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General Discussions - Part 16: Year 2012

Continue from Part 15: Year 2011

Sacred cantatas: conductors' review

Lucian Gabriel Popescu (aherne) wrote (March 13, 2012):
Hello back! In the past two years since I haven’t contributed to this group I’ve managed to complete my collection of Bach cantatas, collecting nearly all cycles and individual albums of Bach’s sacred cantatas by following conductors:- Richter- Rilling - Winschermann- Harnoncourt- Leonhardt - Coin- Gardiner- Herreweghe- Kuijken- Koopman- Suzuki

Before reviewing every BWV and movement, I think it’s appropriate to start with a short impression for conductors involved.

1. Karl Richter
He’s ultimate exponent of Romantic performance practice. There is simply nothing “historically informed” (in the manner it’s understood today) about his performances: he uses operatic singers, he uses a huge modern orchestra (many times the number of instrumentalists requested in score) and a huge choir (I don’t know if Bach had a specific request on the number of voices per part, but it sure sounds like having an entire congregation singing), his basso continuo is completely late-romantic in style and execution (sounds as if superimposing Wagner on Bach). With all above inherent shortcomings, it is incredible how he manages to emerge as a very strong contender as outstanding conductor. His singers are either good or exceptionally good. His orchestra is simply outstanding. His choir is also very good, considering the clarity and conviction he managed to squeeze out of what seems to be a hundred singers. His dynamics are very well chosen (dramatic or mellow whenever score demands it), his tempi tend towards slower side but seldom drag (which is good since it reveals hidden treasures in the music), his singers are true interpreters rather than performers of the score (they always know what they are singing about). This is the way cantatas should be performed: the very best singers performing with absolute conviction and understanding of the score. Richter’s Bach, with all the flawed style it’s performed, is closest to the spirit of the music, which is the most important aspect to evaluate the quality of a conductor.

2. Helmuth Rilling
Stylistically, Rilling belongs to a transitional style that hovers between Romantic and Revivalist (historically informed). He still uses operatic singers (oddly enough, far more operatic than Richter’s), he uses a modern instruments orchestra and an operatic choir, both of reduced size though and his basso continuo is once again rather historically informed. Theoretically, it seems like a compromise between the advantages of two eras, but in reality Rilling doesn’t manage to reach Richter’s overall level. His singers are much more uneven (some are good, some are bad, most are simply average) and tend to be extremely operatic (with uncontrollable vibratos). His orchestra and choir are on the same par as Richter’s if not better, but they are not helped by Rilling’s insistence of making them perform as loud and dramatic as possible. This inherent dishonesty and detachment from the spirit of the music (“helped” by singers who routinely fake attachment) degrades the quality of Rilling’s performances in many cantatas or individual movement. On the positive side, Rilling does have among the best soprano (Arleen Augr) and choirs (he uses many) at his disposal.

3. Helmut Winschermann
From a stylistic point of view, despite using a modern orchestra and choir, Winschermann’s account is devoid of Romantic influences (in Rilling they are still visible), except those inherent of using modern devices. His orchestra is falsely credited as being HIP in Bach cantatas website, but it sings a semitone higher and has the typical rich lush sound. It seems Winschermann obeys the score and doesn’t employ more instrumentalists than Bach asked for, which is very good. Technical aspects aside, Winschermann’s orchestra is absolutely exceptional, better than any other with its razor sharp attacks and spirited (historically informed in the true sense of the word) performance that goes deep into the heart of music. Hearing Winschermann on oboe shows how much modern performers on the instrument have to learn in terms of power and expressivity. On this regard, there is nothing that can be improved. Choirs employed are also very good. Soloists range from exceptional to good. Of female sopranos ever used in Bach, none are better than Cotruba and Ameling. Like Koen’s, but in a grander sense, their voices are rich, gorgeous and vibrato-free, able to cover complex textures with ease while being constantly very much aware of what they are singing. Once again nothing to improve here. Style of conducting is tending towards the fast and dramatic side (like Gardiner, but SO MUCH more honest), but my impression is that Winschermann never loses balance and generally remains true to the music. A slower and more gentile (when needed) performance would have made Winschermann’s cantatas simply unassailable.

4. Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Together with Gustav Leonhardt, Harnoncourt is credited as a pioneer of Historically Informed performances. The goal of this movement is to bring performance closer to what Bach had in mind. This is in my opinion an essential requirement (which disqualifies Richter by default) but does not, for instance, necessary mean using baroque-era instruments. The ultimate goal is to bring music close to Bach’s idiom and this alone will be the only criteria by which I acknowledge a performance as authentic. Is Harnoncourt’s performance close to Bach’s idiom? Unlike Rilling, he uses period instruments, non-operatic singers (by the way, how can we know Bach himself didn’t use vibrato-laden singers), boys instead of female sopranos and counter-tenors as well as boys instead of female altos. Technically, one cannot be more historically informed than this and, for a time, this made Harnoncourt a name in Bach’s music. On closer inspection, however, the way the music is performed departs from Bach’s score almost as much as Richter does: Harnoncourt introduces strange, plodding rhythmic accents (absent in score) that break music into pieces. This is grounded in the belief music from that era was originally performed in that way (which we will never know). Like Rilling, he has a tendency for providing very loud instrumental support, which forces singers to scream or simply have their lines blurred by instruments. But the most objectionable aspect is his orchestra and choir. Violins have an insufferable squeaking-grating sound, trumpets sound like being performed by amateurs and oboes are loud and blaring. Organ (Hans Fagius) and cello (Harnoncourt himself) support, however, are of highest quality. Choir is even worse: it sounds blurry and lacks cohesion. But there are positive aspects as well, that tend to be overlooked because of so many negatives listed above. For once, his tenor (Equiluz) and alto (Esswood) are probably the best singers ever employed by a historically informed orchestra. Both are very expressive singers, with strong pleasant voices that interpret rather than perform. Both voices are vibrato-rich, so they belong stylistically to the older age. Boy sopranos range from exceptionally bad to exceptionally good. Boys such as Peter Jelosits dispel the myth that boys can no longer sing Bach as good as best female sopranos. The fault here is once again Harnoncourt’s for not using constantly the best boy he had. Another positive is that unlike later conductors, Harnoncourt keeps connection to the music. Like Richter, he modulates whenever appropriate between a dramatic and a mellow approach and almost always employs appropriate tempi.

5. Gustav Leonhardt
The styles of Leonhardt and Harnoncourt are closely linked. Together they produced the first full set of sacred cantatas on record and for almost 20 years their lives were linked by this common goal. The same plodding rhythms, loud instrumental support, muddy choirs, squeaking violins and blaring oboes are present in Leonhardt’s performances, though less compared to Harnoncourt. Even the soloists are the same with the notable exception of sopranos (taken from Knabenchor Hannover). Same observation for the uneven quality of boy soloists applies here. With all this similarity aside, the styles of conducting are different. Leonhardt has a tendency towards slower tempi and a dogmatic performance. Overall, his approach is better than Harnoncourt’s and in some cantatas he is unsurpassed: BWV 51, BWV 55, BWV 56, BWV 106, BWV 150, BWV 156.

6. Cristophe Coin
Like Harnoncourt, he began his career as a cellist and only later started to conduct. He only recorded ten cantatas, but few as they were they include some of the best performances available on record. His orchestra is historically informed and in full command of the instruments. His choir is small (sounds like 4 voices per part), but uses female instead of boy sopranos. Because it is small and very well trained, it is transparent and easy to follow. On the negative side, it sounds mannered and lacks drive. Soloists are typical for period-instruments orchestras: voices weak enough so they do not overwhelm instruments, vibrato-free and fully transparent, usually performing instead of interpreting. Technically this is an accomplished performance, but it smacks of a certain disconnection from the spirit of the music. Soloists do not help either: even though he chose the best Bach interpreters available in that period of time (Pregardien, Scholl, Schlick), their expressivity is way behind earlier performers. Dynamics tend towards a chamber approach. Drama is shaded, but not absent as in Koopman. Tempi are also well chosen. Of note in this short series are movements where Coin performs on violoncello piccolo. He interprets with absolute mastery and sensitivity and no one comes close to him on that respect. What ultimately spoils Coin’s performances is an extraordinarily bad recording quality (never heard something as bad as this), hence a muffled sound that permeates everywhere. This is simply unacceptable, even for a small recording French company (Oiseau Lyre).

7. Kuijken
I do not possess, nor am I interested to possess, later Kuijken’s OVPP cycle of cantatas, so I’m only commenting on the four cantatas he recorded before he became an adept of OVPP. Few as they were, these four cantatas set new standards in terms of the quality of orchestra and choir. Both are simply exceptional: never have I heard such clarity and drive, such precise delineation, surpassing by far everything recorded on the subject ever after. It is EXACTLY the way things should be done and nothing can be improved. Add to that dynamics and tempi are just perfect and the image could not be brighter. A consistent problem for other Revivalist conductors, here soloists perform really well, which proves Kuijken to be a masterful conductor. They are not the best voices in the market, but certainly they are doing their best for each piece.

