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Second Thoughts about Bach

Second thoughts about Bach

Francis Browne wrote (November 13, 2003):
Are second thoughts always better? More particularly, when a musician records a work of Bach for the second time is the later version always an advance on the earlier attempt? Two recordings that I have listened to with great enjoyment recently have set me thinking about this topic.

I have long wanted to begin explore the vast world of Bach's organ music and, after some hesitation, I seized an opportunity to buy very cheaply Wolfgang Rübsam's out of print Philips recording of the organ works. My hesitation did not come from a poor opinion of Rubsam's ability. On the contrary I have long admired his recordings of the French and English Suites (on piano) for Naxos. His playing there seems to me to be that of one of those musicans who - without being impersonal or mechanical - have the gift of letting the music speak for itself . But I had been greatly disappointed by his CD of 'The Great Organ Works' of Bach for Naxos (8.553859 if anyone wants to sample it on the website). There the performances of some of the works with which I was already familiar - the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor BWV 565 and the Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor BWV 582 - seemed ponderous, painstaking, not quite boring - the music is still Bach! - but lacking some vital ingredient.

The strong advocacy of some members of the list for Rubsam's earlier recordings encouraged me to take the risk of acquiring them and here I certainly have not been disappointed. As it happens the first work on the first disc is BWV 565. The contrast in the performances is startling.In the earlier performance there is a verve and exhiliration that compel attention and give delight on repeated hearing. For me therefore Rubsam's second thoughts on this work are not better.

I have had a similar experience with Richter's recordings of the Saint Matthew Passion. For some time I have known and enjoyed the recording he made in the 1970s. In places the direction seems leaden but with such excellent singers as Janet Baker, Peter Schreier and Fischer Dieskau there is much that is outstanding. But yesterday I listened to his earlier recording for the first time. Again the contrast is striking. My first impressions are that the 1958 performance has a cogency and conviction that lift it into a different level of achievement.

If my reactions are not mistaken,the question arises of why there should be a decline rather than an increase in insight and understanding of the work. My expectation would be that if someone chooses to record a work of Bach a second time he or she must feel they have something different to offer from their first attempt. If as an ordinary listener with no musical expertise I find constantly more in Bach's music the more I listen, how much more growth and understanding there may be for an active musician who lives with a piece for years and has perhaps the repeated and varied experience of interpreting the music for different audiences. Perhaps in preferring earlier versions I am responding to superficial elements in the work and missing more subtle qualities in later interpretations. Perhaps the usual hazard of recording applies - one performance is artificially frozen in time for ever and may not truly represent the artist's vision of the work

I would be interested to know what other members think of these recordings, and in general how reactions vary to different interpretations of one of Bach's works by the same artist: the various versions of the Goldberg variations by Gould, Tureck and most recently Schiff; Bylsma's recordings of the cello suites; and - to use again an example I raised recently on the BCML - the three versions of BWV 209 by Elly Ameling -and I'm sure there are many others.Are there clear examples of an advance in interpretation? If my experience with Rübsam and Richter is repeated elsewhere, how and why do such things come about.?

(Like others I would like to add my gratitude to Kirk for starting and running this list and to Aryeh - does that man never stop ?- for taking on the running of the two lists. I am also particularly grateful to Kirk for his perceptive and informative review of Jordi Savall's Espana Antigua (http://www.musicweb.uk.net/classrev/2001/Nov01/Espana_Antigua.htm) which led me to these recordings. Anyone who has heard this marvellous music will understand my gratitude)

Nessie Russell wrote (November 13, 2003):
Francis Browne wrote:
< Are second thoughts always better? >
I don't have the recordings you are talking about. I do have the first and last of Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations. In my opinion the last recording is much more thoughtful. The first time I heard the first recording I was astounded. My admiration for it only lasted for about my 3rd hearing. I rarely listen to it anymore. It seems to me that as we grow older we see new things in music. I can play faster now than I could when I was a student, but I play most of the Inventions and Sinfonias a little slower. I don't always play slower but I play with more thought.

