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Sonatas & Partitas for Violin BWV 1001-1006
Rudolf Gaehler (Curved Bow Violin)
Gaehler attempting the S&Ps

S-1

J.S. Bach: Sonatas for Solo Violin Played on the Curved Bow

Sonatas & Partitas for solo violin BWV 1001-1006 []

Rudolf Gaehler (Violin, curved bow)

Arte Nova

1999 ?

2-CD / TT: 150:17

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Gaehler attempting the S&Ps

Pete Blue wrote (March 11, 2002):
If you're a fan of plucked Bach in the solo violin S&Ps, the Smith is terrific. I used to love my old American Decca mono LP of Segovia playing the Chaconne. But I think all transcriptions of this music have been rendered obsolete by the curved bow version of Rudolf Gaehler on the German label Arte Nova.

Just about every violinist who has played the S&P, especially in the HIP Era, attempts to compensate for the need to arpeggiate the double, triple, quadruple stops by speeding up the tempos. Gaehler, by virtue of his ability to play actual chords, is able to slow down the tempos, with revelatory consequences. I think he renders most (not all, not my favorites!) other S&P recordings dispensable.

Case in point: the BWV 1001 Fuga, IMO one of the high points of Western music. This movement impresses no matter who plays it -- even when the usually elegant Grumiaux slashes away at the first four notes like they're Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. But listen to the way Gaehler slows them down, giving them their full value, no more no less, and thus their full power, because he knows that in what follows there is no longer any need to compensate for the limitations of the straight bow.

I still have indispensable favorites -- for me, if for no one else: Sergiu Luca on Elektra Nonesuch for sheer otherworldly transcendent beauty, Elizabeth Wallfisch for extracting so much of the greatness without feeling the need to overlay star personality, and Szigeti in some early single-movement recordings (not his complete S&P). But Gaehler has changed everything for me.

Bradley Lehman wrote (March 11, 2002):
Oh, Gaehler. I've had tapes of that for four or five months now, and didn't even think it worthy of mention last week when I was describing my journey with these compositions. I listened to the Gaehler set again today to see if I can stand it yet, but failed.

I consider it interesting. That's my charitable opinion. You don't want to hear the extent of my uncharitable opinion. It's interesting as the following type of lab experiment would be:

- Make the misguided assumption that playing all the notes with full notated value (no more, no less) is "playing the music"

- Invent a piece of machinery that makes it possible to do so in the S&Ps, playing all the "chords" with 0% arpeggiation

- Make the misguided assumption that "because one can" is equivalent to "one ought to"

- Deliver all the notes with equal dynamic emphasis, no rise or fall

- Deliver all the notes in as strict a meter as one's technique allows

- Discard any notions of "good" and "bad" notes, the natural strong and weak that would allow the music to dance

- Assume that 20th century literalism is a virtue

- Record such a performance under all these conditions, and sell it

Frankly the result sounds to me like the interpretation of a (generically) unimaginative organist...or of a pianist trying to play harpsichord with no training in it. (This is indeed a violin recording, but bear with me. It reminded me of the reasons why I got rid of the Keith Jarrett WK2-on-harpsichord....) All the notes are the same, played "faithfully" to full value and with no lilt, no imagination. Single lines go along endlessly with no clear direction that I can perceive, until they are periodically interrupted by jarringly louder full chords. The tone isn't all that attractive, either: and it's always the same. All the pieces sound like a trudge through molasses, and all almost the same as one another. Labored mo-no-to-ny. Eww.

The chords make an interesting sound. That's the nicest thing I can say here. Gaehler plays most of those chords well in tune. The rest of the performance between those chords is (to my ears) unbelievably dreary and heavy: deadly. Artistry is knowing when to play some notes shorter than notated, some notes longer, some louder, some more quietly, and knowing how to make it all mean something, conveying a musical direction, emotions, shapes, colors, moods, something beyond the score. I just don't hear enough of that here, with all the notes played heavily and to full notated value, as if there's no reason it's those particular notes and not some other notes.

During the C-major fugue (BWV 1005) I stopped the machine, ripped the cassette out of it, and threw it across the room. After a while I put it back and finished the fugue, dutifully. Boy, I hate this recording. Gaehler slows down and speeds up, and the only evident reason seems to be that he slows down when the notes are really difficult to play and speeds up when it's an easier single line. I suspect that it's the same with the 1001 fugue: that's how it sounds to me, anyway...he's slowing down because it's hard to play all the notes in those chords with that bow. He speeds up whenever he's in less physical difficulty, having faster-moving sixteenth notes. (And the way he plays bars 35-41 in the BWV 1001 fugue has no resemblance to the notation, anyway: he's repeating the half-notes while playing the eighths in the other voices. Saw, saw, saw, saw, saw, saw, saw, saw, sawing away. How is this any "better" or "more faithful" to the notation than the usual way of playing that !
passage?)