8. Gardiner
Gardiner’s approach is the opposite of Coin’s, but shares with him the same means: a very well trained period orchestra and choir, using female sopranos instead of boys and countertenors as well as females as altos. Choir sounds larger than Coin’s (about the same size as Rilling’s) and sings with greater conviction. Soloists are average and do not impress by anything, with the sole exception of Koen. Like Coin’s but much more so they just “do their business” or, like Rilling’s, they fake involvement. This reduces enjoyment in his performances and pretty much confines interesting parts to choirs, chorales and sinfonias. Drama is systematically over-emphasized. Like with Rilling, many performances sound cheap in their attempt to fake attachment to score. Tempi range between extremes with strong predominance on the fast side. While not consistently fast as Koopman, this is a major problem because it does not allow music to breathe and be properly enjoyed. Add to that the fact his soloists aren’t good either and a rather negative general impression emerges.

9. Herreweghe
The more we advance in time, the more it seems orchestras and choirs are about the same level, the only real difference being the manner they are conducted and the soloists chosen. Herreweghe shares the same means with Gardiner, but has better soloists (Kooy, Scholl) and overemphasizes a mellow chamber quality instead. This makes many of his performances sound boring. Following tradition set above, soloists seldom get involved in the text but, at least, they are not faking involvement. Tempi are generally well chosen, but a certain tendency towards being fast may also be observed.

10. Koopman
Koopman shares with Herreweghe a very similar approach, though slightly more dramatic. His soloists are mostly average (Mertens, Pregardien, Scholl are the exception) and sing in typical “let’s do our job then head home” mode. Mertens is a great exception and to Koopman’s credit he’s featured in every movement for basso. Despite his light baritone voice, at the very least he is expressive, but seeing him perform under Kuijken shows he’s also capable of much better. The main problem with Koopman is flawed dynamics (a consistent light approach that leaves drama out of the picture), which makes him frequently boring, and absurd tempi (a consistent tendency towards extremely fast tempi), which makes him frequently unlistenable. In his orchestra, choir and conducting, despite the technical excellence, there is close to zero drive and conviction. 11. SuzukiSuzuki, a student of Koopman, builds upon Koopman’s foundation and provides an improved version devoid of latter’s excesses. Dynamics are good and tempi are usually on the mark, though a preference towards faster performances is also observed. Soloists are all average (minus Kooy) and sing in a way hardly distinguishable from those employed by the three above. Despite technical excellence, there is a level of superficiality and detachment that pervades every of his performances. I think Suzuki belongs to a totally different culture for which the story of the Bible tells nothing and I don’t think we should be reasonable to expect anything else. Because the soloists are far of being the best in the field (to Suzuki’s credit, none are bad, though), like in Gardiner’s case, my enjoyment of Suzuki is restricted to choral and instrumental pieces.

Ed Myskowski wrote (March 14, 2012):
Lucian Gabriel Popescu wrote:
< 7. Kuijken. I do not possess, nor am I interested to possess, later Kuijkens OVPP cycle of cantatas, so I am only commenting >on the four cantatas he recorded before he became an adept of OVPP. >
You could give one of the later OVPP releases a try, without committing to buying the whole series?

Kuijken provides a very thoughtful analysis of the progression of his thinking, which is supported, to my ears, by the sound of his performances. It seems a bit narrow-minded to dismiss his conclusions out-of-hand, without even listening to the later OVPP releases. If you have listened a bit, and decided not to collect, that would be a different statement.

I look forward to your detailed commentary on recordings. I agree, the whole process of recording production has advanced to such a state that there are no really bad ones (if there ever were), but there is a certain stylistic blending of all the good ones. Except for the Kuijken OVPP series, which stand at the peak of the philosophy pioneered by Joshua Rifkin.

Gardiner’s Pilgrimage documentation is a special case, not necessarily to everyones taste, but a monumental achievement of performance, and nicely organized for CD release, now that it is complete.

