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Bach and a Play of Passion
[Inaugural Lecture for a Personal Chair at the Royal Academy of Music, University of London]

By Professor Jonathan Freeman-Attwood (January 2002)

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Francine Renee Hall wrote (April 16, 2002):
Someone was kind enough to send me a lecture given by Jonathon Freeman-Attwood, who is a member of the Royal Academy of Music as well as critic for Gramophone magazine. If I remember correctly his expertise is in early and baroque music. I found his discussion of Bach recordings from the 1950's to be heartwarming and necessary, a way to learn period performance and authenticity today which, according to him, have become bland and soul-less. Here's part of that lecture: "It is also a much-needed critical reminder of which elements provide musical interpretation with its endless possibilities, definition and character. From the eloquent lucidity of argument of Fritz Lehmann, the cohesive prescience and dramatic vitality of Felix Prohaska, the searching of Hermann Scherchen, the uninhibited integrity of the best German kapellmeister sorts, the perceptive sleight-of-hand of Fritz Werner and the fervent sense of purpose from Richter, we are left with more than a mere notion of strong and effective musical personalities. Within each performance lies a perceptible means to an end, recognisable qualities which extend beyond fashion and challenge the precepts of the musical world in which we live. That world, confined here to Bach's vocal music, is not for a negotiable re-birth, a sentimentalising of the past, I suggest, but acts as a mirror for discriminating what specific rhetorical and aesthetic values have slipped from our grasp in the habitiual comfort zone of current reflexes. No-one can doubt that the vibrant performance practices of the last 20 years, used extensively in Bach today, have delivered a great deal of what allows the composer to speak with new insights and vision. But no longer do we need either to demarcate or reconcile prevailing knowledge, or tastes and traditional styles.

"So my main 'cri de coeur' concerns a depressing uniformity of Bach performance today, a world too often bereft of expressive means and interpretative ideas: one where artistic mediocrity has largely come about through myopic agendas, be they governed by a polemic on a detail of executancy, or a desire to project a new-fangled philosophical theory. They are increasingly set in surface values, often premised on a subliminal fear of what people will think. Considerations of style and accepted 'historically-informed' formulae are regarded as the sum of the interpretative process: representations not interpretations. We are unwittingly condoning a culture where the instincts and individuality of artists are generally fostered less than the codification and refinement of standards set by those working to the agreed code of practice. Is it surprising that Bach performances can only sound distinctive when we debate the numbers of players employed? We are now customarily inclined to be suspicious of strong individual artistic presence, of the sort we observed with Lehmann and Scherchen, as running counter to the democratic and accepted, impersonal recreation that characterises the often-exquisitic but soul-less Bach performance. As a depressing corollary, one only has to observe the lack of stature in so many Bach singers these days."

Presented as food for thought, especially from Freemann-Attwood, with his in-depth knowledge of both past and present Bach recordings.

Steven Langley Guy wrote (April 16, 2002):
Francine Renee Hall wrote:
< Someone was kind enough to send me a lecture given by Jonathon Freeman-Attwood, who is a member of the Royal Academy of Music as well as critic for Gramophone magazine. If I remember correctly his expertise is in early and baroque music. I found his discussion of Bach recordings from the 1950's to be heartwarming and necessary, a way to learn period performance and authenticity today which, according to him, have become bland and soul-less. >
I wish people like him would name the recordings they find "bland and soul-less" - do they mean Harnoncourt? Herreweghe? Koopman? Suzuki? Parrott? McCreesh? Leonhardt? or who??? I always hear these vague comments about HIP performances but no one every wants to be specific.

< Here's part of that lecture: "It is also a much-needed critical reminder of which elements provide musical interpretation with its endless possibilities, definition and character. From the eloquent lucidity of argument of Fritz Lehmann, the cohesive prescience and dramatic vitality of Felix Prohaska, the searching of Hermann Scherchen, the uninhibited integrity of the best German kapellmeister sorts, the perceptive sleight-of-hand of Fritz Werner and the fervent sense of purpose from Richter, we are left with more than a mere notion of strong and effective musical personalities. >
In fifty years time people will be longing for the good old days of Gardiner, Suzuki, Koopman and Herreweghe!

< Within each performance lies a perceptible means to an end, recognisable qualities which extend beyond fashion and challenge the precepts of the musical world in which we live. That world, confined here to Bach's vocal music, is not for a negotiable re-birth, a sentimentalising of the past, I suggest, but acts as a mirror for discriminating what specific rhetorical and aesthetic values have slipped from our grasp in the habitiual comfort zone of current reflexes. >
Wow! Run that past me again! (I must be stupid or something!)

