have been what he got.

But not every problem has a solution, and not every desire, even those of the great JSB, is satisfied. I don't doubt that it was unacceptable to Bach that trumpets splatted, were out of tune, played uneven scales, etc. as Tom points out in his comments on the finger-hole trumpets in Leusink's recordings. Neither do I doubt that Bach found it unacceptable that cataracts destroyed his eyesight in his later years. But the technology to cure cataracts just didn't exist then, so he had to accept the unacceptable. I wasn't there of course, but all the evidence I hear tells me that he also
had to live with defective brass sounds as he had to live with failed eyesight.

Today, modern technology makes treatment of ocular cataracts effective and reliable. So has it made trumpet playing that's clean and in tune.

Twice, Tom has quoted various authorities to the effect that the original natural trumpets, now in museums, must have played cleanly, in tune, with even scales, etc without any modern devices added. Twice, I have asked him to direct me to recordings in which this is done. I have never received a reply.

Text is not performance. I can easily write words in which I claim to be able to sing a five-octave range. I have just done it. But anyone would be entitled to challenge my claim and ask to hear me do it -- which, of course, I can't. Similarly, anyone can write words about what could be done with the actual trumpets of Bach's time. But, to paraphrase the "Jerry Maguire" movie, SHOW ME THE SOUNDS.

Neil Halliday wrote (July 21, 2003):
[To Arjen van Gijssel] Arjen, Thomas was replying to a remark by Brad which implied that "mistakes" can, in certain contexts (eg, music expressing extreme emotion etc), be considered as a legitimate 'vital' part of a performance.

We all realize 'unintentional' mistakes will be made by performers, and nobody is condemning the performers for this, but Brad is perhaps pushing the meaning of 'mistakes' too far (he raised my eyebrows here).

(This brings to mind a remark by Canadian critic Philip Anson, who commented on the "frenetic bowing and eczematic string tone" of some period performances, with such bowing resulting in some very raucous sound, even if there are no actual mistakes; Brad seems to want to go further than this).

I believe you are a performer in the Laurenzcantorij group, performances of which I regarded highly (from the link you supplied); you certainly need not feel threatened by Tom's remarks.

Part of the problem on this board is that we have two groups of people - listeners to CD's on one hand, and performers on the other.

Note that Tom also said this:
"...on the BCML there are only individual listeners who are voicing their opinions on these recordings. Despite the differing opinions, I do not believe that any individual's comments should be construed as the absolute 'truth,' but rather these should be examined and considered by others who read them so that they can begin to make up their own minds regarding the relative virtues inherent in the many recordings that do exist. The free flowing and exchanging of ideas that can lead to true understanding should not be impeded by some contributors trying to 'paint' individuals as belonging to only one side, being old-fashioned, or being boxed into a black/white category by those who wish to impose their own agenda upon others."
I agree with this completely.

Matthew Neugebauer wrote (July 21, 2003):
[To Neil Halliday] If no one minds, I'm going to go back to the recit in BWV 78. Yes, the chords seem quite random (I wonder if they were in fact put down at random). This being so, I do not believe that Bach intended his players to actually make mistakes here-he just intended it to sound as if the organist is messing the whole thing up accidentally, even though he/she is in reality playing the chords perfectly.

Christian Panse wrote (July 21, 2003):
< Robert Sherman wrote: Today, modern technology makes treatment of ocular cataracts effective and reliable. So has it made trumpet playing that's clean and in tune. >
You gain this, you lose something else; and this is IMHO a sound that unites with the others singers and players.

From my personal experiences as a bass solo singer I can say that it is quite awful to be accompanied by so-called "Bach trumpets" in high Bb. One the one hand, this is a matter of sheer loudness, because these instruments have been designed for the demands of rather big orchestras with "modern" strings. Everyone else in the orchestras with which I sang so far seemed to hate them too - especially string players obviously players had a hard time to endure the high acoustic pressure.

The other, for the listener more important factor is that these special trumpets don't blend good (in comparison to baroque trumpets) - neither with the rest of the ensemble, nor with the room they're played in. Must have to do something with the overtones; I suspect there are too few of them.

Robert Sherman wrote (July 21, 2003):
[To Christian panse] Listen to the recordings I've listed, and tell me if you can fault the blend or balance. I can't.

Modern trumpets have considerably more, rather than fewer, upper overtones than historic instruments. That's what gives their brighter sound, which you may or may not like. Among modern brasses, the flugelhorn has the weakest overtones -- and its sound is fairly close to that of a historic trumpet.

Regarding blend, the problem is that many trumpeters have the mindset that "I am loud, therefore I am." This is fine for Wagner but sometimes inappropriate for baroque. But in that case, just don't hire that player.

As a bass soloist, I'm sure you are familiar with the many recordings of "The Trumpet Shall Sound" and "Grosser Herr und Starker König." in which a modern trumpet (in A, not Bb) matches the level of the singer quite well. In my list on my last post I specify such recordings, but in recordings of these arias good balance between the trumpet and the soloist is the norm rather than the exception.

I myself have played modern piccolo trumpet with amateur and local-level professional bass and soprano soloists ("Bright Seraphim," etc.), including my wife who sings solo in our church choir. Matching the level of the singer isn't difficult; the trumpeter just has to accept the need to do it. If your trumpeter isn't doing that, work with your conductor to rectify the problem.

Thomas Braatz wrote (July 22, 2003):
Bradley Lehman stated: >> as I said a few months ago, and I've been committed to, I'm not intending to review specific recordings blow-by-blow anymore against other recordings. The comparison of existing recordings is not really a "HIP debate" at all, as practiced here on this list; rather, it degenerates into "I like this and I don't like that" but disguised as eternal truth, and (in some cases) prescriptive pontification by people who have very little--if any--actual performance experience. It's more annoying than helpful, and possibly libelous against professional musicians...why take it that far?<<
I can understand Brad’s reluctance to say anything negative about any of the more recent Bach cantata recordings. By not wishing to express in English what causes some recordings not to be as good as others out of fear that criticism will not be helpful and that he will have committed libel, Brad leaves us with a rather colorless, rather lopsided world of Bach cantata recordings for a neophyte to choose from: a few recordings that illustrate Brad’s ideal of extremism in performance practices on the one hand, and an unmentionable, quite large category of ‘other recordings’ which do not fit into his preconceived concept of what will move a listening audience.

It was very interesting for me that Brad, early on in his contributions to the BCML, raised a number of crucial questions about performance practices which he wanted answer immediately. I recognized among these many which, for a few years, I have been struggling to understand, and yet he expected clear answers from me quickly. I saw in his list the possibility of a hopeful aspect: that Brad was truly open to and genuinely concerned about coming to a better understanding of these various aspects of performance practice. Imagine, Brad might actually be learning something in the exchange of ideas that might have taken place. Unfortunately this has not occurred. In retrospect, it appears to me now that Brad may simply have been attempting to silence any criticism that goes beyond simply saying what is good and what is not. On the BCML he has assumed a kind of ‘bully pulpit’ as he looks down from his self-proclaimed stature as a noted professional musician and musical scholar and even compares his abilities to Bach’s: “Bach may have had a fine ear for detail as a performer (and I do, too….)”

