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Johannes-Passsion BWV 245

General Discussions - Part 3

Continue from Part 2

"Impressionistic effects" in SJP, etc

Bradley Lehman wrote (March 12, 2003):
< Neil Halliday wrote:
<<Brad wrote: "...why would one assume that Bach wanted the listener to be able to pick out every distinct note? Can't Bach be allowed to write musical effects that are more interesting than mere notes?". >>
I think we have a confusion of musical genres here,(although I admit it probably is a matter of our different psychological temperaments.)

In my opinion, if you want impressionistic effects in music, listen to Debussy or Ravel.

I look for the clear expression of large scale architecture in Bach's large works; I simply turn off the high-speed impressionistic versions of Bach.

That's why I prefer the versions of the opening chorus of the St John Passion which are built upon the ON-OFF-ON-OFF in the basses, as opposed to your preference to much faster versions based on the structure ON-ON in the basses; in favour of my preference I note the time signature is 4/4, not 2/2. >
Odd...I have never posted anything about the SJP (or really anything else, for that matter) to this list "BachCantatas"...only to the similar list "BachRecordings" back in October-November 2002.

I see you're probably referring to the compilation of comments in the bottom half of the page: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Vocal/BWV245-Gen2.htm

As I said there, "It's a futile exercise to try to hear every note and rest exactly as notated on the page (along with the unwritten improvised notes!). Bach was a practical composer, and knew this. And he wasn't writing for the clinical analysis that might be possible listening to a closely-miked recording. He wrote his musical details so people in the room would get a point from the story.... (His listeners wouldn't be sitting there following along with scores, either. The expense!) If he wrote fantastic clashes among some of the quickly-moving parts, so be it...momentary dissonance is a spice, and in practice they're heard that way. The artfulness of this conceals itself."

As I recall from the context of that discussion, I was describing the experience of playing the SJP in an acoustically live church, which I did some years ago: sitting at a terrific spot under the conductor's desk, playing continuo organ with the music swirling all around me. Wonderful stereo effects there!

As you say here:
< I think we have a confusion of musical genres here,(although I admit it probably is a matter of our different psychological temperaments.) >
I don't think so. Why would the musical genre be substantially different in the SJP as opposed to (say) Debussy's "Pelleas et Melisande"? In both cases, the music is illustrating a dramatic story. Passions and operas (and oratorios) really are not very different, musically: only in the staging, or lack of it. The singers' parts tell a story, and the instrumental parts help to dramatize (and comment on) the action, strengthening the moods and sometimes telling us about the characters' unspoken thoughts or feelings.

What are the grounds for any assumption that Bach didn't know or do this in the SJP and SMP, that he would rather have us hear notes than broader effects? (Indeed, why would he write those funny parts in the SMP's "Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand" emulating forsaken chickens, if he merely wanted us to hear notes?)

I don't think this difference of perception has so much to do with performance speed, as with some performers' willingness to conceive of and project the phrases as gestures, while other performers (and listeners, evidently) would rather focus on the notes as notes. [That "waves" effect in the opening chorus of the SJP can also be brought out at a slower tempo, if the performers are so inclined.] Maybe it is a difference of psychological temperament, as you suggest, but I'd rather think of Bach as a master of musical gestures, not as a note-spinner.

=====

Monday evening I spent a few hours studying cantata 49, having reviewed the discussion on
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV49-D.htm
I went through it with a score (the one I'll be using in performance on March 29th), and two recordings: conducted by Wilhelm Ehmann and Christophe Coin. The contrast is remarkable.

Ehmann's group plays this cantata as a sober (and I'd also say almost "somber") un-dramatic reading: very stiff in rhythmic profile, with a heavy undifferentiated basso continuo line, and a "one size fits all" approach to phrasing...hardly any dynamics, or sense of breathing, anywhere in the instruments. The singing is beautiful, just as sound and as carefully prepared notes, but I picked up almost no sense of this being a story (other than reading the words for myself, of course). No flexibility, no drive. And the sparkle in the organ part, throughout this cantata, is just about zero...where's the sense of joy and fun?

Coin's group at least gives it some forward dramatic motion, and the continuo line shows signs of intelligent life. The singers declaim their parts with dramatic flexibility (but also good musical tone), delivering musical gestures rather than mere notes. The singers and players recognize that some of the notes are naturally strong while
others are weak ("good" and "bad" notes, in 18th century terminology), and it all flows easily. (For example, in the "Ich bin herrlich" aria, the soprano recognizes all the pairs of notes under single syllables as strong-weak gestures, ornamental, instead of giving the same emphasis to both notes.) The whole performance still seems "cool" to me, I'd rather hear even more drama here: but at least it's doing decent things in the right directions....

Ehmann's performance is only five minutes longer than Coin's, but it seems twice as long: half an hour of pretty notes, going almost nowhere. It's hard for me to believe that such a wooden delivery was the type of performance Bach would have had in mind. OK, maybe "wooden" is too strong a word there; let's say "under-imaginative" or "overly reverent to literal note-values"...delivering all the notes faithfully (as if that's good enough) rather than recognizing and bringing out the shapes they are built into, compositionally.

To play and sing gesturally is to allow Bach's music to sound fresh, organic, alive. Personally I'd much rather hear that gestural approach than any long slog of undifferentiated notes (even if this latter approach makes all the notes more audible)...a style that, frankly, makes Bach seem like a less inspired composer, merely competent at writing notes that go together well.