I suppose apologies are due to anyone who actually likes this recording. Sorry, Pete. I guess we'll just disagree on this one.

Bradley Lehman wrote (March 12, 2002):
I should add that I'm not against the curved bow per se. It offers another option in playing the chords with less or no arpeggiation, an interesting sound. (We should also keep in mind that it's a 20th-century invention, and therefore this is always going to be a look backward at the music rather than greeting it looking forward from the 17th century...but that's not my main point here. Such a look backward can offer a strong musical experience.)

The part I object to is Gaehler's use of that new option as a restriction. He plays all those chords as long as possible (because he can) even when musically it doesn't make sense in projecting either the melodic lines or the dance rhythms. If he'd play some of the chords as he does, let others be lighter, let others have some arpeggiation (that option isn't gone!), with more willingness to get off the strings, I'd like his performance much more.

But he's restricted his options to only one, and that stuffy literalism kills the music. That's what I was trying to say here. It sounds more like an academic exercise ("let's see how this sounds with all the notes played as long as possible!") than a sympathetic
performance of the .

As I've said earlier, it's the player who makes the music, not the tools making the music. The tools just give options.

-----

Here's a relevant excerpt from the program notes in Kuijken's first recording, where Kuijken is using a real Baroque bow from the first half of the 18th century:

"The differences of the old violin bow require a manner of playing adjusted much less to sweeping lines than to clearly divided phrases and sub-phrases; each note and each liaison from one note to the next becomes more and more of a separate experience as a result of the very great possibilities of differentiation immanent in the old bow."

"In passing one should mention that the old bow was also unable (even less able than the modern one) at the same time to draw and hold 4-part or 3-part chords. The so-called 'Bach bow' designed between the two World Wars so as to be able to play the Bach solo sonatas in the Urtext with all chords sounding exactly as they are
written is a pure invention on the part of the musicologists of the time; Schering and A. Schweitzer gave the stimulus for it. Their intellectual error however lay in the fact that--astonishingly—they did not start from the principle that notation and performance can never be completely identical and this is quite certainly still true of 18th century practice. How could one write down everything which happens during performance? Notation is rather an optical simplification. Furthermore, the old sources give plenty of descriptions of how such chords are to be played: but all the various possibilities includes recognisable arpeggiation."

"As the very refined music was played before a relatively small and select audience in smallish rooms, it was not so much the big, general effect as the direct affective emotion, sensed and changing at each moment, which was the main concern as much in the composer's mind, who had to build into his pieces a richness of affects and emotions, as in the interpreter's mind, who had, as the essence of his art, skilfully to let his richness emerge. (Most interpreters, of course, were themselves composers, even if they were third-rate ones; and all composers were also practising musicians.) In his 'Art of Playing', Geminiani reports illuminatingly on this 'affective' playing technique, and it emerges very clearly how much more important it is to grasp the 'affective' significance of the ornaments than to know exactly how long or short one should precisely hold a particular appoggiatura, how this or that trill should be played, etc."

"There were scarcely any rules which had to be stringently observed, but rather liberating rules of thumb, all of which derived ultimately from general musical considerations and from simple human thoughts."

 

Feedback to the Review

Charles Francis wrote (Maarch 12, 2002):
[To Bradley Lehman] Sorry, Brad, I guess we'll just disagree on this one. Gaehler IMHO, blows away the competition and renders all other performances obsolete. I particularly like his faithfulness to the notes Bach wrote, in marked contrast to much 'HIP' desecration. The fugues are a treat, slow and spacious in exposition, and necessitated by the concern to play the notes Bach indicated. Well, as with out-of-tune harpsichords, to each his own!

Thomas Braatz wrote (March 12, 2002):
[To Bradley Lehman] You quote the following:
< Here's a relevant excerpt from the program notes in Kuijken's first recording, where Kuijken is using a real Baroque bow from the first half of the 18th century: >
"The differences of the old violin bow require a manner of playing adjusted much less to sweeping lines than to clearly divided phrases and sub-phrases; each note and each liaison from one note to the next becomes more and more of a separate experience as a result of the very great possibilities of differentiation immanent in the old bow."
"In passing one should mention that the old bow was also unable (even less able than the modern one) at the same time to draw and hold 4-part or 3-part chords. >
It is important not to generalize from Kuijken's observations from using just one type of the variety of Baroque bows available. The BGG shows illustrations of Baroque bows where each one differs considerably from the others. The illustrations are labeled: Mersenne, 1620; Kircher 1640; Castrovillari, 1660; Bassani, 1680; Corelli, 1700; Tartini, 1740.