< No-one can doubt that the vibrant performance practices of the last 20 years, >
But?

< used extensively in Bach today, have delivered a great deal of what allows the composer to speak with new insights and vision. >
Let's just simply say that we are hearing Bach in a way that is much closer to Bach that performances earlier in the 20th century - made by musicians (like me) who spend their lives playing and studying Baroque music.

< But no longer do we need either to demarcate or reconcile prevailing knowledge, or tastes and traditional styles. >
I disagree. Is playing Bach on a modern orchestra that has been developmentally dead for sixty years a 'modern' way of approaching Bach's music (or any other Baroque music for that matter) ???

HIP performances never repeat themselves - they can't be HIP if they do! Baroque music requires the singers and musicians to make each performance unique through ornamentation, extemporization and subtlety different rhythmic nuances. Before HIP came along recordings of Bach were often judged by the same criteria that recordings of Beethoven to Mahler were judged - by the way the conductor interpreted the tempi, 'expressiveness' and overall effect of the music. I heard some of Karl Richter's St. Matthew Passion the other day and it sounded incredibly slow to me! However, I'd never heard this work performed on 'modern' instruments before and I was a little curious.

< "So my main 'cri de coeur' concerns a depressing uniformity of Bach performance today, >
I disagree. Bach is performed in a wide variety of modes - you've got the performances played on modern instruments, various HIP performances and recordings and the OVPP advocates making performances and recordings here and there. Everyone does their trills and ornaments differently - some use countertenors, some use boy sopranos and some use female voices. All performances try to bring out something in this music.

< a world too often bereft of expressive means and interpretative ideas: one where artistic mediocrity has largely come about through myopic agendas, be they governed by a polemic on a detail of executancy, or a desire to project a new-fangled philosophical theory. >
Well, what was the 'old' fangled philosophical theory? I sometimes get the impression from some older recordings that singers and players simply read the notes on the page, tried to interpret them in a hopefully meaningful way and didn't look into any of the Baroque conventions at all.

< They are increasingly set in surface values, often premised on a subliminal fear of what people will think. >
Again, this grand but what does it actually mean? (maybe I am stupid!?)

< Considerations of style and accepted 'historically-informed' formulae >
'Accepted historically informed formulae'? How can we say this!!!??? The whole idea of HIP is to develop and change as one learns more - I am old enough to remember how the 'establishment' was impervious to the merits of HIP in the past! Twenty years ago everyone who played period instruments played them at A = 415 Hz. Now we use A = 392 Hz and A = 466 Hz, and the benefits of such tunings are obvious to those who make music and some who listen.

< are regarded as the sum of the interpretative process: representations not interpretations. >
You can't play a Baroque instrument without interpreting the music to some extent - you have to think about the music and how best to play it - what does the music mean? Why does a composer give a solo to an oboe d'amore when it could easily be played on a normal oboe? Why do recorders and violas da gamba come in during death scenes? Why do cornetts appear in some cantatas and not others?

< We are unwittingly condoning a culture where the instincts and individuality of artists are generally fostered less than the codification and refinement of standards set by those working to the agreed code of practice. >
We are playing Baroque music - not Mahler! Baroque music is a different art - perhaps closer to Jazz in some respects?

< Is it surprising that Bach performances can only sound distinctive when we debate the numbers of players employed? >
I strongly disagree with this. How can two harpsichordists playing the same historical instrument sound different? Herreweghe sounds different from Harnoncourt and Harnoncourt sounds different from Gardiner. All three directors use 'choirs' (rather than OVPP). It is their interpretations and the interpretations of their performers that differ. My dad couldn't tell Concentus Music Wien from the Academy of Ancient Music but he could tell that these groups used period instruments and Baroque styles of performance. My dad was a music lover but Baroque music on period instruments was a 'different country' for him - he was at home in Tschaikovsky and Rachmaninov! (He did appreciate his kids playing early instruments)

< We are now customarily inclined to be suspicious of strong individual artistic presence, of the sort we observed with Lehmann and Scherchen, as running counter to the democratic and accepted, impersonal recreation that characterises the often-exquisitic but soul-less Bach performance. >
'Soul-less' is a matter of opinion. I have managed to love Bach all my life without listening to romantic or 'modern' performances or recordings of this music. I don't feel remote from Bach at all. I heard part of a very old recording of the St. Matthew on the radio one night. It was very sentimental and romantic. It didn't touch me in the slightest.