David Herzstein Couch wrote (March 16, 2012):
Objections re Suzuki & Richter Re: sacred cantatas: conductors' review

I enjoyed reading the opinions of "lucian.gabriel.popescu" about conductors. There is so very much to disagree with, which is fine and is grist for our mills, but I will refrain -- except for two comments to you, Lucian.

find it incomprehensible that you would write not only that Suzuki displays a "level of superficiality and detachment that pervades every of his performances" but that "Suzuki belongs to a totally different culture for which the story of the Bible tells nothing and I don't think we should be reasonable to expect anything else." This is a rather shocking reference to Suzuki's "culture" -- as if in this day and age, the national background of a musician from Japan (or Korea or China, for that matter) prevents her or him from being able to express musical feeling and convey spiritual depth in music written by a Christian composer. Even if it was not very well known that Suzuki is a practicing Christian (he began playing organ at his own church's services at age 12), I would have to object based on Suzuki's musical approach, which seems (to many listeners, I believe) especially tender and heartfelt, if at times lacking in dramatic force and power.

Second, I must disagree that Richter is the "ultimate exponent of Romantic performance practice." Looking back at Richter, and not including those who preceded him, you might think of his approach as Romantic, but he was not considered Romantic in his own time, at least not until late in his career. Lucian love Richter, so there is no need for me to "defend" his approach (which is not my favored style, in any case, as I am more in the so-called historically-informed-practice camp), but in the context of his time I think his approach was considered "modern" and a movement AWAY from "Romantic" performances that had larger forces, which could be muddy-sounding, and especially that were inconsistent in tempo (with very heavy stretching of the tempo), very strong legato, and so forth, and that Richter was viewed as being been rhythmically steady, with somewhat less legato, with clearly audible inner lines, while still being extremely expressive in the style of the time. For some "Romantic" interpretations of Bach, try some Stokowski! Or even the magnificent Klemperer St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244).

Lucian Gabriel Popescu wrote (March 16, 2012):
[To David Herzstein Couch] first of all I do not understand why my original message was so badly truncated after post that it almost got incomprehensible. Actually I'm surprised someone was actually able to read an unformatted two page message:) With regards to your objections, Suzuki may be a Christian (probably a convert, since Christianity was almost nonexistent in pre-war Japan), but Christianity has no tradition in Japan and Christians in Japan are generally still culturally Japanese. Anyway, in style he differs little from European practitioners of HIP, so the racial/ethnic issue can be removed from the picture. What I dislike is exactly what I wrote previously: the value of an interpretation is not the sum of its components. You can have a very well trained orchestra and choir, but what matters in the end is the manner it's conducted. Soloists also greatly benefit an inspired conducting: hearing Mertens under Kuijken and under Koopman almost reveals different soloists (former being excellent, latter being rather boring). Suzuki's performances are usually excellent from a technical point of view (soloists not included), but lack true commitment to music and that cannot be hidden by dramatic artifice. Please compare BWV 106 under Leonhardt and BWV 106 under Suzuki and you will see what I'm talking about.

As for Richter, you are right. I don't have earlier recordings to compare him to, but certainly he employs Romantic devices (huge orchestra, huge choir, late romantic continuo). His soloists, however, are light years above Suzuki's, both in terms of power of voices and commitment to what they are singing. This is also Richter's merit, since he allowed those voices to shine with slower tempi and an orchestral support that never competes with singer.

Lucian Gabriel Popescu wrote (March 16, 2012):
[To Ed Myskowski] The reasons why I'm not interested in later Kuijken are:
1. his soloists are generally bad (weak ugly voices, inexpressive singing)
2. his choir (being OVPP) is a sum of above soloists, thus I have no good expectation
3. it's extremely unlikely that OVPP has any historic validity

As for Gardiner's Pilgrimage, it contains both good and bad performances (spoiled by poor soloists or too fast tempi). It is incomplete (but earlier releases by same Gardiner almost complete it). Another issue is that he used an army of soloists instead of choosing the best ones and let them become immersed in the music. Another issue is having all cantatas recorded in one year, which inspires soloists to sing mechanically and "just do their jobs" waiting for next cantata in schedule.

Julian Mincham wrote (March 16, 2012):
Lucian Gabriel Popescu wrote:
< 3. it's extremely unlikely that OVPP has any historic validity >
A statement so sweeping that, in itself it can have no validity. Read the literature--there is some very compelling evidence.

Having heard a number of Bach's works performed this way in the spaces for which they were conceived and originally performed i now trust the evidence of my own ears as well. I grew up with the romantic choirs doing Bach and took some time to be convinced by the OVPP argument. I think that the argument is now won especially for those with open minds and ears.