Again, this all doesn't have so much to do with tempo, as with asking oneself why he wrote the particular notes in the way he did...and then bringing out those musical/dramatic effects clearly, rather than hiding them. (Not only in Bach's vocal works, but all his works.)

Thomas Braatz wrote (March 12, 2003):
Brad, you stated:
>>I went through it with a score (the one I'll be using in performance on March 29th), and two recordings: conducted by Wilhelm Ehmann and Christophe Coin. The contrast is remarkable.<<
All this 'gesturing' with demi-voices such as Barbara Schlick and Gotthold Schwarz (Coin) is of an inferior quality when compared with Rilling's recording (Augér & Huttenlocher - although I usually don't like Huttenlocher) where the best of both worlds come together -- all the notes are audible and the music (in particular, the final mvt. Coin - 4:43 vs. Rilling - 4:28) truly 'swings.' Coin's performance does not reach anywhere near the level of Rilling's.

>>Why would the musical genre be substantially different in the SJP as opposed to (say) Debussy's "Pelleas et Melisande"?
Although I may be repeating myself, allow me to state: It is possible to make all the notes in Bach's music audible, some to a greater, others to a lesser degree, and capture at the same time whatever makes this music truly come alive. This means grsinging and great conducting (and for recordings great sound engineers.) Great singers strive to convey the entire text (not just the occasionally accented syllables) in a musically suitable manner that is agreeable to the ears of most listeners and with the appropriate emotion and genuineness called for in the music. Vocal mannerisms, unnatural vocal sounds, apparent 'play-acting' of the text, and the inability to produce a full volume through the extended range that Bach's music demands are indications of inferior performances that can not be improved by applying the many conventions of HIP strategies which actually stress the idea of extreme gestures and accents which cause notes in Bach's scores to become lost in the romantic, impressionistic goals of performance that are currently in vogue. While conductors may attempt to bring certain parts or notes out more than some others, these conductors are doing Bach's music a disservice by allowing parts to become indistinct or inaudible.

If I look at an impressionistic painting (or even a 'pointellistic' one), I am interested in the overall effect visually or emotionally that it evokes. I do not walk up to the painting to discover greater meaningful connections because all that I will see is dots and technical detail only of interest to a painter, or one seriously interested in painting technique. Bach's music is more like a 'classical' painting where each closer approach reveals more interesting details that also carry significance. Take Leonardo's 'Mona Lisa' and observe it from an appropriate distance. You will be concerned mainly with the portrait of the mysterious woman depicted there. However, if you come closer to the painting, all the background details draw your eyes into the landscape beyond. This background is significant as well and is not simply a revelation of impressionistic techniques as one would also find in Debussy's music where the emphasis primarily lies upon the effects and the images that they evoke. Delving deeper into this type of impressionistic music usually does not reveal an entirely new level, somewhat obscured by the overall effect. Taking Bach as the ultimate impressionist and stating that some notes in his score do not really have to be heard because the emotional interpretation of the moment dictates this, would be like removing the background painting in the 'Mona Lisa' and simply painting in a brown wall which then would emphasize only the foreground (only the impressionistic, foreground effects that HIP overstates and exaggerates) to the detriment of yet another level of significance which can only be revealed if the notes that Bach wrote are clearly audible. Brad, I hope that you will understand this to mean that there is range of audibility available in all these circumstances, a range that a good conductor would utilize in an effective manner. A living performance, yes, but not one that disrespects Bach's notational intentions by allowing notes, yes, even entire phrases and lines of music to disappear. This is what happens all too frequently in HIP where this type of practice has become fairly commonplace and where extremes of accent and tempi are responsible for the 'careless' reproduction of Bach's vocal works, a reproduction which 'short changes' the unknowing listener who may be hearing a work for the first time.

It is possible for the 'Affekt' to be achieved without losing notes in the process. Any 'gesturing' that makes the notes disappear from the audible range has unwittingly become a tool used to undermine Bach's intentions. Why is it so difficult to achieve moderation between the extremes that you have pointed out, Brad? Let's avoid 'deadly' performances where all the notes are played or sung in a stultifying manner, but let's also call to task the HIP extremists who, with all their emphasis on 'feeling' and 'live' performance, are beginning to neglect the basic elements in Bach's scores and ride roughshod over many of the details that Bach included for us all to hear.

Arjen van Gijssel wrote (March 13, 2003):
IMO, it is wrong to compare Bach with impressionism or with music from the romantic era (and I have some difficulty with comparing it with paintings of Michelangelo as well). I think that a caracteristic of baroque music is that every note in principle should be heard. There I absolutely agree with Thomas Braatz.

Singing all notes does not mean that as a choir singer, you should forget about the phrases you're singing, or the important words within that phrase. The art of baroque singing calls for expressing all notes, and yet being aware of the direction in which the text and the music is going. The moment we are accentuating an important word, by singing it louder or by giving little or no "weight" to surrounding less important words, we are being corrected by our conductor of the Laurenscantorij.

What I don´t understand about Thomas Braatz´s remarks in this respect, is that he takes Rilling as an example of the correct approach. I often get the impression that Rilling has a romantic approach, i.e. with big choirs and a sound which sounds like a thick warm blanket.