I agree with Leonard Bernstein who said in one of his books that you cannot dress up Bach or try to make it expressive - the expressiveness is built in to the music an it comes out in subtle but powerful ways.

< As a depressing corollary, one only has to observe the lack of stature in so many Bach singers these days." >
;-)
I would say that there are some very fine singers today. What this guy is really saying is that he isn't impressed with modern performances. That's fine. I am not impressed by old performances.

< Presented as food for thought, especially from Freemann-Attwood, with his in-depth knowledge of both past and present Bach recordings. >
Well, his 'knowledge' doesn't impress me one little bit. It seems that we have, yet again, some old bloke who yearns for 'the good old days'.

What he seems to be saying, in a rather round-about and pretentious way, is that he doesn't like the way modern performances of Bach don't connect with him or seem to be obviously emotional in the way he expects or expected.

He does remind me of one thing that I don't like in performances of Bach (or any music really) and this is the over-intellectualising of this music - trying to extract too much from this music. Bach's music is very great and deeply satisfying to play, sing and hear, but he was a Baroque composer living and working in the 18th century - not some truant from the 19th or 20th century - as some people seem to think of him. Bach's music was part of a culture, technology and society that existed two and a half centuries ago. We can only impose just so much of our world on it before it becomes something that it is not.

Some years ago I went to see the Beijing Opera in South Australia. It was very interesting music and the instruments of the orchestra were all traditional Chinese instruments. The singing was very strange - both men and women sang in a very high pitch and the whole experience seemed very stylised. I enjoyed it as a total experience but I must say that I don't think that I even began to understand the subtleties of the show. Maybe Mr. Freemann-Attwood is experiencing something like the same culture shock that I experienced? (A friend of mine said that to most modern audiences attending a performance of an opera by Jean-Baptiste Lully performed along HIP lines would find it much like attending the Nô theatre in Japan - somewhat impenetrable!)

Anyway, I am sorry to say that I am not intellectual enough for Mr. Freemann-Attwood.

Peter Bright wrote (April 16, 2002):
[To Francine Renee Hall & Steven Guy] Thanks to Francine and Steven (and J Freeman-Attwood) for their interesting points of view.

Whatever the case (and whether for better or worse), I do think that the older modern, perhaps less appropriate way of playing Bach presents us with more variety in interpretation. The HIP approach, because of (what is usually) a quest for authenticity necessarily places a bottleneck on artistic freedom. Of course, this may often be a very good thing but I do find myself agreeing with much of JFAs lecture. So if one takes the Parrott/Rifkin approach of one-to-a-part, there is only so much one can change with respect to the interpretation of the music (the quality of the singers and musicians is of course an entirely different question). If one doesn't pay too much lip-service to authenticity as currently understood, then it does allow the various conductors to really stand out from the crowd. As has been said so many times on this list, one of the most wonderful aspects of Bach's music is its ability to remain potent and majestic in the face of variations in instrumentation (e.g., harpsichord vs piano), size of ensemble (solo vs chamber vs orchestral versions of the same work), size of singing ensemble (huge - Richter vs small - Suzuki vs tiny - Parrott). It ALL makes sense to me, when the music is treated by such experienced directors as Richter, Werner, Klemperer, Harnoncourt (yes, him), Herreweghe, Suzuki etc.

As an aside, and with respect to Parrott, I find his B Minor Mass (BWV 232) a great achievement but some of his other work (Magnificat (BWV 243), Easter Oratorio (BWV 249) among others) lacking gravitas and emotional involvement.

Aryeh Oron wrote (April 16, 2002):
[To Francine Renee Hall] Professor Jonathan Freeman-Attwood allowed me to publish his article in the Bach Cantatas Website. It appears in the following page: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Articles/Passion-JFA.htm

On Feb 20, 2002 I sent the following message to both the BCML and the BRML

Hi List Members,

I see myself honoured and privileged that I was allowed by Professor Jonathan Freeman-Attwood to publish his lecture 'Bach and the Play of Passion'. This Inaugural Lecture for a Personal Chair at the Royal Academy of Music, University of London was delivered by Professor Jonathan Freeman-Attwood on January 17, 2002.