Uri Golomb wrote (March 16, 2012):
[To David Herzstein Couch] Some comments re the current debate:

Regarding Suzuki: I don't think being a Christian is a sufficient or necessary condition for being a good Bach conductor, or singer. I think you need to understand Bach's belief and their role in his music; whether you share them (or grew up in their tradition) is neither here nor there. I am myself a Jew by nationality and culture (and an atheist by {non}faith), so perhaps this is the only position I could take.. I have to take exception at the general characterisation of Suzuki, even though I actually share Lucian's point regarding Cantata BWV 106. But Suzuki's version of the two Passions, as well as quite a few cantatas (BWV 60 is among my favourites) do reveal a much greater degree of expressive involvement.

Regarding Richter: He is definitely not a romantic. The characterisations offered here - such huge orchestra, huge choir, late romantic continuo - are not all correct in themselves, and in any case are not sufficient to define his style as romantic. Some very prominent style features of his (for instance, his frequent, though inconsistent adherence to 'terraced dynamics' - that is, his refusal to use crescendo and diminiunedi, to build up to and away from climaxes) mark him as distinctly non-romantic, even anti-romantic.

In my research on Bach performance, I mentioned Richter as one prominent conductor who was characterised alternately as romantic and anti-romantic (other prominent examples are Klemperer and Harnoncourt). I proposed then - and I still believe - that a 'romantic' Bach performance needs to contain at least three key elements: anachronism (especially the adoption of 19th century practices); the pursuit of emotional expression; and the pursuit of a strongly projected, personal interpretation. Richter's pointed avoidance of 19th-century expressive techniques rules him out in this context, although several of his soloists are more romantic than he is. (I stress that expressive performance is not necessarily Romantic - you can be very expressive while using Baroque techniques as well). Anyone who is interested in knowing more about why I adopt these criteria can find my dissertation on: http://www.uri-golomb.com/Articles.aspx

Uri Golomb wrote (March 16, 2012):
Sorry - my previous message was sent by mistake before I completed it. I start again from the last paragraph and go on:

And one more point: Lucian spoke in favour Richter allowing his soloists "with slower tempi and an orchestral support that never competes with singer." I'm afraithat's one of the things I object to in Richter. Like it or not, Bach's orchestra frequently competes with his vocal soloists, and I think performance should reflect this. Richter usually created a strict hierarchy, in which voices always trump instruments. Well, that's not how Bach's music is written: he often assigns important thematic materials to the orchestra, simultaneously with equally or less interesting material in the voices. To cite one prominent example: in the aria "Mache dich mein Herze rein" (St Matthew Passion (BWV 244)), the strings perform a wonderful rising-and-falling gesture above a single held note by the bass singer. I don't recall how this bit goes in Richter's recordings, but I do remember hearing several performances (Richter's perhaps among them) in which the single bass note was held up front, while the strings were shoved in the background. It sounded all wrong. I discussed another example – definitely involving a Richter recording – on: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Topics/Dynamics.htm (regarding Richter's rendition of BWV 111).

Conductors should be careful not to drown the singers - the vocal contributions should always be heard. They should not, however, always be prominent. Bach rarely allows his orchestra simply to accompany the singers; they usually have an important contribution of their own. And there are times when players and singers should sound as if they're in dialogue – or indeed in competition - with each other.

Douglas Cowling wrote (March 16, 2012):
Uri Golomb wrote:
< I proposed then - and I still believe - that a 'romantic' Bach performance needs to contain at least three key elements: anachronism (especially the adoption of 19th century practices); the pursuit of emotional expression; and the pursuit of a strongly projected, personal interpretation >
Under those criteria, Gardiner is the quintessential Romantic conductor. His performance of the Monteverdi Vespers is perversely idiosyncratic.

But ... These debates are so subjective as to be almost meaningless. I'm fascinated by the liturgical context and theological parameters of Bach's music, but the question of the Christian piety of a conductor is utterly pointless. I would be disappointed if this list turned back to the performance squabbles of its earlier discussions.

Kim Patrick Clow wrote (March 16, 2012):
Lucian Gabriel Popescu wrote:
< Suzuki may be a Christian (probably a convert, since Christianity was almost nonexistent in pre-war Japan), but Christianity has no tradition in Japan and Christians in Japan are generally still culturally Japanese. >
Oh. How obnoxious of you.

Ed Myskowski wrote (March 17, 2012):
Kim Patrick Clow wrote to Lucian Gabriel Popescu:
< Oh. How obnoxious of you. >
Indeed! I refer everyone to the BCW archives. The eloquent contributions from Terejia in previous years give an alternative perspective on Bach and Christianity in Japan, at least from one sincere individual.