Brad also stated: >> I have better things to do than to listen to them (cantata recordings) twice, or to waste energy writing about it.<<
Now Brad refuses ‘to get down into the trenches’ with others who weekly report on what they have heard [even if it is only to listen to a single recording that they possess and to explain why, in the recording(s) they listened to, they find Bach’s music moving in (a) certain performance(s)] and to do the difficult work involved in sorting out the wheat from the chaff. In essence, he asks, “What’s chaff?” and demands “Give me wheat only!” [“Let me see, hear, and read only about performances that agree with my current opinion on what constitutes a truly great performance!”]

What can we expect from a professional musician such as Brad is an attitude based upon ill-conceived theories and a misreading of Bach’s intentions as the one where Brad recently stated:
“…he [Bach] definitely EXPECTED them [his performers] to fail in some instances, and turned this to musical advantage, illustrating how imperfect the world is. That's a valid message.”
It is in statements such as this and in others that are part of his current credo that Brad reveals himself most clearly as simply a ‘Zeiterscheinung,’ a passing vogue in matters of performing Bach’s music, as he caters to audiences that must be startled and shocked in order to make Bach more accessible to them. Instead of aiming at a more abstract audience of a somewhat higher caliber, Brad wants performers to condescend to ‘speak down’ to their audiences which they assume beforehand can only be reached at their lower level with jarring effects, rather than attempting to present refined performances which embody an inner grace, a sense of balance between extremes, a cantabile, singing quality as a guiding principle, and an expressiveness that need not resort to artificial devices based upon exaggerations of what might be generally considered as ‘good taste’ in music.

Neil Halliday wrote (July 22, 2003):
Brad also stated: >> I have better things to do than to listen to them (cantata recordings) twice, or to waste energy writing about it.<<
Actually, I can see that Brad, as a professional, practising musician, also involved in the study of historical practice, may indeed be too pressed for time to offer a weekly critique of the various cantata recordings that are available, but that should in no way stifle others, who do have access to the recordings as well as the time and interest, from presenting their own comparisons, analysis, and opinions.

Criticism can be robust at times, but I'm sure professional musicians seek and receive enough feed-back from their immediate fellow-performers and other acquaintances, and audiences, to feel confident in the presentation of their own particular vision of the music; in the long term, however, criticism may have a positive effect, or indeed may be necessary, for restraining certain tendencies that, if left unchecked, can lead to a distortion of the music.

I have found an interesting example of what might be characterised as self-criticism.

In the music examples at the Bach-Cantatas website:
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Mus/BWV4-Mus.htm

there are two examples of Harnoncourt's BWV 4.

The performance of the Sinfinia in version 1, I would characterize as a shambles, but that in version 2 is probably the best of all the recordings I have heard; did Harnoncourt realize his mistake and take the necessary action?

By comparison, Rilling is much too fast, and his "square" rythmn results in a "wooden" expression. Biondi, and Europa Galante, with the slowest performance, could have had the best recording, but Biondi employs too much expressive language in the 1st violin part, drawing attention to himself and away from the music. (This music can express transcendence over death in a most moving manner).

(As expected, I also find myself prefering the the relatively vibrato-free performance of movement no.3 (duet for sop. and alto) from Harnoncourt's two (male) vocalists, over the recording from Rilling's female vocalists with vibrato (Augér and Watkinson; Augér is usually good, but in combination with the alto the sound is not so pleasing).

As for this (last) week's cantata (BWV 173), I have heard only the Harnoncourt internet recording, which I found quite pleasing; I found that Marie Jensen, in her remarks, (post #5708) covered everything I wanted to say about this happy, tuneful cantata.

Charles Francis wrote (July 22, 2003):
< Thomas Braatz wrote: I can understand Brad’s reluctance to say anything negative about any of the more recent Bach cantata recordings. By not wishing to express in English what causes some recordings not to be as good as others out of fear that criticism will not be helpful and that he will have committed libel, Brad leaves us with a rather colorless, rather lopsided world of Bach cantata recordings for a neophyte to choose from: >
Brad's reaction is typical, Tom. Remember the squeals of protest from the tobacco industry when health warnings first appeared?

Peter Bright wrote (July 22, 2003):
[Thomas Braatz] Brad does come out with interesting points from time to time, but I do find find myself agreeing with much of what Thomas writes in this email. Even musicians need to stop treating every belief they have about a performance as fact rather than opinionated beliefs. Sure, there is a lot that a musician can teach a nonmusician, but the aesthetics of a performance are subjective. Some people prefer pretty much anything that deviates wildly from a moderate, consistent approach to the music, whether this be rhythm or tempo, while others prefer a more structured approach. Boring to one listener can be rewarding to another.

In classical music, I personally feel that some musicians adopt wildy different approaches to music because they think this is how they will stand out from the crowd and be noticed. Others can stand out by concentration, research and respect for the music (which is why, for me, Murray Perahia for example, is so persuasive in his pianistic account of the Goldbergs). Some types of music lend themselves to different styles of interpretation - particularly Bach (after all, so much of the keyboard works are essentially abstract pieces). But structure is extremely important in Bach too - you can only stretch and bend the music so much before it becomes something less than what it can be. When I want more open, unguided and relatively unstructured music I would rather turn to Coleman, Dolphy, Mingus, Monk and other magnificent jazz players than listen to so many classical conventions being torn down in a misguided quest for individuality.

Bradley Lehman wrote (July 22, 2003):
< Thomas Braatz wrote: (...) Instead of aiming at a more abstract audience of a somewhat higher caliber, Brad wants performers to condescend to ‘speak down’ to their audiences which they assume beforehand can only be reached at their lower level with jarring effects, rather than attempting to present refined performances which embody an inner grace, a sense of balance between extremes, a cantabile, singing quality as a guiding principle, and an expressiveness that need not resort to artificial devices based upon exaggerations of what might be generally considered as ‘good taste’ in music. >
How can you presume to speak for what "Brad wants" or would do in a performance, having never met me or heard me play a concert? Perhaps I play in a cantabile, expressive, tasteful manner that would not shock you as much as you expect. And perhaps the "exaggerations" of which you speak are simply musical elements that you did not notice in your own reading of a score, but which in retrospect you are thankful to have heard in the performance. Perhaps the music comes across with a texture of extraordinary clarity, not distortion.

And perhaps, as you are not an active performer, you have no understanding that musical elements MUST be exaggerated somewhat in the performance space, if they are to sound "normal" and "tasteful" when the sound gets to the listeners sitting many meters away. There is an art to making a performance sound good projected into a hall, to the best seats. Stage actors know this, too, that the audience will only notice things that seem overdone when viewed up close. Perhaps I'm speaking of a level of performance craft that you didn't even realize existed, because you're not there "in the trenches" (your phrase) making music on real occasions, for people who came out to listen to it. Do you even attend concerts at all, or just sit at home with recordings and scores criticizing work that you don't really understand first-hand?

By the way, is your "abstract audience of a somewhat higher caliber" the people who can speak that entire sentence of yours (above) in a single breath?

Robert Sherman wrote (July 22, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] I'm going to make a request, which I expect will be ignored, but here goes:

Will Brad and Tom, or any others intending to flame, please either take your catfight offline, or caption it "flame", so that those of us who are on this list for the music can simply delete it?