Thomas Braatz wrote (March 13, 2003):
Arjen Gijssel pondered:
>>What I don´t understand about Thomas Braatz´s remarks in this respect, is that he takes Rilling as an example of the correct approach. I often get the impression that Rilling has a romantic approach, i.e. with big choirs and a sound which sounds like a thick warm blanket.<<
I hope that you realize that the discussion was about BWV 49 which does not have big choirs, but now that you bring up my usually more favorably reports on Rilling's choir mvts., let me state that Rilling, more consistently than most cantata conductors and despite the trained voices singing with too much vibrato, nevertheless manages to retain a good balance between the voices and it is indeed rare that I am unable to look at any part of the score and discover that Rilling may have missed something (notes, phrases, articulation, dynamics). On top of all of this, his choir adds a driving force that reveals strong conviction as well as careful attention to expressive details. This can not be said of most HIP (Bach vocal) recordings where in the name of authentically representing Bach with a special emphasis on extreme interpretive devices (fast tempi, exaggerated accents, etc.) that claim to represent the performers' emotional commitment to making Bach's music come alive, too many things in Bach's scores are 'glossed over' or lost entirely in the 'passion' of the performance.

Charles Francis wrote (March 13, 2003):
< Arjen van Gijssel wrote: IMO, it is wrong to compare Bach with impressionism or with music from the romantic era (and I have some difficulty with comparing it with paintings of Michelangelo as well). I think that a caracteristic of baroque music is that every note in principle should be heard. There I absolutely agree with Thomas Braatz. >
The essence of Bach's music is the emotional experience resulting from the total perception of the interaction of all components. It is difficult to find a parallel, but perhaps theists may liken it to God's omniscient knowledge of the Universe. With Bach the music is the Universe and a good performance facilitates a holistic experience of all horizontal and vertical aspects. Otherwise, one has compromised its
very Raison d'Etre.

Charles Francis wrote (March 13, 2003):
[To Thomas Braatz] I agree with everything you say above Thomas. I would add that Rilling's performances are typically heavily tempered by the text - take, for instance, his outstanding interpretation of the closing movement of the B-minor Mass (BWV 232).

Bradley Lehman wrote (March 13, 2003):
Now, for the record, so nobody gets the wrong idea here: I have no objection to hearing all the notes; in fact, I think it is important for performers to bring out the notes with as much clarity as possible, as far as is practical.

And that is VERY different from saying that all the notes should sound equally audible. Such a performance is merely one-dimensional. It's like hearing somebody read a script in a monotone voic, with no comprehension of which words are more important than others. It doesn't convey the music, but merely the notes.

Anyone who has heard me play harpsichord (and I am a professional player with a doctoral degree in that) knows that I give careful attention to detail. (Ditto when I play organ, clavichord, or fortepiano: each instrument offering a different range of expression, and different methods.) The details are very important to me, knowing why every note is where it is, so I can bring it out with an appropriate amount of attention; but, even more important is recognizing the hierarchy of the notes and phrases, and the way that those grammatical details are subsumed into meaning. Some notes really ARE much more important than other notes, and the less-important notes really should be downplayed. (Still audible, yes, but not in the foreground as much as the important notes are.) The notes must be organized into gestures and phrases the same way the composer composed them: recognizing and bringing out the shapes
and effects in the music, not merely the notes.

I've written some essays about that:

http://www-personal.umich.edu/~bpl/purc.htm (about the process of marking all the detail during the study of a piece, figuring out all the musical grammar, putting it into the hierarchy of expression, and then during performance playing a more important level of expression above all that detail)

http://www-personal.umich.edu/~bpl/performance-preparation.htm
(the type of research, practice, and thought that goes into every musical choice in a performance...it's far, far, far beyond merely going through all the notes in a score!)

I agree with Tom B that some performers overstate the foreground. But I think Tom goes too far here in his anti-"HIP" rhetoric. "HIP" (as a style) doesn't overstate or exaggerate anything; rather, it is some individual performers making unmusical choices who do so, not a whole class of people.

If Tom could somehow excise the harshly dismissive language of "HIP extremists" and "ride roughshod" and "undermine Bach's intentions" and "disrespects Bach's notational intentions" and "demi-voices" and "careless reproduction" from his manner of writing, I'd actually be pretty close to agreeing with his final paragraph here (below). A good performer balances things well, organizing the foreground and background appropriately, neither to the extreme of making all the notes the same, or to the other extreme of making notes completely inaudible. The music, when played and/or sung that well, indeed has many dimensions that are revealed at various levels of inspection, and to be enjoyed in repeated encounters.

In the example I mentioned earlier, the recordings of Cantata BWV 49 by Ehmann and Coin, I can indeed hear all the notes in both performances. Coin's performance gives them a considerably clearer hierarchy, and therefore the composition is MUCH more lucid and holds the attention more readily; I'd also say it's much more expressive and musically convincing. The notes are all audible; they don't drop out (as might be suggested by reading Tom's message below). I haven't heard Rilling's for comparison, so I can't say anything about that. And I did enjoy and learn some things from Ehmann's performance, even though I didn't agree with the methods of making all the notes so equal in importance. I could still parse the composition despite the way the features were downplayed.

Tom wrote:
< Great singers strive to convey the entire text (not just the occasionally accented syllables) in a musically suitable manner that is agreeable to the ears of most listeners and with the appropriate emotion and genuineness called for in the music. Vocal mannerisms, unnatural vocal sounds, apparent 'play-acting' of the text, and the inability to produce a full volume through the extended range that Bach's music demands are indications of inferior performances that can not be improved by applying the many conventions of HIP strategies which actually stress the idea of extreme gestures and accents which cause notes in Bach's scores to become lost in the romantic, impressionistic goals of performance that are currently in vogue. While conductors may attempt to bring certain parts or notes out more than some others, these conductors are doing Bach's music a disservice by allowing parts to become indistinct or inaudible. >
That just looks to me like an extreme overstatement itself, a perhaps angry overreaction, like an incendiary polemic against performance styles he would rather not hear. Tom obviously feels this very strongly, which is fine; I just wish he'd express it more kindly, with a better realization of how hurtfully some of those words come across, especially as they get archived on the web.