Ed Myskowski wrote (March 17, 2012):
-----Original Message-----
>From: <cowling.douglas@gmail.com>
>Sent: Mar 16, 2012 8:47 AM
>
Uri Golomb wrote:
< I proposed then - and I still believe - that a 'romantic' Bach performance needs to contain at least three key elements: anachronism (especially the adoption of 19th century practices); the pursuit of emotional expression; and the pursuit of a strongly projected, personal interpretation >
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< Under those criteria, Gardiner is the quintessential Romantic conductor. His performance of the Monteverdi Vespers is perversely idiosyncratic.
But ... These debates are so subjective as to be almost meaningless. I'm fascinated by the liturgical context and theological parameters of Bach's music, but the question of the Christian piety of a conductor is utterly pointless. I would be disappointed if this list turned back to the performance squabbles of its earlier discussions. >
EM:
I hope I have that thread correct, I did not receive the original post from Uri. I agree with Doug that performance squabbles are not a fond memory. OTOH, reasonable discussion of relative performance characteristics has been sorely lacking of late.

Is Gardiners Bach interpretation, as represented by the Pilgrimage CD releases, fairly characterized as perversely idiosyncratic? Not to my ears, although I am willing to consider supporting details.

Ed Myskowski wrote (March 17, 2012):
Uri Golomb wrote:
< And one more point: Lucian spoke in favour Richter allowing his soloists "with slower tempi and an orchestral support that never competes with singer." I'm afraid that's one of the things I object to in Richter. Like it or not, Bach's orchestra frequently competes with his vocal soloists, and I think performance should reflect this. Richter usually created a strict hierarchy, in which voices always trump instruments. Well, that's not how Bach's music is written: he often assigns important thematic materials to the orchestra, simultaneously with equally or less interesting material in the voices. >
Not to overlook that such contrast would be emphasized with boys singing OVPP!

Sorry that I wrote previously that I had not received the post from Uri, always nice to hear from you. In fact, the BCML mail is as reliable as death and taxes, and far more welcome.

Lucian Gabriel Popescu wrote (March 17, 2012):
[To Uri Golomb] First of all, thanks for your informative answer. I've never claimed Richter was Romantic in style (if so, I didn't express myself properly), though, just that he uses Romantic devices to deliver Bach music. His performance is reasonably informed historically (especially for the time), but his devices (orchestra, choir, soloists) are definitely not.

With regards to instruments competing with soloists you made a valid point. Indeed, Bach seems to favor an interplay between instrumental and vocal soloists in arias (which Richter follows), but in recitatives there is a clear purpose in having instruments function as a background to voices (which Richter follows). It seems to me that both Harnoncourt and Rilling do not seem to understand this fact and produce recitatives where basso continuo tends to be extremely loud and competes with voices, which is totally unacceptable (as pointed by many of this group's contributors).

In the end, a conductor's musical astuteness is the real deciding factor in how to manage the balance of instruments and voices according to a movement's mood and textual content. Then we, as listeners, have our own decision, ultimately based on what we feel about it. So it's a decision by conductor and by listeners as well, which is why both performances and reviews differ so much.

Uri Golomb wrote (March 17, 2012):
Douglas and I have long disagreed about the aesthetic value of Gardiner's performances in general, and his Monteverdi Vespro in particular (I like them, Douglas doesn't - which is fine; there's no need for either of us to convince the other). That said, I have no qualms in agreeing that Gardiner's performances contain strongly romantic elements; in fact, I think his Bach - and his Monteverdi - contain more 'romantic' features than his Schumann symphonies.

For me, there's no doubt that Gardiner's performances are strongly affected by historical knowledge - they would not have been the same without extensive research, both his own and others', into the performance practice of the composers and their contemporaries; but, on the other hand, Gardiner allows more anachronistic and/or personal elements into his interpretations than he is willing to acknowledge. I don't necessarily view this as a minus (but then, I love Jochum in Bach as well, so clearly my criteria for appreciation do not purely rely on historical considerations).

For me, saying a performance is (or is not) romantic is not, in itself, criticism or praise. Nor do I believe that all performances can simply be characterised as one thing or the other; you can talk about performances that contain 'romantic' features alo'baroque' features, which is how I'd characterize Gardiner and Harnoncourt, for instance.