Bradley Lehman wrote (July 22, 2003):
[To Robert Sherman] I suppose my posting this morning (but which hasn't shown up yet, inexplicably) could be taken that way. Its subject line includes a reference to the Knights of Ni.

By the way, I'm on this list for the music, too, to learn more about pieces I don't know very well...not to see non-musicians speculating and lecturing and chiding musicians about how poorly they think we do our jobs. Who benefits from critical listening reports that are more than 75% negative comments, and soapbox pronouncements against the work? Does that approach really serve the neophytes here who are looking for music to enjoy? Where's the enjoyment? And where's the respect for the people who attempt the insurmountably difficult tasks that Bach has set before us?

And another member having only negative things to say about the wonderful volunteer work Aryeh puts into the resources for this group...what's that about? Isn't there any appreciation for large tasks well done? There's a difference between gently pointing out mechanical error, and sarcastic sniping that devalues the work.

To paraphrase one of Hugo's points from some months ago: let's see how these nay-saying critics do in the production of recordings and performances and web sites themselves, to prove they can do it better.

Brad Lehman (the Lorax, trying to speak for the music and the well-meaning people who make it)

Johan van Veen wrote (July 22, 2003):
[To Robert Sherman] Would you be so kind, please, to explain the difference between 'flame' and 'stern debate'?

Johan van Veen wrote (July 22, 2003):
< Bradley Lehman wrote: And perhaps, as you are not an active performer, you have no understanding that musical elements MUST be exaggerated somewhat in the performance space, if they are to sound "normal" and "tasteful" when the sound gets to the listeners sitting many meters away. There is an art to making a performance sound good projected into a hall, to the best seats. Stage actors know this, too, that the audience will only notice things that seem overdone when viewed up close. >
This is the reason Gustav Leonhardt usually refuses his concerts to be recorded. In order to communicate with the audience in the back of the hall he says he has to exaggerate things like articulation. But since the microphones are usually very close to the performer a recording would be terrible.

I don't know how big this problem is and whether there is no solution to it. But having attended a number of his concerts I think it is a pity hardly any of them have ever been recorded.

Peter Bright wrote (July 22, 2003):
[To Johan van Veen] I think the problem is that casual list members are leaving the Bach lists (or at least not bothering to read the messages) because of the bickering that comes around and goes around and comes around and goes around time after time after time. The cantatas list is relatively healthy compared to the 'recordings' list at the moment (perhaps because it is naturally a more 'specialist' subject) but I don't know how long it will last. Thomas makes some comments which may or may not be deliberately put there to rile Brad. And Brad takes the bait. Every time. Naturally this leads to the situation where very thinly disguised insults are made at each other. The breadth and depth both in terms of the number of contributors and the subjects covered seem much reduced relative to a year or more ago, when the emphasis seemed to be on interesting recordings rather than technical details that are uninteresting to the average reader or music fan on these lists (particularly the case for the BachRecordings list). It's lovely to see messages from members such as Francine who clearly have a genuine love and excitement for Bach's music - her posts always brighten my day but these reasoned and open posts are few and far between on the list. It is still possible to cover quite difficult subjects in an interesting way and without appearing confrontational and aggressive (Uri's contributions are a case in point).

Perhaps if the lists are heading towards a lea, meaner, more academic membership it is not necessarily a bad thing - but those joining the list for an interesting open and inclusive discussion will be in for a disappointment.

Alex 777 wrote (July 23, 2003):
Peter Bright wrote: "Perhaps if the lists are heading towards a leaner, meaner, more academic membership it is not necessarily a bad thing - but those joining the list for an interesting open and inclusive discussion will be in for a disappointment."
Ddo you know off hand if there are any specialised groups as you mention in your recent post below, I am a music student and find the technical/historical details in the post are very educational in a conversational way, it is great to "hear" conversations on subjects I love and happen to be studying...

Robert Sherman wrote (July 23, 2003):
[To Johan van Veen] The former attacks the person. The latter addresses the issue. It's not complicated.

Peter Bright wrote (July 23, 2003):
[To Alex 777] I only subscribe to a few groups, listed below:

bach-keyboard
BachAndHandelResearchResources
BachCantatas
BachJS
BachRecordings
baroquecello
EMRecordings
Henry_Purcell
Mizler-Society
operabarokowa

They are all Yahoo groups (groups.yahoo.com). Of these, the following appear to be dead or dying:

bach-keyboard appears to be dead (last messages in April)Mizler Society (2 messages since March)

Of the others:

BachAndHandel... is a site put together by Teri Noel Towe and may be of interest to you. Posts are occasional and often concern important dates or findings concerning these two composers. For example, the last posts listed the sad passing away of Rosalyyn Tureck and that this month saw the 124th anniversary of the birth of Wanda Landowski. The most recent discussion concerned Well-Tempered Klavier manuscripts and copies.

I presume you already know the BachRecordings list.

BaroqueCello only receives approx. 1 message per month and is probably not of interest to you.

EMRecordings is another good list started by Kirk Mcelhearn. It has a managable number of posts, although these have been trailing off a bit in recent months (a random month will see anything from 10 to 100+ posts).

Henry_Purcell is another small list - I have recently grown to love his music and I enjoy reading the occasional posts here (although I have not yet contributed to the list).

Operabarokowa is a Polish group concerned with all aspects of Baroque opera. Most postings are in Polish and the good thing about this one is that even if there is only 1 post of interest to me it will take about about a month to translate what's being said (so it keeps me busy...). I started subscribing to this on the suggestion of my friend Piotr Jaworski (also on this list).

There are plenty of other groups, of course - I hope you can find something of interest...

Alex 777 wrote (July 23, 2003):
[To Peter Bright] Many thanks for the addresses, I recently saw a performance of Dido & Aeneas at a local country house, it was a fantastic small production which had our emotions soaring one minute and tears the next...but no prologue???!! I was hoping to find a Purcell group..

Many thanks

Johan van Veen wrote (July 24, 2003):
[To Robert Sherman] It's not as simple as you suggest. Of course debates should concentrate on the issues, and not on the person. But when someone is criticised for the way he deals with the issues - for instance that he consistently shows contempt for certain artists whose performances he doesn't like - does that criticism adress the issues or the person? Sometimes the issues and the person can get mixed up this way. Where does the criticism of a person - in the sense I just mentioned - stops and does the flame start?

Robert Sherman wrote (July 25, 2003):
[To Johan van Veen] Crtiticism of a composer, performer, or instrument is debate. Criticism of another list member is flaming. I still don't see what's complicated about that.

Johan van Veen wrote (July 25, 2003):
[To Robert Sherman] The consequence of what you say is that if a member of this list criticises performers in an unfair way, he should get away with it. When he is criticised for the way he deals with artists, it is flame in your view. That means that every member of this list can say whatever he likes about other people, as long as these are no members of this list. When one list member criticises another list member, it is flame, but when he criticises a non-member he can go ahead.

Strange morals some people have.

Robert Sherman wrote (July 25, 2003):
[To Johan van Veen] No, if a member of the list criticizes a performer in what you consider an unfair way, you then rebut the substance of the criticism without attacking the critic personally.

Most people, on this list and elsewhere, understand this basic principle of civilized discourse. I apologize to members of the list for taking so much space to make an obvious point, and will not continue this thread further.