Thomas Radleff wrote (November 13, 2003):
[To Francis Browne] I am amazed about our corresponding impressions of Rübsam´s recordings. I like his piano recordings, because he lets the music flow, it seems spontaneously, quirky, trusting that it is still Bahc that remains, like a blues singer who is stretching the phrase, relying that he will find the track again. This brings much life into the score, and to me it seems as if it fits to what we attempt to reconstruct as "baroque" - that the score is nothing more than the catwalk, but the one who wants to play it, is requested to dance. The Partitas - a delight.

Unfortunately, Rübsam does the same in his Naxos organ recordings, and the result is contraious: unbearable pauses, ponderous; sometimes he drops asleep between the notes; the parts are stretched apart from each other.

What a difference with his Philips recording! Joyful, clear, - and the two organs are much more interesting than the hypertrophic Flentrop University monster. (BTW, there is one exception in the Naxos series: the Trio sonatas, two sperate CDs, played on the charming Schnitger in Groningen. Try this one!)

I don´t think that we can build up the rule that a later approach is "worse" than its precedessors; it depends on so many circumstances, as you pointed out: the magic (or not) of the recording session, the technical equipmet & engineers, the space, the stomach or whatever. As soon as example of a good second sight comes to my mind, I will tell.

I agree with you regarding Bylsma - but the instruments are sooo different: his Gofriller cello in 1979, and this famous Stradivarius in 1992.

For the Goldbergs, I prefer Tatjana Nikolayeva´s Moscow recording from 1970 - it is much more compact and characterful than the 1992 Hypérion disc.

Same thing with Leonhardt´s earlier Art of Fugue...

Does anyone know Thierry Mechler´s both AoF reordings? With organ, Solstice 1993, and with piano, Organum 2000 - that´d be interesting.

Aryeh Oron wrote (November 13, 2003):
[To Francis Browne] Regarding recordings of cantatas, some conductors recorded some of them more than once. You know that I try to value the recordings of each cantata in the weekly cantata discussion case by case, and try to avoid generalizations. Rilling, for example, had recorded several secular cantatas during the second half of the 1960's and recorded them again during the second half of the 1990's - three decades apart. In the later recordings he is almost sound as belonging to the HIP school. He still prefers modern instruments rather than reconstructions of older ones. But the overall approach is lighter, the tempo is faster, the texture is more transparent, most of the singers are identified with conductors as Koopman and Herreweghe, etc. In short, it is hard to believe that this is the same co. Who is to be preferred: the new Rilling or the older one? Hard for me to tell. In many cases I like them both.

This year Hanssler issued a 4-CD set called 'Lecture Concerts – New Recordings Cantatas'. See: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Performers/Rilling-Rec6.htm [L-11]
The album includes 6 new recordings of sacred cantatas, which Rilling has recorded before in the frame of his complete cantata cycle. I received the album couple of days ago but have not listened to it yet. I hope to find some time listening to it when the first round of the weekly cantata discussions is over, only about a month ahead!

BTW, thanks for your kind words. I took the managing of both lists on myself because I did not want the efforts of Kirk, which have resulted in creating two very successful international lists, will go astray. I hope that the atmosphere in both lists will be as co-operative and friendly as is has been most of the time during four last years.

Bradley Lehman wrote (November 13, 2003):
Thomas Radleff wrote:
< (...) I don´t think that we can build up the rule that a later
approach is "worse" than its precedessors; it depends on so many circumstances,
as you pointed out: the magic (or not) of the recording session, the technical equipmet & engineers, the space, the stomach or whatever. As soon as example of a good second sight comes to my mind, I will tell. I agree with you regarding Bylsma - but the instruments are sooo different: his Gofriller cello in 1979, and this famous Stradivarius in 1992. For the Goldbergs, I prefer Tatjana Nikolayeva´s Moscow
recording from 1970 - it is much more compact and characterful than the 1992
Hypérion disc. Same thing with Leonhardt´s earlier Art of Fugue... >
Interesting! I prefer Leonhardt's later (dhm) recording of KdF to the earlier Vanguard. His touch is more controlled, more richly nuanced, and (probably not an independent factor) he's using a much better harpsichord.

Ditto for my preference of his third (of 3) recording of the Goldbergs.