Julian Mincham wrote (March 17, 2012):
Uri Golomb wrote:
< And there are times when players and singers should sound as if they're in dialogue >
I would go further and suggest this is the norm with Bach's textural writing, not 'melody and accompaniment' (a much more 'style galante' feature of the later C18) but combination/amalgamations of two or more melodies (one of which is the bass line) of equal musical significance.

One reason why some the big Wagnerian operatic voices from the last century are so spectacularly unsuccessful in singing Bach is that they tend to over-ride the orchestral material as if it were a mere accompaniment.

Another reason may be that some of these singers seemed not to understand Bach's melodic lines. More modest voices used by singers who do understand the lines tend to be more successful. Klaus Mertens is, to my ear, one of the most successful of this contemporary company of Bach singers.

Claudio De Veroli wrote (March 18, 2012):
I have read sometimes -- in other discussion lists -- "less than politically correct" arguments about music, musicians and religious belief (or lack thereof).

I am happy to find that mentions of personal religion have been limited to a minimum in this forum, which, as many others about Classical music, includes people from no less than 6 religions, at least 2 of them not Christian.

Let's keep being careful, in order to avoid personal offense and misjudgement. For I certainly agree that good knowledge of Lutheran religion is needed to conduct Bach Cantatas. But that's it: knowledge, understanding, NOT belief. Any suggestion to the contrary, i.e. to state that if you are a Christian (and even better a Lutheran for Bach or a Catholic for Mozart) you will conduct Cantatas and Masses better, or be more sensitive to their musical message, is offensive to persons of other religions. It is also untrue. I have witnessed, more than once, exemplary performances of Christian church music conducted by non-Christians, and non believers in the audience being as moved as anybody else.

Jean-Pierre Grivois wrote (March 18, 2012):
[To Claudio Di Veroli] I think that Claudio Writes in golden letters.
I fully agree.
It is exactly what I intended to mean when I wrote my book Moi, JSB

Ed Myskowski wrote (March 18, 2012):
Claudio Di Veroli wrote:
< I am happy to find that mentions of personal religion have been limited to a minimum in this forum
[...]
Let's keep being careful, in order to avoid personal offense and misjudgement. For I certainly agree that good knowledge of Lutheran religion is needed to conduct Bach Cantatas. But that's it: knowledge, understanding, NOT belief. >
Thanks for a carefully stated post. The success of BCML on this topic is due in no small measure to the accuracy of the moderator, who manages to maintain decorum while also allowing the free expression of ideas.

David D. Jones wrote (March 20, 2012):
[To Ed Myskowski] I'm not really comfortable with the idea of people trying to wipe out discussions of "religion" from Bach. It's unidiomatic. I understand people not wanting to be proselytized but still.

 

An exciting new release of important historic Bach recordings

Teri Noel Towe wrote (March 19, 2012):
I have seen the listing of the contents, and this release is one of major importance, containing many, many exciting and inspiring historic performances: https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Bach-Guild/207326759349074

It will be a bargain at the price! What a wonderful way to celebrate the 327th anniversary of the birth of J. S. Bach!

 

Article: "Bach cantatas and motets:Aus der Tieffen and beyond"

Bradley Lehman wrote (April 10, 2012):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< An interesting "Early Music" article on BWV 131 by list member, Bradley Lehmann, is available as a download online: >
I have now set up the permanent link to that review from this page, at the top: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~bpl/essays.html

The review includes seven volumes of Kuijken's series, Suzuki's volume 48, the newest in Ponseele's series, one by Gropper, and several recordings of the motets: Hiemetsberger, Wachner, and Kooij.

Enjoy!

Ed Myskowski wrote (April 11, 2012):
[To Bradley Lehman] Sorry that Dougs post slipped by without comment from me. Uncharacteristic. I have not yet taken opportunity to access Brads article, but I am confident it contains opinions to stimulate dispassionate discussion.

Ed Myskowski wrote (April 22, 2012):
Article: [BWV 6 review]

Bradley Lehman wrote:
< have now set up the permanent link to that review from this page, at the top: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~bpl/essays.html >
Brads review includes the most recent Kuijken release, Vol. 12, BWV 249 and 6 for Easter Sunday and Monday. In a happy coincidence, Brian McCreath chose BWV 6, for the radio and web broadcast (www.wgbh.org) Bach Hour on the Sunday after Easter. Not precisely liturgically correct, but as the broadcast cycle continues, Brian fills in non-Sunday compositions as appropriate.