Charles Francis wrote (July 25, 2003):
[To Robert Sherman] Not only the basic principle of civilized discourse, but also the basic principle of valid argument.

Johan van Veen wrote (July 25, 2003):
[To Robert Sherman] We are not talking about incidents here.

If someone makes a habit of criticising performers in a way which I consider unfair or dishonest, I criticise his behaviour, his habits. That is not just criticising substance, but a person, his behaviour - which springs from his character or personality.

I can't see why ciriticising a person or his character is a bad thing per se. It can become a flame, but not every criticism of someone's behaviour is a flame.

The point is that you criticise the way Thomas Braatz and Brad Lehman treat each other. But I can't see how that treatment is worse than the way Thomas Braatz consistently shows his contempt for performers he doesn't like. I can't remember you criticising him for that. If I am wrong I am glad to stand corrected.

Bradley Lehman wrote (July 25, 2003):
< Robert Sherman wrote: No, if a member of the list criticizes a performer in what you consider an unfair way, you then rebut the substance of the criticism without attacking the critic personally. >
It seems there should be some way to say "I don't enjoy the singing style I hear here" (honest criticism about recorded results, the work), and present some objective evidence behind the opinion...

...without casting it in words such as "This person is an untrained 'demi-voix' working in an inbred 'HIP' circle of influence, and would surely be incompetent to perform this music in a large church" (which comes across as open bigotry against the musician's training, musical priorities, abilities, taste, colleagues, and whole way of being).

As Charles would say, the latter method of expression violates "the basic principle of valid argument." It takes one small example (several minutes of music in a recording) and generalizes it to unsupportable speculation about the people involved. And it comes across more as vicious name-calling than as a meaningful review of the work.

Here is a paragraph for exhibit, from July 14th 2003:
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BachCantatas/message/5643
"Holton's demi voix is unable to do justice to this beautiful aria. Her trembling vibrato indicates her vocal insecurities regarding this aria. In the low range there is almost no voice at all. Her expression is flat throughout. We might as well be listening to an instrument performing the vocal part or listening to Holton sing an unrelated text in a foreign language which no one can understand. Holton is only one of a number of similar voices that are the result of the 'in-breeding' within the HIP community of performers where a limited volume of sound has become an ideal and has been declared a virtue in attaining 'a true Baroque' performance."

I believe that that posting criticizes a performer in what I consider an unfair way. Not just a single performer, but a whole category of performers, a category defined by the writer so he can dismiss the work conveniently and pseudo-objectively. Yet, elsewhere, this writer claims thahe is trying to write reviews in such a way that a neophyte listener to Bach can locate recordings to enjoy.

Yowsa. And that's not an isolated example. There have been many others, as bad or worse, from that same reviewer. This is his regular mode of expression. For example, here's another one from a few days ago:
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BachCantatas/message/5742
"The alto, von Magnus, displays similar problems with the low range. Listen to
the notes that drop into the low range. They are just barely audible. The extremely light and fast string accompaniment only adds to the disparity between the text and music. Again it appears that these very light accompaniments are intentionally kept this way to accommodate the demi voix who are incapable of projecting the music and text with sufficient volume so that it would be audible in a large church setting."

Again, yowsa. I am glad that I did all the listening myself (to Aryeh's samples), and wrote my own review of the same aria, before even looking at that vituperative nonsense. Who wants to come to a listening session with such poison already in the ears and soul?

Suppose that a protest against such abusive writing has been presented at least a dozen times already, and the list member still refuses to amend his ways, but instead digs in and defends his right to use that abusive/unfair language. When (if ever) does it become acceptable to start using stronger terminology to (or about) the list member, in the hope that he may learn something from being on the receiving end of the same abuse he dishes out? Some people only get a point of criticism when slugged over the head with it; and, it seems, some people never get a point no matter what is done.

Meanwhile, what are the "Bach neophytes" to think when they read such abusive "reviews" of the recordings, week after week after week? (I can recall that that reviewer's words steered me clear of Leusink recordings for a long time, when I didn't have the opportunity to hear the recordings for myself; and then when I heard the CDs half a year later, I found that the work scarcely resembled the harsh words about it. And I don't consider myself a neophyte, yet I too had been misled by this person's rancor.)

And what about the professional careers of the singers and conductors who are the regular targets of that name-calling? Is there no respect for these people's work?

Bob Henderson wrote (July 25, 2003):
Argument, discourse, plain speech in making a point is more problematical through the format of E-mail. Studies have shown that the written word is way down the list in terms of effective communication in everyday discourse. Primary in effective communication (being understood) is facial expression, voice tone and other aspects of non-verbal communication. Since these are lacking in E commerce it is especially easy to be misunderstood. That is why we need to explain very carefully what we mean when writing. It helps to use lots of qualifiers. It helps to give the other lots of space. The test of good communication (as in good performance) is the response you get.

Alex Riedlmayer wrote (July 25, 2003):
< Bradley Lehman wrote: It seems there should be some way to say "I don't enjoy the singing style I hear here" (honest criticism about recorded results, the work), and present some objective evidence behind the opinion...

...without casting it in words such as "This person is an untrained 'demi-voix' working in an inbred 'HIP' circle of influence, and would surely be incompetent to perform this music in a large church" (which comes across as open bigotry against the musician's training, musical priorities, abilities, taste, colleagues, and whole way of being). >
I can only wish that some people here could find more precise ways to describe voices than 'trained', 'demi-voix', or 'operatic'. Equivocations do not make honest criticism.

Robert Sherman wrote (July 28, 2003):
[To Johan van Veen] All right, I will make one more comment and then really, irrevocably, not participate further in this boring and irrelevant thread.

Musically, Bach matters. You and I and Brad and Thomas don't. I am interested in what you have to say about Bach performances and peformers, including when you fundamentally disagree with me. Possibly you are interested in what I have to say about Bach performance and performers.

I am not interested n what you think of my intellect or moral character, and don't see any reason why you should care about my opinion of you.

Suppose there were to be a new list in which Brad and Thomas and Johan were to vent their views on each other. Who would care? Who would sign up? Nobody. Because the worthwhile subject is Bach, not any of us.

Music is what this list is about. Please let's stick to it.

Robert Sherman wrote (July 28, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] Brad, for my part I have no problem at all with very negative reviews such as those you cite, even when I disagree with them. IMO it's perfectly legitimate to condemn a performance, a performer, or a school of performance. Then we can debate it.

Read, for example, on Amazon.com Iza's review of Minkowski's Messiah, or mine of Bonynge's.

Some performances, after all, really do stink.

Bradley Lehman wrote (July 28, 2003):
Getting beyond equivocation to honest meaningful criticism of music

< Alex Riedlmayer wrote: I can only wish that some people here could find more precise ways to describe voices than 'trained', 'demi-voix', or 'operatic'. Equivocations do not make honest criticism. >
I agree with Alex here. "Equivocations" or equivocal presentation of the music....

That's precisely what bothers me about many recordings of Bach's music: the singers and players are trying to deliver all the notes with equal emphasis or equal beauty, regardless of the position within the phrase and meter, and regardless of the meaning of the text. It's equivocal. It's ambiguous. The music sounds generic. It's merely pretty. My attention is drawn away from the message. Why is it this piece, and not some other piece that has a bunch of similar notes? Where's the point?