He then (later in the same posting below) tempers his remarks, calling for a greater moderation, with which I (generally) agree; his language itself also relaxes, which is welcome to this reader. I can grant Tom some leeway here, and trust he has good intentions. Also, he and I have had some good discussions off-list, and I can vouch
that he is thoughtful and considerate there. Overall, if I may venture a suggestion, I'd urge Tom to bring a greater respect for "HIP" performers (and a more careful use of language), a less incendiary tone, when discussing performances he doesn't fancy.

Those of us out here who really do specialize in "Historically Informed Performance"...even though I'd rather think of it as "Intelligent and Sensitive Musical Performance(!)"...deserve a fair hearing, and (if possible) un-prejudiced comments about our work...especially if those comments are to be archived forever on the web, for anybody to see outside the context of these group discussions. We take the music very seriously, and because we respect it we strive to bring it out as clearly and expressively as possible (as do some non-"HIP" performers, also, of course...with different methods). Yes, some performers overstate it, coming across as didactic rather than musically convincing...but that's no reason to lump all of "HIP" folks together as horrible. Many of us do bring thoughtful moderation to the way we sing and play, whether as amateurs or professionals. We've put in many years of hard work, and gone to great personal expense, just to get to participate in this music at all. (And, even as a professional player myself, it's almost impossible to earn enough at it to live on; I have a completely separate full-time job outside music that pays my family's bills.)

And I think it's worth remembering: even though we today might wish to hear all the notes, as much as possible...there was no way that Bach's congregations heard everything coming down from the loft. Bach, an intelligent and practical musician, knew this. He had to know that some things frankly would not be heard clearly. That's life. He still wrote his music brilliantly to bring out the messages that were to be conveyed, in the performance conditions he had to deal with. If we can hear different things in different performance conditions today, fine; that's life, too. But I think it's too extreme to insist that we must be able to hear everything. Everything should be there, sure, brought out as well as the performance circumstances allow. But, really, in the larger sweep of life, how many people's days are REALLY ruined if we didn't hear the third semiquaver in bar 47 of movement 5, or whatever? Life isn't perfect. Everybody has to prioritize some things as more important than other things. I'd like to believe that Bach understood that.

Thomas Braatz wrote (March 13, 2003):
Bradley Lehman stated: >>I agree with Tom B that some performers overstate the foreground. But I think Tom goes too far here in his anti-"HIP" rhetoric. "HIP" (as a style) doesn't overstate or exaggerate anything; rather, it is some individual performers making unmusical choices who do so, not a whole class of people.<<
It’s all a matter of perspective as with yoassessment of the Coin and Ehmann recordings of BWV 49. There is a ‘certain bliss’ associated with having an acquaintance with only one or two performances of a cantata, just as there is a ‘certain curse’ present when you have a greater selection of cantatas from which to choose and to judge. [“Wer die Wahl hat, hat die Qual” –“Whoever is faced with choices, also has the agony of trying to make a selection (choose the best ones) from among the choices (the greater the choices, the greater the agony.)”] With the greater number of choices, it becomes somewhat easier, however, to generalize about the characteristics rather than stating that a certain HIP imperfection exists in at least 180 of the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt series and begin to list them each time a reference to this problem is made; and that this same imperfection can be found in a certain cantata recordings by Gardiner, Koopman, Leusink, sometimes even Suzuki and Herreweghe, and list which ones they are. There is an implicit assumption (perhaps wrongly so) made here that the person reading my archived comments will make the effort to read my specific comments in the weekly discussions of the BCML to find my specific references. However, in lieu of this, when I do make generalized statements about my observations, as I have in recent days, you fear that I might be unduly criticizing all HIP renditions and excluding the possibility that some HIP renditions might be successful in reproducing all the aspects that we can expect from a truly excellent performance. Since I have no way of hearing your performances of Bach’s sacred vocal works, I have to assume, from much that you have presented here, that these performances are excellent and that these performances have overcome the many negative traits that I have distinguished in the available HIP recordings. As much as I would like to see some of the better HIP characteristics succeed, the track record (I am referring here only to Bach’s sacred choral music) is not an outstanding one. Perhaps it is improving at this point in time as conductors and performers alike realize the insufficiencies inherent in the pioneering work that has been accomplished during the fast few decades and will attempt to improve upon them by removing certain ‘dead-ends’ of performance practice that do not serve to uplift the listener spiritually as well as acoustically. Some of the ‘innovations’ of the HIP mvt. have become needless baggage which continue to drag the current performances down as many, if not most, conductors seek to emulate the unsuccessful aspects that were presented early on. For all I know, Brad, you may already be part of a more reasonable approach will correct the excesses of those who have gone before you. Then HIP will become a truly viable alternative to the pre-50’s, pre-60’s style of Bach performances. As it is, I have discovered moments, even mvts., but rarely entire cantatas where the HIP style satisfies all that I seek from an ideal Bach performance (if such a thing even exists.) I applaud your efforts in the direction of correcting these excesses and insufficiencies. We are living at an exciting time and it is in the nature of progress that improvements over that which once was very new will now be found and noted as being untenable, and that current HIP practitioners will eventually replace many of the fossilized aspects of the early HIP tradition. This, then, will exclude a return to worst aspects of the pre-HIP period, while creating an amalgamation of all that is best.