To generalize from one type of bow the primary elements of Harnoncourt's HIP doctrine governing not only the method of playing on string instruments, but singing as well, is a giant leap of faith and also shows how easy it is to put the cart before the horse: proper singing governed what the instruments were attempting to emulate, not the other way around.

The division into phrases and sub-phrases and the separate experience of each note while losing sight of the grand sweep of the longer musical phrase is another element of the Harnoncourt doctrine. Did Harnoncourt also base his notion of string playing in the 18th century on just one of the numerous bow types available in the 18th century as Kuijken did to reach his conclusion? Did Harnoncourt also generalize the method of deconstructing the music as Kuijken implies? Why is it that the larger choral mvts. that Harnoncourt conducted in his Bach cantata series very often give the impression that everything is about to fall apart as the conductor trudges with heavy beats and accents through the sublime music that Bach has given us?

Bradley Lehman wrote (March 12, 2002):
[To Charles Francis] I wasn't citing any "approved wisdom" of any kind. I was merely trying to draw a clear distinction between HIP (at its best) and modern/mainstream style (at its best).

The former is seeing the music as emerging from its milieu; it helps to know that milieu as a background in order to imagine how to make the music sound fresh. The latter is saying that we can look back at music of the past any way we want to, any way that lets the music move us now, and the circumstances that led up to that music are irrelevant.

Both ways (and of course also a third way down the middle, blending them) can lead to some wonderful performances. Both ways can also lead to awful performances. It comes down to musicality more than a choice of approach. That's my opinion. :)

Bradley Lehman wrote (March 12, 2002):
[To Thomas Braatz] Tom, you're of course correct that there were many types of bows available. And, obviously, Kuijken knows that....

I believe that Kuijken comes to all this with an especial emphasis on the French strands of things: Muffat and Lully. After all, he named his own orchestra "La Petite Bande" after the French court orchestra where the playing styles were described by Muffat's and Lully's principles.... But the essay in his S&P set also goes into the Italians and Leopold Mozart. (Much of the same essay is also in his set of the violin-and-harpsichord sonatas, with Leonhardt.)

Thomas Braatz wrote (March 12, 2002):
[To Bradley Lehman] You stated:
< I wasn't citing any "approved wisdom" of any kind. I was merely trying to draw a clear distinction between HIP (at its best) and modern/mainstream style (at its best). >
I wasn't attempting to 'bash Harnoncourt.' I was merely trying to draw a clear distinction between Kuijken's and Harnoncourt's authentic performance ideals, but the more I try to see a difference, the more both Kuijken and Harnoncourt seem to merge into one.

My question should have been: Is Kuijken the 'original genius' here or is it Harnoncourt? Their views are very similar. I have yet to see a well-documented presentation of just how these ideas were arrived at. These ideas seem to appear almost as if out of nowhere with no original author. I am simply trying to track these elusive ideas back to their origins so that I can consider on what basis the HIP revolution was effected.

< I believe that Kuijken comes to all this with an especial emphasis on the French strands of things: Muffat and Lully. After all, he named his own orchestra "La Petite Bande" after the French court orchestra where the playing styles were described by Muff's and Lully's principles.... But the essay in his S&P set also goes into the Italians and Leopold Mozart. (Much of the same essay is also in his set of the violin-and-harpsichord sonatas, with Leonhardt.) >
Did Kuijken's mainly French-style based performance practices influence Harnoncourt or was the influence in the other direction? When did Kuijken make these comments (which year) or when did he publish a book or article in which these ideas were propounded? Was he the first to do so?

I am seriously interested in getting to the bottom of this matter.

Bradley Lehman wrote (March 12, 2002):
Out of curiosity, this evening I pulled the Jean-Jacques Kantorow set off the shelf to hear what he does with the BWV 1001 fugue. It had been a while since I've listened to it. Obviously he has nothing to do with the "'HIP' desecration" you refer to. It's a 1979 recording on modern everything, and he's a strong-willed imaginative player. A maverick, even.