And Wispelwey's second recording of the solo cello suites: more freedom, more nuance.

On the other hand, Gould's 1981 Goldbergs will probably never pass the 1959 and 1955 in my estimation, even though they now sound better in the "A State of Wonder" set. He was more thoughtful in 1981, yes (as Nessie said), but also more rigid...I miss the sense of play from his earlier ones, the joy, the brinkmanship.

With Schiff in the Goldbergs it's the other way around: the later one (new, on ECM) gives me more of what I like.

With Savall and Koopman in the vdg/hpsi sonatas, I like the later set better than the first one.

With Herreweghe in the B minor mass (BWV 232) twice, I like them about equally.

But I like Harnoncourt's remake better than his first one. And I VERY MUCH like Harnoncourt's remake of the Brandenburgs better than his first one.

And then on Rübsam in the organ works: I have all the Naxos/Bayer, and about half of the earlier Philips. And no clear preference: I like having both, for different reasons.

We could go on listing dozens of other cases like these. Just no way to predict any of this. As you said, Thomas, it could be the magic of the session, or the space, or the stomach, or whatever.

< Does anyone know Thierry Mechler´s both AoF reordings? With organ, Solstice 1993, and with piano, Organum 2000 - that´d be interesting. >
Not yet. Thanks for mentioning them!

What is Gerd Zacher's complete set like, compared with the Wergo disc where he interpreted Contrapunctus 1 in ten different ways?

Johan van Veen wrote (November 13, 2003):
Francis Browne wrote:
< Are second thoughts always better? More particularly, when a musician records a work of Bach for the second time is the later version always an advance on the earlier attempt? Two recordings that I have listened to with great enjoyment recently have set me thinking about this topic.
I would be interested to know what other members think of these recordings, and in general how reactions vary to different interpretations of one of Bach's works by the same artist: the various versions of the Goldberg variations by Gould, Tureck and most recently Schiff; Bylsma's recordings of the cello suites; and - to use again an example I raised recently on the BCML - the three versions of BWV 209 by Elly Ameling -and I'm sure there are many others.Are there clear examples of an advance in interpretation? If my experience with Rübsam and Richter is repeated elsewhere, how and why do such things come about.? >
When I listen to a second recording of the same work by the same artist I sometimes compare it with the remake of a movie: the remake often doesn't reach the level of the original. Maybe it is just a matter of being so familiar with the first recording that it is difficult to get used to a newer one with perhaps a more or less different approach.

But whether you prefer the first recording or the second one also depends on your preferences. People who don't like typical 'early music voices' will prefer the second St Matthew Passion (BWV 244) by Herreweghe over the first. I don't; Howard Crook as Evangelist (SMP I) is't quite my cup of tea, but he is far better from a stylistic point of view than Ian Bostridge (SMP II). And I find Herreweghe's second recording of the B-minor Mass (BWV 232) is far less convincing than his first.

And what I have heard of Harnoncourt's latest recordings of Bach's cantatas - I saw once a recording on TV, which is probably the one that also has been released on DVD - is pretty dreadful. I prefer the more 'historically correct' recordings on Teldec any time. Harnoncourt's choice of singers hasn't exactly improved over the years.

But that is my general complaint: technically there may have been progress since the 70's, stylistically there is a lot of regress.

Thomas Radleff wrote (November 14, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] Thank you, Brad, for confusing the rules by stating your contrarious impressions.

Let´s imagine an experiment:
A group of people is listening to two recordings (that they don´t know yet) of the same opus, from the same musician or director. Afterwards they are asked
1) Which one they like more, and why.
2) Which one they think that it is the 1st and the 2nd recording, earlier and later. I am sure that the answers will be a caleidoscope that reflects these persons´ tastes and temperaments.

Bob Henderson wrote (November 15, 2003):
[To Frances Brown] I have enjoyed first on LP and now on CD the Richter SMP from the late 50s. The last hour has never been matched. Anywhere. In devotion conveyed. A mighty feat. Still my favorite. Richter's second attempt simply cannot hold a candle to the first. In spite of Fischer Dieskau (who sounds so youthfully vulnerable in the bass aria of the first) as Jesus, in spite of Janet Baker. What happened? It just doesn't sound like Richter at his best. I saw him perform on his two tours of the US and this man was nothing if not in charge. Every motion and facial expression counted. Was he already ill at the time of the second attempt? Who knows. But that recoring does not represent Richter at his best.