>> But I think it's too extreme to insist that we must be able to hear everything.<<
This seems a strange statement made at a time when our audio technology has reached such a high degree of perfection. A local live performance, even one with many imperfections, will benefit the listener with live qualities that are not as easy to transmit through a recording. These live qualities will tend to make up for certain obvious deficiencies and the listener (including myself) will most likely derive a special satisfaction from hearing such a performance.

With a recording, devoid of this ‘live’ audience experience where the performers communicate directly with the listeners, certain aspects are untransmittable, which leaves the listener with only the possibility of conjuring up through imagination what is missing. Thus the attention of the person listening to a recording must fall back upon the details, supplied by Bach in his scores, in the music which then help to create this imaginary aura. Hearing and rehearing the music (not usually available in a live performance) leads the listener more deeply into the musical details, thus allowing the listener to discover or uncover aspects of music that would otherwise be missed or overlooked at a live performance.

>>And I think it's worth remembering: even though we today might wish to hear all the notes, as much as possible...there was no way that Bach's congregations heard everything* coming down from the loft. Bach, an intelligent and practical musician, knew this. He had to know that some things frankly would not be heard clearly. That's life.<<
This is simply an attempt to rationalize for most present-day performances Bach’s situation in such a way that it accommodates and excuses any sloppy playing or singing, or lack of attention to details that need to be brought out and not lost in a performance or recording.

Consider Bach’s acute sense of hearing as described by his organ playing and the testing of organs! You mean to tell me that he wasn’t aware of how each organ stop needed to be used in order to bring out every detail so that it could be properly heard by his audience? The same would be true of his cantata performances. In recent years many attempts have been made to excuse problems that brass players, for instance, have in playing Bach on valveless trumpets, natural horns, etc. by actually stating that this is what Bach got to hear, so it has to be good enough for us today! Your type of ‘reasoning’ is just another example of the current myths that are being propagated regarding authentic Bach renditions. The average listener is supposed to believe this kind of pronouncement by the so-called experts.

>>Now, for the record, so nobody gets the wrong idea here: I have no objection to hearing all the notes; in fact, I think it is important for performers to bring out the notes with as much clarity as possible, as far as is practical.<<
Why qualify your statement: "I think it is important for performers to bring out the notes with as much clarity as possible, as far as is practical.<< with "as much clarity as possible, as far as is practical?" This seems already to imply that some things are "bound to get lost in the shuffle." Why not ascribe to the idea(l) that these goals are always necessary and attainable if sufficient time and effort are properly brought to bear upon them? When these ideals are not achieved, the conductor or performer should be able to withstand honest criticism without stating something to the effect: "Bach could not have done it any better under his circumstances."

Bach had an ideal in mind when he performed his music. He certainly would not have tolerated anything that would slip into being mere amateurism that is good enough for some musically untrained ears, but would not fulfill his own vision of what this music could really sound like. Why should today's listeners, many of whom only have recourse to recordings of these great works, be treated to anything less than the best efforts coupled with a sense of what is musically acceptable by listeners today and in future years?

Alex Riedlmayer wrote (March 13, 2003):
< Arjen van Gijssel wrote: IMO, it is wrong to compare Bach with impressionism or with music from the romantic era (and I have some difficulty with comparing it with paintings of Michelangelo as well). I think that a caracteristic of baroque music is that every note in principle should be heard. There I absolutely agree with Thomas Braatz. >
Given this rationale, could I consider "music from the romantic era" (whenever that is) as "bmusic" if I believed that all of its notes were significant?


Dryden Ensemble Johannes-Passion and the fate of baroque groups

Yoél L. Arbeitman wrote (March 23, 2003):
On 21.March. 2003 I had the privilege of attending a rather exceptional performance of Bach's Johannes-Passion. It was given by the Dryden Ensemble at Richardson Auditorium of Alexander Hall, the usual concert auditorium of Princeton University. The arrangement of this "TVPP" (two voices per part) performance was as follows. On the left were placed the eight singers who both perform the arias and certain dramatis personae. They are on a slightly raised platform. In front of them are the two celli (one of which is exchanged at the necessary point for the viola da gamba), left of which (from audience perspective, as is all my description) is the bassoon. On the right is placed the entirety of the remainder of the small group of instruments.

Between these two groups are to be found from back to front, the organ(ist), the evangelist, and the conductor. The latter was Scott Metcalfe. It is necessary to mention how very small an auditorium the ground floor ("orchestra" and "parterre") this venue is. I sat 7 rows back in the orchestra center.

I soon had to move as the conductor totally blocked any view of the evangelist. The highly advertised evangelist, William Hite, was ill and his place was taken on very short notice by Frank Kelley. This was my first encounter with a live "minimalist" Bach performance. My only previous Johannes-Passion in the flesh was c.1971 under Helmuth Rilling in a series of the three great Bach choral works and, after hearing 1.5 of them, I and all my party decided without a word, one to another, to quietly exit Carnegie Hall. The performances were that bad (including no viola da gamba in the Matthaeus-Passion). The Dryden Ensemble is OTOH a specialty 17-18 century music group. The performance was preceded by a lecture which I had expected to be on the performance practice. It was not, but more on this below. What is relevant here is that, within this lecture, the lecturer emphasized again and again the centrality of "Es ist vollbracht" and both the means Bach uses to musically depict the aria and the extraordinary nature of the ABA pattern of the aria. But of course this is no news to anyone who knowns this Passion. That aria can be one of the greatest things Bach wrote and, like everything of that magnitude, it will manifest the worthy and the unworthy. Let me sum up the performance as in a few words inasmuch as there are other issues to address. The four male singers were truly most worthy and exemplary musicians and perfect interpreters. From left to right were bass Paul Guttry (also Jesus), baritone William Sharp (also Pilatus), tenor Charles Blandy (also Peter), and tenor Aaron Sheehan. The last sang with such beauty of tone and feeling that it was unadulterated pleasure to just disappear into the music as the period orchestra accompanied. Seeing the bass move in and out of his Jesus-hood was a bit unsettling until one rather rapidly got used to it. On the other side of the stage stood sopranos Carol Schlaikjer and Anne Harley and "altos" Pamela Dellal and Barbara Hollinshead. In addition to forming the chorus (and the male characters noted above), each of the eight was assigned an aria.