It's as I mentioned in my review of the BWV 173 alto aria:
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BachCantatas/message/5779
"too much clobbering of weak syllables". "The graceful treatment of weak syllables (and 'bad notes' in general, in all parts) is a very high priority for me as a listener and performer. When weak notes are given too much emphasis, it makes me think the performers don't understand the musical syntax, aren't following the harmonic progressions, and haven't rehearsed detail. This business of weak syllables/notes is most important (to me) in the bass line, and then in the singing, and then in the other parts. If a bass line doesn't have grace, none of the other parts are going to, either (because it would be a struggle against the environment): the thoroughbass lays down the basic character for everybody else."

To explain further where this is coming from: it goes back to music as a language.

Strong/good notes are more important than weak/bad notes. That's just the way it is, like in speech: some syllables and words are stronger than others. Sentences make sense when their components are delivered with appropriate hierarchy, inflection. "Strong" elements get more emphasis by length, volume, and/or pitch. That is, they're longer, louder, and/or higher (usually; of course there can also be exceptions). People do this automatically when reading a sentence aloud. Try it. Or have somebody else read a sentence, and listen carefully to the results. Speed, volume, and pitch are varied according to the meaning of the sentence, and according to the most important points of interest in the sentence. And if the same sentence is spoken two or three times in succession (or if several ideas are being listed within a sentence), the speaker automatically gives it different emphasis each time, according to the way the recipient got the point (or didn't get the point) the first time. This is basic communication skill. It is the way most languages work.

It continues to be true when notes are added. Music is (to me) just another language. Some notes in a phrase are more important than others. And, in natural delivery (natural because it's a language), some notes get more time or volume or higher pitch than others. Even when all the notes in a phrase look the same on the page, even if they have the same notated pitch and dynamic and length, they are NOT delivered equally. The emphasis is determined by context. There might be some metrical stress where every second (or third or fourth) note automatically get a bit of extra length or volume. Or there might be some reason to go against that regularity of meter, for a syncopation or an important word of the text or for something surprising in the harmony. Again, this is natural because it's language. Important things are emphasized and less-important things are de-emphasized. The musical message comes across with clarity and immediacy: the listener can parse it instantaneously.

That brings us to musicians who try to even everything out, and to listeners who expect (and value) such an approach. All notes get similar opportunity to be heard. As I said in that review noted above, to my ears, musical lines (and especially the bass line) have grace and clarity insofar as they have natural rise and fall of emphasis within them. That dynamic contour is what makes them come across as lines, larger units of meaning, rather than just a series of notes. When players and singers steamroll all this and deliver all the notes pretty much the same, it becomes relatively meaningless. It's equivocation. It's indecision about the delivery (at least to the listener's perspective...the notes come across with ambiguous function). It's monotone. It's monotonous. It hides the meaning of the words and musical phrases under a stifling sameness. If the listener notices details, it's only from his/her own enterprise in finding them within the porridge (perhaps with the help of a score). In this approach, the music is presented as a monolithic puzzle that the listener is not supposed to comprehend immediately.

Yes, I've heard all the familiar quotations and anecdotes about Bach's evenness of fingering, and the way he quilled his harpsichord, and the quiet balance of his body when he played. Those are all issues of TECHNIQUE (being well-prepared and flexible, with reliable tools), not MUSICAL DELIVERY in performance. Musical delivery, because it's a language, still has to have all the natural (and substantially detailed) emphasis and de-emphasis of notes within phrases; that's basic musicality, basic communication with other humans (the listeners). It is not "playing down" to anybody; rather, it is helping the listener to get as much information as possible the first time, directly.

In contrast, a monotone delivery (with musical details smoothed out) doesn't communicate well with anybody: it hides the meaning of the message in equivocation. The notes could go one way or they could go another way, we don't know, it evidently hasn't been clearly decided. It forces the listener to do too much work parsing the basic syntax and figuring out the words/phrases, instead of immediately hearing the message. It's just a bunch of pretty sounds that don't encourage the listener to pay close attention.

=====

So, in comparing several recordings, how do we describe this difference of approach?

- [1] Singers (and players) from one type of training and experience tend to even the music out--making the low notes and the metrically weak notes as strong as the other notes, and giving all the notes the same length and tempo as seen on the page. All this controlled regularity is taken as a virtue in communication or musical competence: a generally attractive (and not-too-disturbing) surface is valued. Musical structure is seen as somehow different in kind from the way listeners normally perceive language. Music's ambiguity is its beauty. [Is this "non-HIP"? It's an inadequate term; too limited and incendiary.]

- [2] Singers (and players) from another type of training and experience deliberately cultivate the differences, in the interest of communicating the music as clearly as possible. They recognize that normal human perception of language brings an expectation of hierarchy, and the music is delivered to fit that natural shape. Any event in the music might have a specific meaning, calling for a distinctive bit of emphasis (along with the complementary de-emphasis of parts that are NOT as important...strong notes can be strong to the listener's perception only if weak notes are allowed to be weak!). Music's immediate clarity is its beauty. The music heightens the expression of the words, and can have something to say itself as well, without words. [Is this "HIP"? It's an inadequate term; too limited and incendiary.]

This latter group of musicians gets dismissed by one writer here as "demi-voix" and "untrained" because he doesn't like the way the low notes and bad notes (of the music) are less audible than other notes. (That writer also evidently assumes these musicians CAN'T do it differently even if they wanted to.) But it would be just as valid to dismiss the first group of musicians with terms such as "equivocal" and "monotonous" and "uncommunicative"...their approach encourages the listener to focus on the performer's own evenness of delivery (as a self-contained virtue) at the expense of direct perception of the message.

Nor does it do to call either of these approaches "operatic". Is an "operatic" singer one who has a seamless tessitura and delivery, bringing out the low and weak notes with extra projection so the listener can hear everything equally? Or is an "operatic" singer one who brings out the syntax of the text (and the message and character) remarkably well, with plenty of natural dynamic contrast and rubato and clear enunciation of consonants? What kind of opera? What size of opera house? What size of orchestra? Is opera even relevant here when we're talking about Bach cantatas? Is "operatic" a good thing or a bad thing?

So, how do we describe these two fundamentally different approaches to music, and to listening? It won't do to call approach [1] "dull, equivocal, heavy, boring, generic, therefore unmusical", and approach [2] "vivid, direct, graceful, expressive, specific, and musical" (that's how I'd characterize the two approaches, personally); while to a different listener the same pair of approaches gets adjectives such as "balanced, polished, full, musical, serious, respectful, " vs "over-wrought, untrained, half-voiced, too pointed, flippant, inconsequential."

***** The trouble is in the use of value words that put one side (or another) automatically onto the defensive, insulting one set of heroes or another, and denigrating another person's listening priorities. *****

And, as Alex pointed out here, it also doesn't do to use words that have no clear meaning.

So, it seems, we need words that are both precise and not loaded with "my values are better than yours" arrogance.

For the former approach, [1] above, how about EQUIPOLLENT for the technical virtues of equality, all notes getting a similar amount of emphasis? (Roughly equivalent: "Music is not a normal language, but something different in kind, and calls for a more equalized presentation than spoken language does.")