David Glenn Lebut Jr. wrote (November 16, 2003):
[To Bob Henderson] Actually, there were (as was brought to my attention not too long ago) 3 recrdings of the Matthäuspassion by Richter. The latter one you refer to is the 3rd.

To my mind and ears, the thrid is actually closer to Bach's intentions and sounds much better than the first two (the firstone of which I have owned and heard in its entirety).

As to chronology, there was only 1 recording that was made in the 1950s. That was the first one, which was recorded in the summer of 1958. The second was made in the 1960s (I don't remember which date) and the third in 1979. The first one is rare to find, the second is te most popular and easy to find, and the third is not (that I know of) to be found in any English-speaking vendors at all any more. Ifound it in one of the German vendors.

Coincidentally, it was the third that Richter resorted to the most common (and true to performance practice of Bach's day as well as true to the score) Baroque Continuo practice. This was to alternate between Harpsichord (used in the Secco Recitatives and [if I am not mistaken] the Arien and Accompagnatos) and Organ (in the Choraele and Chorsaetze) Keuboard continuo instrument. This was in keeping with the score (which has at the Choralmovements "Organo et Coninuo" and at the other movements "Continuo").

 

Repertoire revisited

Jack Botelho wrote (December 16, 2003):
"It is indeed unfortunate when we have cherished works of music which are left on the shelf. I appreciate your point about expanding the range of repertoire - in my opinion we desperately need a shift of listener's (and musician's) consciousness to performing works which are rarely or never heard. World-wide sales of classical music is in a dangerous decline, apparently, partly due to cd-burning but also because listeners are becoming reluctant to purchase different recordings of the same well-known piece of music. Only wealthy record collectors keep abreast of all new versions – the rest of us stay content with what versions we have with the result of the loss of the lions-share of the buyers market."

Reading the above once again, I don't think that wealth has anything to do with declining sales of classical music. There are collectors (wealthy or otherwise) who do acquire all recordings of a particular work - for example over 100 of the Mass in B Minor (BWV 232). But such collectors are in the minority. Market considerations matter because too many musicians today are living in straightened circumstances. My question is: do "fine" recordings have the effect of restricting further exploration of the same repertoire on record? Are we reaching a "market saturation" point?

Bradley Lehman wrote (December 17, 2003):
[To Jack Botelho] Here's a perspective--not necessarily the only one, but maybe a helpful one at least for discussion?

- Record publishers do not publish repertoire for which there might be only a small niche market of buyers; they simply would not sell enough copies to recoup costs. (Yes, there are also some specialty publishers but they typically do not have good distribution.)

- Record publishers do not usually hire "unknown" or new artists: unless the musician has first proven himself/herself through a big competition (playing standard repertoire) or by issuing recordings of standard repertoire, getting a foot into the door. Either way, the musician has to play standard repertoire, and not count on getting anywhere by playing adventurous repertoire.

- With both of those points combined, almost everything that gets recorded is standard repertoire that will pay its way, unless the musician fronts all the costs himself/herself and goes with a vanity publisher...in which case the music and the artist aren't really taken seriously anyway, distribution is almost zero, and the costs will never get reimbursed.

- Even with standard repertoire, there are long waits for the wheels of publication to move, or for funding to come around to finish a project. Two of my former professors each have several recordings that have been "in the can" for years, finished, mastered, waiting either on a publisher or on funding...and those are top-notch players who already have at least a dozen recordings out, each.

- With lesser-known soloists or ensembles, the albums have to include plenty of already-familiar repertoire just to get people to buy the disc at all...a CD of completely unknown music just won't get noticed in the competitive market.