The first alto aria was sung by Ms. Dellal and was most moving. Part I of the two-part Passion was soon over and there followed a 20 mins. intermission. Part II resumed with the playing of the Organ prelude from the Toccata in E minor, BWV 914. The rest of the singing, both choral and solo, preceded from glory to glory and one knew that his was the right way to perform the Johannes-Passion (without suggesting such a minimalist format for the Matthaeus-Passion). Well all that was so until "Es ist vollbracht" came. I left the realm of the magic and sank back to reality and then into sadness at the stupidity of whoever arranged this performance. Certainly I have no intention to hurt the person of Ms. Hollinshead. My first reaction was "her voice is too high and she is not capable of low notes and not suitable for the 'alto' aria of arias". That was in A of the ABA format. In B my reaction became "she is far too light a singer and incapable of expression". This as she was attempting to do the violent part "Der Herr aus Juda siegt mit macht". But then, when she came to the A return and sang again "Es ist vollbracht", I realized that she is a nice lady whoin the words of the program"is thrilled to be singing the St. John Passion with the Dryden Ensemble and friends". If the other mezzo-soprano and she had changed places so that Ms. Dellal had sung "Es ist vollbracht", the performance might have gotten away with it. As it was, it destroyed what was a glorious celebration of Bach's birthday.

Now there is another matter here that was one of deep sorrow for me. This was not "smalltown, USA". This was Princeton which is a cultural center and where persons come from as far away as NY for performances. The tickets were either $28.00 or $32.00. I would estimate that less than 1/3 the seats were occupied. Twelve of the musical numbers of the Passion were each "sponsored" by an individual patron. Each singer and instrumentalist was also so sponsored. Additionally each musician was given local hospitality in someone's home. This is a very sad commentary on the possibility of on such groups existing and the very concept of such members being able to support themselves. Yes, each of them participates in various pick-up work here and there, but there is a limit. And remember, this was a superb group.

Finally I would like to mention the pre-concert lecture which was by Michal Marrisen and, as one would expect, was his attempt to make palatable the severe Judenhass inherent in the Gospel of St. John. I believe that we are all acquainted with his attempts to show that Bach lay the "guilt" more on the individual Lutheran of Bach's congregation(s) more than on the historical "Ioudaioi" for which the lecturer went through the attempts to maintain "Judaeans" and not "Jews". But he did not accept that. And indeed his spoken lecture used "Judaic" often where his re-printed NY Times article uses "Jews". Finally he did not do well in adducing the forces of light and truth vs. those of darkness and lie in the current USA vs. Iraq affair as an analogue to the Judenhass inherent in the Gospel of John.References to the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Weltanschauung of the sectarians would have been far more appropriate.

Happy Birthday to Bach and may such groups survive.

Robert Sherman wrote (March 23, 2003):
[To Yoël L. Arbeitman] Thanks, Yoel, interesting commentary.

I strongly agree that "Es ist Vollbracht" is the center of the entire oratorio. But one thing that disoncerts me in almost every performance of this I've heard is that the alto and the viola da gamba seem to perform as if they were in different rooms, or maybe on different planets. Most performers make no audible attempt to coordinate on the dotted-eighth-and-sixteenth rhythms or anything else, and the result is totally unfocused and unsatisfying. The one exception that comes to mind is Hertha Töpper and Oswald Uhl on Richter's recording. They serve the music together, and the result is glorious. I know of no other performance that approaches this for sincerity and emotional intensity.

Yoél L. Arbeitman wrote (March 25, 2003):
[To Robert Sherman] Thanks Bob for your always interesting comments. But I guess that we have had some of this discussion a long time ago. To me the unequalled performance remains the Gillesberger with the anonymous boy soprano. These days I have the LPs with Gillesberger and the CDs with the alleged Harnoncourt.

Many other singers and gambas work for me. I cannot accept that only one performance got it right.


Bach St John Passion (San Diego)

Ruben Valenzuela wrote (April 1, 2003):
For those of you who might be in the San Diego area.....

HISTORIC PERFORMANCE FOR SAN DIEGO!--J.S. BACH JOHANNES-PASSION

J.S. Bach's St. John Passion (Sung in German) will be performed in San Diego for the first ton period instruments by the MUSICA ANGELICA BAROQUE ORCHESTRA of LOS ANGELES and the BACH COLLEGIUM-SAN DIEGO under the direction of Ruben Valenzuela.