A quote from the background to the lecture:

"'Historically-aware' performance is a term broadly used to convey how musical works have been returned to the world of their creator, whether through scholarly source-stud, attention to verifiable practices or informed speculation. Premised on a return to the past, this concept of 'historical awareness' has ignored the value of many other 20th-century performance traditions, regarding them as incompatible with today's thinking.

With the use of rare recordings of Bach's passions and cantatas made between 1949 and 1964, Prof. Freeman-Attwood argues how these seminal post-war performances must act as an interpretative conscience to challenge the homogeneity of much current characterising. The chief musical personalities in this repertoire, their artistic investment and diverse approaches unveil forgotten meanings for today's Bach performers."

The article can be found in the following page of the Bach Cantatas Website: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Articles/Passion-JFA.htm
There is a link to this article also from the newly-formed Articles section.
There is a link to this section in the Home Page of the Bach Cantatas Website (left side): http://www.bach-cantatas.com/

I find this a fascinating and compelling article, which corresponds very much with my own view. I hope you will enjoy it too.

Jim Morrison wrote (April 16, 2002):
< As an aside, and with respect to Parrott, I find his B Minor Mass a great achievement but some of his other work (Magnificat, Easter Oratorio among others) lacking gravitas and emotional involvement. >
If you're a fan of the orchestral suites, and you have some money to spend on them, look into his set at Berkshire. Manze is still my favorite, but this set is pretty good as well. I'm trying to get my hands on the Kuijken set. Maybe soon.

The Kuijken's are from Beligum, by the way, I only found out today.

PS: Anybody seen the mostly Kuijken Musical Offering DVD? That's been on my wish list for a while.

Francine Renee Hall wrote (April 16, 2002):
[To Aryeh Oron] Thanks! Sychronicity, right? My only qualm was that the lecture was rather tangled and stilted, but then again, it was an academic paper delivered to fellow academics!! I'm pretty open to just about anything, as long as it is moving or offers me new insights. However, I must confess that my 'oldest' recordings are of Ralph Kirkpatrick's Partitas and the early works of Glenn Gould.

Francine Renee Hall wrote (April 17, 2002):
[To Peter Bright] Thanks for 'brightening' my day!

Piotr Jaworski [Warsaw] wrote (April 17, 2002):
[To Francine Renee Hall] It was probably Aryeh and his invaluable Cantatas Site. I also read this JF-A article. And I'll tell you one thing: this is exactly like with our once loved ones - girls or boys. Those ones we're in love as teenagers were definitely the most beautiful ones!, those years were the happiest years of our lives! world was friendly, people nice... Was that everything truth? NOPE. Instead of one thing - we were younger. And we all tend to idealise our past ... That's sweet, that's understandable ... But why to infect the musicology with this way of thinking? ;-) "Bland and soul-less"??? Do we listen with JF-A to the same recordings???! But certainly the girl I fell in love 25 years ago was the most beautiful that ever lived!!!

Francine Renee Hall wrote (April 17, 2002):
[To Piotr Jaworski] I actually got the JF-A article in the mail a few days ago from a friend who also sent me CD samples from the lecture. I love your romance with words!!! Maybe it's idealizing and imprinting, as well as perhaps a generational thing, but on principle I agree with JF-A not to rule out muscianship merely because it was from the 1950's. I like to keep an open mind and am open to any interpretations that shed new light on Bach. And as I said, I really don't own anything 'old' of Bach except Kirkpatrick and Gould. Now how could the universe be the same if we didn't have Gould's 1955 debut recording of the Goldbergs?

Bradley Lehman wrote (April 17, 2002):
<< Is it surprising that Bach performances can only sound distinctive when we debate the numbers of players employed? >>
Steven Guy wrote:
< I strongly disagree with this. How can two harpsichordists playing the same historical instrument sound different? Herreweghe sounds different from Harnoncourt and Harnoncourt sounds different from Gardiner. All three directors use 'choirs' (rather than OVPP). It is their interpretations and the interpretations of their performers that differ. >
Exactly. In my five years in Parmentier's harpsichord studio, all of his students always sounded very different from one another. It even sounded like a different instrument when all of us would give a recital together, each playing one piece, either in studio class or in our public concerts. A harpsichord sounds different under different players, just as any other instrument does. I think it's to Parmentier's credit as a teacher (one of the very best anywhere) that he so well nurtures what each player is already doing well, rather than trying to get all of us to sound like one another. And none of us sound like him, either.

 

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