And for the latter approach, [2] above, how about GESTURAL for delivery of music as a language, with the natural rise and fall like speech? (Roughly equivalent: "Music IS a normal language, to be delivered in performance with the same natural emphasis as in an actor's speech, to put the message across clearly.")

=====

With those five performances of the alto aria of BWV 173, the .mp3 files at
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Mus/BWV173-Mus.htm :
the Koopman and Leusink performance are gestural, the Rilling and Winschermann are equipollent, and the Rotzsch is somewhere in the middle (but more equipollent than ge).

Obviously, I am personally much more moved by the gestural approach than the equipollent, because it seems to me more musical in the priorities I value: more graceful, more meaningful, more beautiful, with better clarity of both the overall structure and local events. And, yes, most of that arises from the treatment of the thoroughbass as a convincing musical line, full of life; I wasn't kidding! The bass is the foundation of Bach's music, generating the rhythm and harmony and expression of all the other parts. When the bass is done well, the overall character is strong and everybody else's job in the ensemble is much easier. But if the bass line is played as dead weight, just following along, a performance is hardly salvageable; the other parts have a hard time cutting through the featureless porridge.

At the same time, I recognize that other listeners might have different priorities. Especially, those listeners who have spent many years with equipollent performances as the highest musical standard there is. Let's just agree to disagree about that standard, in civil language that doesn't say another person's priorities (and musical heroes) are inferior. It's a lot nicer to say "equipollent" (value-neutral term) than "equivocal featureless porridge" (loaded language), just as it's a lot nicer to say "gestural" (value-neutral term) than "[insert the usual bash here]".

Some gestural performances are better than other gestural performances. Similarly, some equipollent performances are better than other equipollent performances. We're not discarding distinctions here. There's room for discussion of quality. What if we'd do that, instead of falling back into the endless incendiary value judgments about the basic approach?


Music criticism

Uri Golomb wrote (July 28, 2003):
Slight correction. I said:
"Elisabeth von Magnus is [....] played recorder with Concentus Musicus, as Elisabeth Harnoncourt, before making an independent career as a musician".
I meant, of course, an independent career as a singer. I certainly did not mean to imply that recorder players are not musicians! And the way tempers have been running in parts of this list about disrespectful comments, I thought I should make this clear...

I agree, BTW, that referring to professional singers as possessing "flawed voices" is an insult. I also think that, if a musician really does play or sing unprofessionally, listeners have a right to point this out. One has to be careful, though, about assuming this to be the case. This is especially the case with soloists (vocal or instrumental) who appear frequently with other professional musicians. IF you attack a singer who appears in such contexts as completely amateurish, unprofessional, etc., you're not just attacking that individual's musicainship -- you're also attacking the ears and brains of those around him or her. You're saying that only you noticed what all the professional musicians working with that singer haven't noticed. Say a singer has appeared with Harnoncourt, Leonahrdt, Koopman, Herreweghe and Rilling. (Yes, Rilling: he shares many of his soloists with prominent HIP conductors. And he's by no means the only one). If you say that singer does not possess a real voice, you're also saying that all these conductors do not possess real ears. Beyond the insult implicit in this, think also: how likely is this?

Unfortunately, this attitude is not limited to this list; and it is more dangerous when it surfaces in respectable review magazines. I think someone on this list has already quoted this tidbit, from Simon Heighes in International Record Review, December 2000, about Rilling's cantata cycle:

"Never that warmly applauded at the time of their original release [I'm not sure that's true, BTW: I'll be checking this soon], I can see precious little reason for foisting them on us again, even at a modest price. Impotent choral singing, neurotic continuo realizations, a tendency towards expressive mannerism (especially in recitatives) and dangerously torpid tempos are just some of the nightmares we encounter here. I admire the time and trouble taken by my colleagues to review these volumes as even-handedly as possible (and generously hunt down the few rays of sunshine, such as the ever-radiant Arleen Augér), but left to their own devices I bet none of them would actually go out andbuy these discs. And nro woudl I (thank goodness for review copies!)".

This came out in print, in what is usually a respectful journal; and therefore can cause much more damage than anything on this list. Richard Taruskin was only slightly better; he dismissed this cycle as "drab but dependable" -- and that's all he had to say about it (admittedly, in a review devoted to the Harnoncourt/Leonahrdt series, so Rilling wasn't his main concern). To cite just one example of just how impudent and ludicrous that paragraph is, consider the reference to "impotent choral singing". Rilling is one of the most respected chorus masters around; even most of his detractors will grant him that (maybe that's what Taruksin meant by "dependable"). He teaches choral conducting, gives master-classes on the subject; and he has sucesfully run more than one choir. Heighes has not just insulted Rilling and his choir; he also insulted all the musicians who value Rlling's work in this field, who gave him appointments in choral conducting, who sent students to study with him, who invited him to give master-classes, etc.

Of course, none of this means that Heighes (or anyone else, for that matter) has to like the sound of Rilling's choir. But at the very least, he should have acknwoledged that there are other views (even something grudging like "Rilling has a considerable reputation as a choral conductor, though I find it difficult to understand why") would have been something of an improvement: at least it would have alerted readers to the fact that there are other views out there. Someone who came across Rilling's for the first time in Heighes' article might very well conclude that Rilling is a marginal phenomenon: a provincial performer who never enjoyed any acclaim from anyone, ever. By allowing such an implication to pass, Heighes was doing a great injustice -- not just to Rilling and his musicians, but also to his readership.

Personally, I'll admit I prefer the sound of the present-day Gächinger Kantorei (in ther new secular cantatas and the 1999 B minor Mass, for instance) to the sound of the Gächinger Kantorei on the sacred cantatas disc. They sound brighter, tighter, more chamber-like these days -- part of Rilling's more general emulation of certain HIP features. But they were never "incompotent"; and I think they sound differently now, not because Rilling has become a more professional chorus master, but because his aesthetic priorities have changed. Then and now, he got what he wanted; it's his wishes that changed: in my opinion, for the better, but others might well have a different view.

I am neither Rilling's greatest fan nor his worst detractor; I have many reservations about his Bach performances, but some of them I find very moving. Even when I don't like a Rilling performance, I usually find it very easy to understand why some listeners would love it. I think that's a useful exercise for many critics: if you know that a certain recording (or, more generally a performer) you don't like has many admirers, try to ask yourself: "why do other people enjoy this? Is it really reasonable for me to assume that my ears are better than theirs?" (It cuts both ways, BTW: I also try to understand why some people hate recordings I love -- Harnoncourt being a notable example). Such a thought-experiment might even lead you to change your own mind; at the very least, it will help you realise that a rival performance approach might be the result of a different set of aesthetic ideals, rather than simply serving as a cover for technical deficiencies.

Robert Sherman wrote (July 28, 2003):
[To Uri Golomb] Long ago and far away, the poet and critic John Ciardi wrote a really scathing review of a book of poetry by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Many readers responded that it was wrof him to criticize such a nice lady, who had lost a baby in such a horrible way, etc. Ciardi countered with an article on "The Critic's Duty to Damn." His thesis was that to fail to condemn what he/she sees as a bad work is to be dishonest with your readers, to take their money under false pretenses, and also to remove all meaning from a complimentary review if all reviews are complimentary.