I followed along with the score; his performance of this fugue is really remarkable. His basic presentation of the subject most of the time is brusque, almost martial, very firm in rhythm (within a flexible meter). He rips most of the three-note and four-note chords so fast they sound simultaneous; indeed, some of them are simultaneous (and this with a modern Tourte-style bow)...that's the part that surprised me most. He still lets some of them be arpeggiated; it's an effective mix. At various places in the fugue (the normal places, the episodes) he lets everything relax into a much looser rhythmic profile so it's special and obvious when the martial main subject returns. He treats the last eight bars (not just the last two) entirely as a free cadenza.

To my ears this is a very effective way to play this piece. Full-blooded, very strong in character, improvisatory, and with clear structure. There is something happening at every moment, and the overall direction is lucid. The fugue in this performance is a brilliant dramatic statement, and as exciting as the final seconds of any spectator-sport game. Bravo! (I also listened again to Kuijken and Matthews for comparison: Matthews is more delicate and plastic with the tempo, while Kuijken goes for some of this martiality balanced with a French aloofness. I like them all.)

If players as good as Kantorow can play chords with a regular bow, and make it sound compelling, I just don't understand how a one-dimensional and directionless trudge through the notes (a la Gaehler with a novelty bow) makes such a performance "obsolete."

My objection to Gaehler is not to his equipment, but the way his performance sounds labored and pointless: all the same, not going anywhere, and with no air peeking through. It's oppressively heavy: all strong, all sustained wherever possible. Kantorow, by contrast, is marginally faster, more strongly declamatory, much more aggressive and energetic although he and Gaehler seem to have about the same strength in their bow arms. His chords are exciting punctuation (he plays them and then gets off the strings) where Gaehler's chords are so much sticky goo. And Kantorow's way of playing the chords is IMHO _more_ faithful to Bach's notation: Bach carefully notated rests after most of these. Rests in Bach are just as important as the notes are.

Mileage may vary, obviously. I can imagine how Gaehler's delivery might be heard as spacious in a good way, depending what one hopes to hear. But as for making anybody else "obsolete," no.

Pete Blue wrote (March 12, 2002):
[To Thomas Braatz] To add further confusion/clarity to the issue of a curved bow, see the web site of the people who make it. I don't know how to hyperlink, but type "bach.bogen" in your search window and you'll get there pronto. For what it's worth there is a wonderful old pic of Emil Temanyi and Albert Schweitzer with the bow on the site.

Bradley Lehman wrote (March 12, 2002):
[To Pete Blue] I spent several hours on such a site (about the bow) last night before posting my message about Kantorow...I read their other pages about related matters, as well. It's here: http://www.islandnet.com/~arton/barvlnbo.html

Overall, I found the level of reasoning in the writing at about the level of a high school sophomore's research paper, just scratching the surface of the field. That is, I spent part of the time shaking my head in bewilderment when I wasn't laughing. The writer's views about "Authentic" versus "Traditional" and "BUILDING A BAROQUE CD COLLECTION" are so limited to 1960s preferences (in style), as well as a promotion of their own publications...let's just say I found almost nothing to agree with anywhere on the site, except the pictures. I'm sure they mean well.

The manufacturer's site you're probably referring to is a different one:
http://pro.wanadoo.fr/bach.bogen/

The bow with that much curve to it is such a 20th-century invention! It's interesting as such, but it really has little if anything to do with the much shallower curve of period bows. It strikes me as a caricature, right down to the special little lever to change the hair tension. It turns a perfectly normal violin into a hurdy-gurdy, a different instrument. (And frankly that's what Gaehler's performance sounds like to me: the S&Ps played on a hurdy-gurdy, not a violin.)

Here are some hurdy-gurdy sites:
http://www.hurdygurdy.com/hg/hghome.html
http://www.hurdygurdy.com/products.htm
http://www.larkinam.com/MenComNet/Business/Retail/Larknet/ArtHurdyGurdyHistory

Harry J. Steinman wrote (March 13, 2002):
A kind soul sent me a file, the chaconne from the 2nd partita. Wow! I find it wonderful. I believe that the artist is thoughtful and sensitive and the bow makes a difference.

Belittle the bow as modern artifice, if you will, put down the performer as you like: I find it magnificent.

I have spoken.

 

Sonatas & Partitas for Solo Violin BWV 1001-1006: Details
Reviews of Individual Recordings:
S&P - B. Cruft | S&P - R. Gaehler | S&P - H. Hahn | S&P - S. Kuijken | S&P - I. Matthews | S&P Guitar - P. Galbraith [K. McElhearn] | S&P Guitar - H. Smith [K. McElhearn] | S&P Guitar - H. Smith [Schweickert]
General Discussions:
Part 1 | MD - Chaconne
Discussions of Individual Recordings:
S&P - H. Hahn

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Last update: ýJune 20, 2009 ý17:28:43