Saturday, April 12 at 7pm ($50 reserved/$25 non-reserved/$20 student)
Trinity Episcopal Church
845 Chestnut Street at Ninth Avenue, Escondido

Palm Sunday, April 13 at 7pm ($50 reserved/$25 non-reserved/$20 student)
St James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church
743 Prospect Street, La Jolla

Ruben Valenzuela, Conductor
Michael Eagan, Music Director
Stephen Sturk (Evangelist)
Christopher Stephens (Christus)
John Polhamus (Pilatus)
Virginia Sublett, Soprano
Lisa Friedrichs, alto
Martin Green, tenor

For more information please call (760) 738-1891

Hugo Saldias wrote (April 2, 2003):
[To Ruben Valenzuela] Please tell us about the continuo in this Passion: What instruments do you use please?

Ruben Valenzuela wrote (April 4, 2003):
[To Hugo Saldias] I am following the scheme used by M. Suzuki and the Bach Collegium-Japan. That is to say...harpsichord & organ. In the recitatives the organ complements the harpsichord when Christus sings. Also, at portions when scripture is quoted. At Jesus' "Es ist vollbracht" only the organ will be used to creat the effect of emptiness. Following "Es ist vollbracht" only organ will be used on the short recitative "Und neiget das Haupt und vershied"...again to create a feeling of "hollowness".

As a whole, the organ will play on all choruses and chorales with no harpsichord added.

Hugo Saldias wrote (April 5, 2003):
[To Ruben Valenzuela] Thanks so much.

That is the way Thomaskantor Professor Günther Ramin also used on his recording,if I am not confused...


Johannes Passion

Joost wrote (October 25, 1999):
My name is Joost..Bas singer in St. Johns Passion...

19 April 2000 In LEEUWARDEN - BONIFATIUS KERK

BE THERE!

CHN KOOR
CONDUCTOR: HARM WITTEVEEN

THIS IS EVEN MORE SATISFYING THAN THE ST> MATTHEWS PASSION!!!!

Rinze Mozes wrote (October 26, 1999):
[To Joost] You're in the choir, I suppose?

Ioannis Galidakis wrote:
Does anyone have any links that have the complete Johannes Passion German Text, along with an English translation?

Thanks much in advance.

BACH.NL wrote (July 17, 2001):
[To Ioannis Galidakis] You can try this: http://uofapsy.psych.ualberta.ca/cantatas/245.html

and: http://www.uvm.edu/~classics/faculty/bach/BWV245.html

Good luck !

Marijke Halberstadt wrote (July 17, 2001):
[To Ioannis Galidakis] The German text is on: http://uofapsy.psych.ualberta.ca/cantatas/245.html
the English translation: http://www.uvm.edu/~classics/faculty/bach

Qamra wrote (April 24, 2003):
I'm new to this group and I'm not sure if this is the right place for my question.

I want to buy a CD of Bach’s Johannes Passion and I want to order it on the internet, because in my village there is no store that sells classical music. But this means I have no possibility to listen to different performances before choosing one.

I like performances on old instruments, like Gardiner does, and I also like his way of playing, although I sometimes think his tempo is a bit too high and his performance is somewhat "clean", I mean without much emotion.

Nevertheless I also don't like Bach being played in a too romantic way.

So my question is: can anybody here recommand a good cd performance of Bach’s Johannes Passion?

Thanks in advance.

Sybrand Bakker wrote (April 24, 2003):
[To Qamra.] I am aware of recordings of Philippe Herreweghe on Harmonia Mundi France. He has recorded the work 2 times, the 'conventional' version in the 80s (available cheap now) and the 1725 version last year or the year before that. Herreweghe tends to use more legato over the years, and I would for that reason alone consider the 80s performance above the recent one. Frans Brueggen, on Philips (reissued cheap): very emotional, maybe too emotional. You may or may not like the voice of Nico van der Meel, the tenor singing the Evangelist part. It's a bit nasal.

Then I have the recording of Andrew Parrott on Virgin, who uses the exact distribution of singers (only 8!) as indicated by the parts in Bachs handwriting. You really don't miss the choir in this performance. Again Rogers Covey-Crump might not be everyones taste.

Finally I have the old Sigiswald Kuijken recording on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi. Somehow I think this is the most 'rhetorical' recording of all of them, and I have always been a fan of Max van Egmond.

I share your opinion on JEG in Bach. Other composers also suffer from this treatment.

Qamra wrote (April 24, 2003):
[To Sybrand Bakker] Thank you very much, Sybrand! You are really a fan, aren't you? I must admit I don't really like the voice of Max van Egmond, although I know that he is a very appreciated singer. I do like Nico van der Meel. He was our evangelist tenor last week when we (the choir in which I sing) did the Johannes and it was really very good.

Still I think I'm going to look for the old recording by Herreweghe. I appreciate his Matthäus recording very much as well.

Sybrand Bakker wrote (April 28, 2003):
[To Qamra] I admit, I am guilty. You don't want to know how many books on Bach and how many CD's I have.

If you really are Dutch, I won't object to private exchange in our own language.

Early music begins to become extinct in my area, as the city is turning more and more 'black', and one can only pray the AEL of Abou Jah-Jah and Mohammed El-Cheppi won't take the city over.

Charles Francis wrote (April 24, 2003):
[To Sybrand Bakker] I have a great Johannes-Passion from 1965 with van Egmond (Jesus), Equiluz, Villisech et al. along with the Vienna Boy's choir and Concentus Musicus Wien. It's conducted by Hans Gillesberger (according to his grandson), with Harnoncourt playing cello and gamba. The sad thing is that with the growth of the "Harnoncourt" brand, the recording was repackaged with him as conductor. Subsequently, Teldec withdrew the CD and so the world is denied a fine recording.