I agree. When I go to buy an unfamiliar recording or rent a movie online, I skip the editorial reviews because they tend to be useless puff pieces. I go directly to the user reviews because they are honest and sometimes negative. They help me choose.

I suggest we call them as we hear them, and not get wrapped in a twist about whether we are "insulting" the performers.

Example: Kiri te Kanawa, who has a perfectly good voice, sings "Redeemer" (with Solti) as if she's doing us a favor by bathing us in her famous golden tones, and has no need to apply either head or heart to the piece. So the result is perfunctory and uninspired. Midori Suzuki (with Suzuki) does even worse, apparently intending to sound as hard and cold as possible, and succeeding at it.

Is it wrong or inappropriate of me to point this out? Heck no.

Is it rough on the performers? Yes, but they deserve it.

Does it do other readers a favor by steering them toward better recordings? I hope so.

Does it insult the performers? That's not a relevant question. I don't understand all the concern about insulting performers that's expressed here. If I do a bad performance I expect to be told so, and I don't know why anyone should feel immune to that.

Uri Golomb wrote (July 28, 2003):
In response to the following points from Bob:
Is it wrong or inappropriate of me to point this out? Heck no. Is it rough on the performers? Yes, but they deserve it. Does it do other readers a favor by steering them toward better recordings? I hope so. >
My point -- well, one of my points -- was that strongly damning criticism sometimes does a geniune DISservice to listeners whose taste might be different from the reviewer's. Remember that Rilling review I quoted: any reader who has never heard about Rilling before reading that review would conclude from it that Rilling's Bach is not worth bothering with. Yet many listeners -- as this list clearly testifies -- enjoy and even admire Rilling's Bach. People who could potentially enjoy his recordings might now ignore them because of that review. In what way, exactly, did Heighes serve their interest? And I'm not doing this to attack Heighes per se -- it's just a particularly egregious example. There are, unfortunately, too many others.

The point is not so much who is being insulted, as to what extent the review is of service to anyone who might not share the reviewer's taste. It could be. I remember several occasions when I read a review, and said: "Well, if that's why this reviewer dislikes that performance -- I will probably enjoy it more than they did". And vice versa. This was because the review contained a detailed enough description of the performance to enable me to get some idea on what it actually sounds like, not just on whether the reviewer liked it or not. In the past few months, I've been reviewing myself, and I do my best -- in the limited space allotted to me -- to provide this service. It's up to readers, of course, to say whether I've succeeded.

By all means, damn a performance you think is worth damning. But also try your best to describe exactly what it was that you disliked about it. Same for performances you like: don't just gush about them: try to describe what it is you liked about them. That way, there's at least some chance that people whose tastes differ from your own might realise that they would like this recording more (or less, as the case may be) than you did.

These statements are directed at all reviewers in all places, not to any specific individual, on or off this list. Bob's exampels -- which seem to criticise the singers' interpretations, not their professional competence -- do contain a strong descriptive element. At least some readers (at the very least, those who have heard Te Kanawa and Suzuki before -- even if they have not heard them in this repertoire) might be able, on that basis, to imagine what these performances might sound like, and therefore be able to conclude, for themselves, whether they're likely to share Bob's views.

Johan van Veen wrote (July 28, 2003):
[To Uri Golomb] I agree that reviewers should always show respect towards the artists whose recordings they are reviewing. But: there are many 'reviews' who don't really deserve that name - reviews on sites like Amazon make me very suspicious, since I can't get rid of the thought that they are written to boost sales. So we should be grateful for reviewers who write what they really think.

It is important to give enough information about the character of the performances to give the reader the opportunity to assess whether they will like or dislike the performance.

The example you refer to - the review by Heighes - isn't as bad as you seem to think. It is very blunt, sure, but if he writes that the singing of the choir is 'impotent' he doesn't say the choir is bad 'per se' - only that it doesn't sing very well in the recordings he is reviewing, and doesn't meet the needs of the music. I can't see that he shows any contempt for the performers or denies their qualities. In my view his comments don't belong to the same category as the description of voices as 'half-voices' etc.

I don't think it is the duty of the reviewer to try to imagine why others like performances he dislikes. I also wonder whether that is possible. I for example detest rock music. I really can't imagine how anyone could possible like it. And how someone can really like Bach on the piano is beyond me. So I believe you are asking something which is probably not even possible.

Bob Henderson wrote (July 28, 2003):
[To Robert Sherman] Of course critics criticise. Where would we be without thoughtful and educated criticism? But your statement regarding Midori Suzuki is neither. Its sarcastic. It impunes her intent as an artist. Do you really believe her she strives for a hard and cold sound? Sarcasm always undercuts the credibility of the reviewer.

Besides, some of us love her singing.

Ruben Valenzuela wrote (July 28, 2003):
[To Robert Sherman] Wondering if anyone in the list could provide the composers/repertoire contained in the Florilegium Protense as used in the Thomaskirche during Bach's tenure.

Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Robert Sherman wrote (July 28, 2003):
[To Bob Henderson] Actually, I wasn't being sarcastic. IMO, the only way a singer is going to be so consistently cold, hard, and unfeeling is by intent. This contrasts with te Kanawa whose performance I don't like either, but who seems to have no particular intent.

I don't, incidentally, mean this as a generic criticism of Midori Suzuki. My comment refers only to her Redeemer on the Suzuki Messiah.

Neither do I intend it as anti-HIP. Lynne Dawson with Christophers is fully as HIP as Suzuki, but sings with great warmth, thoughtfulness, and devotion. Listening to Dawson will, far better than words, highlight why I don't like Suzuki's concept.

Before you comment back, please listen to the Suzuki and Dawson/Christophers performances back-to-back, and tell us how you feel they compare.

Bradley Lehman wrote (July 28, 2003):
[To Uri Golomb] A good (bad) example is the treatment that the editor of American Record Guide gives George Szell whenever the opportunity comes up, for at least the past 15 years. He dismisses Szell as "a cold conductor" without saying anything further about the work at hand. And, it sometimes seems that he manufactures such opportunities to bring in Szell for ersatz comparison, in the middle of reviewing somebody else's work, just so he can dismiss him as cold. This doesn't help the reader at all. And those of us who grew up enjoying Szell recordings must be ignoramuses, or frozen souls, or something.

Bradley Lehman wrote (July 28, 2003):
< Robert Sherman wrote: Lynne Dawson with Christopis fully as HIP as Suzuki,(...) >
Bob, what does this mean (to you), technically? What specifically makes her singing "HIP" as opposed to something else?

I have a 1986-7 recording of Dawson singing works by Arvo Part, and I think
the performance is lovely.
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/B0000260TR/
Is that recording also "HIP" in some way because of the members of the Hilliard Ensemble singing with her? Especially with Paul Hillier's expertise as a scholar and conductor of Part's music? He wrote the book
on Part....
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0198166168/

Robert Sherman wrote (July 28, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] Low pitch, some degree of historicity in the instruments, light soprano sound. No doubt there are others on this list who can give a more detailed definition than that. It is striking, though, how many soloists, including some of the best (Langridge, Terfel, Auger) can sing the same work with modern instruments on one recording and allegedly-historical instruments on another, and other than the pitch there's little or no difference in the way they sing.