More to the point, Brian chose the Christophe Coin CD release from 1995, which creates incentive for comparison and/or contrast with Kuijken’s subsequent (2011) CD. For the uninitiated, both recordings are from cycles with historically informed (HIP) intent:

(1) Christophe Coin undertook to record all the cantatas where Bach specifically indicated *violincello piccolo* using a period instrument. He also chose a recording venue with an authentic Bach era organ (Silbermann 1737), eglise de Ponitz (Thuringen-Allemagne). Although the number of choir and strings are perhaps just a bit large for an absolute HIP purist, the sound strikes me as minimally engineered, and in accord with the point Doug often makes regarding overall balance, especially the church organ. The Coin series is a rare (unique, I believe), opportunity to hear this detail on a group of recordings, Although the headline feature is use of vcp, the Coin CDs are worth seeking out for the authenticity of the Silbermann organ, as well . The soloist are world class (Barbara Schlick, Andreas Scholl, Christophe Pregardien, and Gotthold Schwarz) and the interpretations by Coin are without extremes, emphasis is on the church venue and the vcp lines.

Coins comments on the venue are interesting in their own right:

<While the organ parts in almost all the engravings of the cantatas are played on a small instrument (chest organ) we thought it would be interesting to use the great organ even for the continuo. It thus becomes the main axis around which instrumentalists and singers then gather. That is not without its problems (especially for the microphone [placement[). ... The result may seem more dense, and sometimes more blurred than usual [in recordings], but it conveys quite faithfully the sound a member of the congregation would have experienced sitting down below.> (end quote)

A couple questions for expert comment:
Is it accurate, as Coin comments, that most engravings show the use of a smaller organ for cantata performance?
Even if so, could that be as much artistic license as precise historic accuracy?

In any case, his caveat notwithstanding, I infer that Coin feels his recorded performance adds to the listeners experience of historic authenticity.

Thanks to Brian McCreath for a fine and informative broadcast selection.

(2) Kuijken’s ongoing series is specifically four voice choir (OVPP), in accordance with his own performance experience and choices over a life-long career, as well as the scholarly arguments developed from the pioneering work of Joshua Rifkin and others.

If I understand the arguments and evidence correctly (as provided on a regular basis by Doug Cowling), Bach must have had two (2VPP) generally available, considering the many other works on his regular Sunday performance . This does not necessarily contradict the p, derived from surviving parts and other evidence, that the cantatas were suitable (if not specifically intended) for OVPP. Note that the two options (OVPP vs. 2VPP) are not necessarily mutually contradictory. Four voice choir (plus ripienists, when available and qualified).

Whatever the historic accuracy of OVPP, it provides a consistent brightness and clarity of texture throughout the Kuijken series, especially noticeable in BWV 6 in direct comparison with the Coin version. I find this clarity attractive, enjoyable, and helpful in grasping the musical structure, and I frequently comment to that effect. I find Brads comments fair and accurate, when he points out that the very consistency of the Kuijken series accumulates, and detracts from the emotional, interpretive impact of any specific work.

I hope some of you will be inspired to make your own comparison of the Kuijken and Coin recordings of BWV 6, and draw your own conclusions.

Douglas Cowling wrote (April 22, 2012):
Article: "Authentic" portatives

Ed Myskowski wrote:
< Is it accurate, as Coin comments, that most engravings show the use of a smaller organ for cantata performance?Even if so, could that be as much artistic license as precise historic accuracy? >
I would have suggested the opposite. Parrott and Leaver reproduce engravings which show performances in choir lofts with large organs, as in this famous example: http://www.kimballtrombone.com/files/2008/07/Walther-1732.jpg

Portative organs are a necessity because modern concert halls generally don't have resident organs, unlike the great 19th century concert halls. It is now "authentic" to have small portative organs with three or four ranks
and no pedal point - a far cry from the organs Bach would have used. Cantatas with organ obligato are often chronically undernourished.

An interesting sidebar: Handel had a custom-built combination organ/harpsichord which he moved from opera house to concert hall for oratorio and opera performances

I am looking forward to that full organ pedal note which opens Mahler's 8th when the Toronto Symphony performs it in June at Roy Thompson Hall.

 

Article on my blog

Kirk McElhearn wrote (July 6, 2012):
I posted an article about Bach cantatas today, mentioning some of the complete sets of recordings, and some resources. http://www.mcelhearn.com/2012/07/06/bachs-sacred-cantatas-recordings-and-resources/

If anyone has any comments for resources that could be added, please feel free.

 

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