Paulo Braga wrote (April 26, 2003):
[To Charles Francis] Interesting information.
I picked my Teldec 8.35018 set and in fact one can read in the booklet, page 2:
- Wiener Sängerknaben - Chorus Viennensis
- Leitung: Hans Gillesberger
And below all other credits in big type:
- Gesamtleitung: Nikolaus Harnoncourt
On the next page, lost among a long listing of the instrumentists, NL reappears, now as cello and gamba player.

If it was Gillesberger who conducted, attributing that role to Harnoncourt was unfair to say the least.

Riccardo Nughes wrote (April 26, 2003):
[To Paulo Braga] Actually there were 2 printings of this recording on cd. The first one has the same graphics (and same notes) as the original 3-lp box set.

Probably it was the second pressing (2292-42492-2) who features on the front cover NH as the conductor that made the Gillesberger family get angry (see the story at http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Vocal/BWV245-Gillesberger.htm ). AFIK, however, even NH asked Warner-Teldec to withdraw that issue.

A. Brain wrote (April 26, 2003):
[To Riccardo Nughes] Coincidentally, this recording is on my very short list of wants. Anyone know where I can get it?

Thanks.

Riccardo Nughes wrote (April 27, 2003):
[To A. Brain] It was also on my want list and I finally bought it from www.ebay.de, the only place where I've found it (I saw this year 3 copies for sale there).

Paulo Braga wrote (April 26, 2003):
[To Riccardo Nughes] Actually I have that first printing (8.35018 ZA) with the graphics of the LP issue (which I used to have). On front cover of the sleeve and box there's only NH's name. On the back of both, HG appears in small type (like the singers and choirs) and NH (very prominently) as the musical director. From the information and layout one would believe that while Gillesberger led the singers, Harnoncourt led the players but was the bigger boss.

Charles Franc wrote (April 27, 2003):
[To Pauolo Braga] Gilleseberger's grandson was adamant that Harnoncout did not have the "gesamtleitung" but only played cello and gamba. Moreover, one imagines that playing the cello or gamba while simultaneously waving ones arms around would be rather difficult.

Riccardo Nughes wrote (April 26, 2003):
< Frans Brüggen, on Philips (reissued cheap) >
I don't know a reissue of Brüggen JP, aren't you making confusion with the Matthaus Passion recently re-released on the "Trio" series ? However the Bruggen recording is one of my favourite.

I also suggest:
Harnoncourt (Teldec)
Fasolis (ARTS)
Herreweghe (I & II)

Charles Francis wrote (April 26, 2003):
[To Riccardo Nughes] Do you mean Harnoncourt's 1995 recording with the cast of women singers? It's ironic that the "authentic" Gillesberger boy's performance (with Harnoncourt on cello) is no longer sold by Teldec!

Let me also put in a good word for Suzuki's 1998 performance which is based on the seldom performed fourth version Bach prepared in 1749. Suzuki also provides a musical appendix containing three arias according to Bach's second (1725) version.


St. John Passion

Scott Morrison wrote (April 19, 2003):
I participated in a performance of Bach's St. John Passion this evening and have to say it was one of the most moving musical experiences I've ever had. First of all, everyone was 'on.' The orchestra was superb, and the chorus was alert to every nuance of the conductor. But further, since it was sung in English (a conflation of the translations of Robert Shaw/Alice Parker/Imogen Holst) the Passion story was very immediate. By the time we got to the final big chorus and the last double chorale I was practically in tears (and I'm an unbeliever) - not good when you're in the chorus. Then most of the lights were dimmed and we filed out silently.

My god, what a powerful work this is.

Scott Morrison, still in awe



Continue on Part 4


Johannes-Passion BWV 245: Details
Recordings:
Until 1960 | 1960-1969 | 1970-1979 | 1980-1989 | 1990-1999 | 2000-2009 | Sung in English | Individual Movements
General Discussions:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
Systematic Discussions:
Part 1: Mvts. 1-7 | Part 2: Mvts. 6-14 | Part 3: Mvts. 15-20 | Part 4: Mvts. 21-26 | Part 5: Mvts. 27-32 | Part 6: Mvts. 36-40 | Part 7: Summary
Individual Recordings:
BWV 245 - Brüggen | BWV 245 - Cleobury | BWV 245 – Dombrecht | BWV 245 - Fasolis | BWV 245 - Gardiner | BWV 245 - Harnoncourt-Gillesberger | BWV 245 – Herreweghe | BWV 245 - Higginbottom | BWV 245 – Jochum | BWV 245 – Leusink | BWV 245 - McCreesh | BWV 245 - Neumann | BWV 245 - Parrott | BWV 245 - Richter | BWV 245 – Schreier | BWV 245 – Shaw | BWV 245 - Suzuki
Articles:
Saint John Passion, BWV 245 (by Teri Noel Towe)

Recordings & Discussions of Other Vocal Works: Main Page | Motets BWV 225-231 | Mass in B minor BWV 232 | Missae Breves & Sanctus BWV 233-242 | Magnificat BWV 243 | Matthäus-Passion BWV 244 | Johannes-Passion BWV 245 | Lukas-Passion BWV 246 | Markus-Passion BWV 247 | Weihnachts-Oratorium BWV 248 | Oster-Oratorium BWV 249 | Chorales BWV 250-438 | Geistliche Lieder BWV 439-507 | AMN BWV 508-523 | Quodlibet BWV 524 | Aria BWV 1127

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Last update: ýJuly 10, 2004 ý07:40:08