Uri Golomb wrote (July 29, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] Brad: you often question the use of the term "HIP" on this list; what is not clear always is whether you have a problem with the way the term is used in these particular contexts, or whether you consider the the term itself meaningless and useless.

I am asking this especially because you spoke positively (albeit very briefly, so far) about John Butt's Playing with History. That book -- which, I agree, is required reading on this topic (but then, I'm prejudiced, as the author is my doctoral supervisor...) -- uses that acronmy constantly, and the author obviously believes that the term is meaningful (in fact, much of the book can be described as an attempt to clarify what it does, and does not, mean).

So: do you like that book despite its frequent recourse to the term and the acronym? Or do you think that John Butt's use of it is appropriate and helpful? If so, then this means that there are good ways of employing it...

You said in an earliert mail that you'd like to discuss that book on this list. Here's your chance...

Robert Sherman wrote (July 29, 2003):
[To Uri Golomb] Actually, I suppose a better answer to Brad's question would have been just "It's advertised as using historical instruments."

My intent in describing Dawson/Christophers as HIP was merely to keep my critique of Midori Suzuki's "Redeemer" confined to that performance and not let it be dragged into the interminable HIP/antiHIP debate.

Bradley Lehman wrote (July 29, 2003):
< Uri Golomb wrote: Brad: you often question the use of the term "HIP" on this list; what is not clear always is whether you have a problem with the way the term is used in these particular contexts, or whether you consider the the term itself meaningless and useless. >
It appears to me that just about everybody in the current discussion has his/her own personal working definition of "HIP"...whether its parameters are conscious or unconscious ones. The term is bandied about in so many different ways and contexts, is it really meaningful in this forum?

And as I asked, I was curious what it meant to Bob in the context of his citation of Dawson in Messiah. Was he referring to Dawson's own singing style based on 18th century sources? Or to the company she keeps, Christophers' band playing in a period-instrument style? Or to everybody's style of ornamentation in that recording? Or what? His answer clarified this.

< I am asking this especially because you spoke positively (albeit very briefly, so far) about John Butt's Playing with History. That book -- which, I agree, is required reading on this topic (but then, I'm prejudiced, as the author is my doctoral supervisor...) -- uses that acronmy constantly, and the author obviously believes that the term is meaningful (in fact, much of the book can be described as an attempt to clarify what it does, and does not, mean).
So: do you like that book despite its frequent recourse to the term and the acronym? Or do you think that John Butt's use of it is appropriate and helpful? If so, then this means that there are good ways of employing it...
You said in an earliert mail that you'd like to discuss that book on this list. Here's your chance... >
Indeed. Despite what he says in the preface, Butt's own definition in the book takes shape only gradually (as you've also pointed out here), as he discusses the various philosophical and practical problems. He never really pins it down to any definitive statement of what it means to him. He's trying to answer to so many different critics at once. But that's (I think) the point...that it can mean so many different things to people of different priorities. At the same time, it is useful in discussing the issues and theories he brings up. [And his own scan of the term, his own set of priorities as a performer, is made clear enough by listening to his many recordings as keyboardist and conductor.]

Personally I don't think the term "HIP" is very useful, because it's so equivocal. Everybody has some degree of historical information in their bag, and chooses to use it (or not) in so many different ways, that "historically informed" means little more than "having spent the past 30 years with one's head not entirely surrounded by sand." That's why I prefer the dichotomy of "gestural" and "equipollent", if terms must be used at all. It's a manner and philosophy of performance, more than any set of hardware or any specific set of historical information (although it's much influenced by that). As I explained yesterday at:
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BachCantatas/message/5833 ,
"gestural" is treating music like a normal language and expressing oneself in music just as if it were speech, with a similar range of natural emphases. "Equipollent" (just to have a convenient and value-neutral term to contrast with "gestural") is treating music as something other than a normal language, with a different set of priorities for its delivery. As a performer and listener I'm moved by gestural performances and usually unmoved by equipollent ones, finding them too noncommittal and blase; I'd rather hear a performance that takes a stand (even if I disagree with it) than one that wishy-washes out the interesting content. And equipollent performances can be very "historically informed" in some ways, but still be in the mould of not treating the music like a living language...that's why the distinction "HIP" (vs "non-HIP" or whatever) doesn't work for me. It doesn't sort out the things I feel are most important.

Anyway, back to Butt's book. So much of it is direct response to the challenges of Taruskin et al. It's enjoyable to see Butt charting a path for himself through the modern/postmodern/etc stuff (as must all of us who are active in this field)...how does one pick one set of priorities over another? And why?

My current favorite of Butt's chapters is the one about the many ways to view notational "progress", and the necessity of recognizing what the notation meant TO THE USERS (i.e. composer and immediate circle) at the point when the music was put onto paper. In some cases (as he points out) it is very late in the cycle after the piece has already been performed many times; in others it's an attempt to set down an 'ideal' version that has very little to do with practical performance; in others it's just a snapshot of one particular day in the music's life as it was (still is) continually changing. And there are other possibilities as well, which he discusses. The whole notion of fixed works of great art is pretty much meaningless for a large portion of the repertoire [, including the Bach cantatas,] although current critics either don't realize that or choose to ignore it. There is so much leeway and adaptability in the music, there is never going to be a definitive readingof it (no matter how hard the NBA editors and other folks try to make it so), as a platonically perfect text or as a set of practical performance materials. The notation so often merely reflects what was put onto paper for particular occasions, and some of those markings may have been ignored anyway.... Butt makes an important observation when he describes how some of the "HIP" groups today mark up their music thoroughly so everything will be together in the expression, instead of reading off the bare notes that were the norm. (I do this myself, too: see my old essay at:
http://www-personal.umich.edu/~bpl/purc.htm
where I describe the analysis and practice that go into the formation of an interpretation.) That modern proclivity to mark every detail is ahistorical, although it is practical. Why is notation today more specific than it used to be? And is that a good thing, artistically? Those are important questions that Butt's chapter brings up (either directly or obliquely).

What do you think about that chapter, Uri (or anyone else who's read it)? Or other parts?

Mitsuo Fukuda wrote (July 30, 2003):
[To Robert Sherman] Please tell me that "Redeemer on the Suzuki Messiah" is No.45 Air (Soprano),of which text is from Job;19 and I Corinthians;15, of Part Three?

I think Midori Suzuki sings, by intent, thoughtfully and distinctly. Does she sound hard and cold?

If you weren't being sarcastic, you wouldn't have added such sentences as "Is it wrong or inappropriate of me to point this out? Heck no." and "Is it rough on the performers? Yes, but they deserve it.".

Robert Sherman wrote (July 30, 2003):
[To Mitsuo Fukuda] Yes, it's #45. I'm happy to discuss the music, but am not going to waste list members' time with a discussion of whether or not I was sarcastic. The performances are worth discussing; I am not.

I invite you to compare Suzuki's Redeemer with any or all of the following:

Low pitch, in order of preference:
Lynne Dawson with Christophers
Emma Kirkby with Parrott

Modern pitch, in order of preference:
Heather Harper with Jackson
Heather Harper with Davis
Judith Blegen with Westenberg

After making this comparison, I think you will understand why I describe M. Suzuki's performance as hard and cold. If you still prefer Suzuki, it's such differences of opinion that make life interesting. In any case, I would welcome your thoughts on the comparison.



Continue on Part 6


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