- Recordings and printing can also go hand-in-hand sometimes. For example, some years ago I wrote a harpsichord arrangement of a quite popular piece by a living composer, played it for him, got his enthusiastic blessing on the arrangement. I asked him if his publisher would be interested in it, and he said sure, but it has to be widely popular on a recording first, otherwise it will never sell enough to justify the printing. So, how is it going to get recorded in the first place, except at a player's own expense which would also need to go back (in part) as royalties to the composer? Slip it into as many concerts as possible, and maybe a vanity recording project that probably wouldn't go anywhere.

Meanwhile there is plenty of worthy music out there, new and old, that is not available on recordings at all.

For example: Hassler's variations on "Einmal ging ich spazieren" is a brilliant set akin to Bach's Goldberg Variations, and akin to several other sets of 30 variations...most notably those by Buxtehude and Bull. There are a bazillion recordings of the Goldbergs, relatively few of Buxtehude and Bull, and (AFAIK) there has only ever been one recording of the Hassler...long out of print. It was well played, by a harpsichordist who was also a timpanist (!), but it's gone.

For another example: Christian Erbach (c1570-1635) left a large collection of ricercars, canzonas, fantasias, etc: mostly short pieces well written in delightful contrapuntal genres, very enjoyable to play and to listen to. I use them all the time for church services, weddings, etc etc, as they are well suited to any keyboard instrument. A handful have been recorded variously by Leonhardt, Tachezi, and a few others; but never a whole disc devoted only to Erbach, by anybody. (And the complete works would probably be at least a 6 or 7-CD set... about 650 pages of music in the modern edition, which has been in print for at least 30 years.)

As for the case where a single fine recording corners the market and discourages competition? I don't think so. Take the case of Thomas Tomkins' harpsichord music, available as a complete set of CDs by a former Leonhardt student, Bernard Klapprott. Terrific playing, terrific music. Has something this "definitive" frightened off everybody else? No, but we should be grateful that it has been done at least once, this well. Still available, but difficult to get.

Nor have the complete works of an even more major composer, Froberger, been done more than once in a recording--Egarr's. Individual pieces, sure, by many people; but many single pieces of Froberger outside that small "greatest hits" group are recorded only in that single complete set...and it's out of print.

Or the organ and keyboard works of Zachow, Händel's teacher: just a spotty few pieces recorded here and there. (OK, in this case some of it might be due to the music's indifferent quality....) Or something better: the chorale preludes of Johann Gottfried Walther. Terrific stuff for use in services, inventive, very well crafted, just as interesting to listen to as the not-greatest-hits Bach works...but not recorded very often. Instead we get umpteen bazillion more versions of the Bach works, and especially of the "greatest hits" thereof, the standard proving ground for everybody and everything.

Or Fischer's "Ariadne musica," the proto-Well-Tempered-Clavier that inspired Bach (and from which he lifted a musical theme, directly). Are there any recordings currently available, other than Payne's?

So, what's to stop an enterprising player from recording all this wonderful but slightly obscure stuff, so there will be some choices and so some pieces will receive even a first recording? Funding, time, the impossibility of finding a publisher, and the knowledge that it won't sell enough to recoup expenses. Such music ends up being only in books, from generation to generation, because people give first priority to buying the standard repertoire (many times over)... or just don't know that anything but the standard repertoire exists. It's not the fault of the standard repertoire for being good, or being well known; it deserves it. But the business equations don't favor anything but this. The cycle feeds itself. It would all just be vanity projects by musicians who are independently wealthy and have unlimfree time available to do it; and how many of those are around, with the skills and inclination to get it done?

Agreements? Disagreements? I didn't intend to go on so long....

Jack Botelho wrote (December 17, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] I wonder how much this somewhat vicious circle of restricted repertoire is a result of a largely ignorant classical-record buying public who have not been educated and/or are simply ignorant of the large amount of fine works of baroque music in existence? I am myself only poorly self-educated in these matters, but admit I pinch myself when entering a cd shop and head straight for the "big three" (or whatever number) baroque composers in the stacks. Perhaps it takes a special effort to overcome the psychology of going for what is known, what is "safe". Perhaps the problem is at the grass-roots level - a poorly educated public in the arts and history?

I very much appreciated reading your insights.

 

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Last update: ýAugust 23, 2009 ý07:55:05