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‘Operatic’ Bach / Debate

Alex Riedlmayer wrote (January 18, 2003):
What is 'operatic' singing? Does it have anything to do with opera? Why is it deplored and unfashionable in Bach's music?

What are angels? What do they sound like? How do you know?

Hugo Saldias wrote (Jaanuary 18, 2003):
[To Alex Riedlmayer] Those that for any particular reason do not like the singer say is "operatic". Example i the few e mails about Edith Matis...

It is a non valid reason to put her down.

But she is a great singer that sings Bach the way I like it.Some may not like it,that is ok, so to sound like experts they call it operatic Bach...

I just do not pay any attention or waist time in answering them...

That is my presonal point of view and do not these "experts" trick you.If they think they are better than Mrs Matis why they do not sing and record cd then?

Roland Wörner wrote (January 18,, 2003):
[To Hugo Saldias] Thank you so much for your clear statement! I agree completly...

Donald Satz wrote (January 19, 2003):
[To Roland Wörner] I do have a problem with singers using an 'operatic' approach to Bach. That was the approach used by Bryn Terfel on his Handel disc, and I found it god-awful. Why? He tried to be larger than life, totally dominating the musical textures and other instruments.

The way I see it, the voice is one of many instruments and needs to chime in with a sense of overall proportion, not star magnitude.

Rodrigo Maffei Libonati wrote (January 19, 2003):
Although I don't like Edith Mathis' performances in Bach cantatas, I have to say I feel bothered when I see her attacked and duly dismissed as I often seen here, first of all because I think she is not to blame. Ms. Mathis has never been a conductor and sang those performances under the guidance and artistic supervision of conductors like Richter and I think her approach is entirely in keeping with the stylistic approach to Bach music found these days. Her expressive style could be thought as bothersome as vibrato-ish flutes and piercing trumpets.

Second of all, the idea of "operatic" as dismissive is problematic. As you know, opera began with La Dafne and is still being composed and not only voice technique developed a lot since those days, but also various styles of singing have been established since then. Sometimes I feel that someone who has never listened to Ms. Mathis, a reputed Schubertian (therefore, an inteligent and sensitive singer) on reading our list would think she is a kind of Elena Obraztsova trying to sing Bach.

However, the most serious danger found in statements like these is their generalization. I am always suspicious about general statements when we are not speaking of Mathematics, because art is never univoque. This doesn't mean that one is not entitled to opinions. Opinions are always valid and their legitimacy exists when they are acknowledgedly opinions and not pseudo-truths. I have read here that Ruth Ziesak, a German soprano, should be better acquainted with German language, that Peter Kooy sings on a dim tone (I saw him sing Bach live and his voice is far from dim) and many other things that are disrepectful with artists.

For example, I read with satisfaction when Panito Iconomou talked about vibrato. As a voice student myself, the first thing one learns is that the human voice has a natural vibrato (which has nothing to do with wobble) and those not satisfied with this fact should listen to Madonna. Whatever approach that goes for a fixed tone is only going to damage the poor singer's vocal chords. It think that Bach music, which is extremely demanding on vocal soloists, requires clean flexible singing capable of tone colouring for the interpretative needs of these pieces. One doesn't have to be either Gundula Janowitz or Nancy Argenta to do it. In my opinion, based on their varied methods, both meet the requirements - and whatever distinction between them is a matter of taste. I have often refrained from posting here because, whenever I felt like saying I liked, let's say, Magdalena Kozena singing a certain cantata, I found a post where someone was practically calling a dummy whoever dared to like a performance by her or something like that. Under these circumstances, I preferred to keep my mouth shut.

Another thing that is bothersome IMO is the attack on either traditional or historically informed performances. As we know, first of all, no-one could have listened to Bach performances and, second of all, we cannot say if the undernourished choir members and unwilling instrumentists he had, for example, at St. Thomas met his ideal standards. However, we also know that no composer would compose music in such an "unperformable" way that the results would be a cacophony. So it is supposed that Bach tryed to make them sound their best with what they had to offer. Therefore, using the Vienna Philharmonic and Christa Ludwig is as legitimate as _trying_ to reproduce the atmosphere of what Bach could have wanted back in the XVIIIth. Performances are not supposed to be the ultimate truth about anything; the real happiness of music making (and listening) is that you can have varied approaches to a piece so that you could make in your mind your ideal performance. And that does not necessarily means that this approach is superior or inferior than the other.

Neil Halliday wrote (January 19, 2003):
Alex Riedlmayer wrote:
< What is 'operatic' singing? Does it have anything to do with opera? Why is it deplored and unfashionable in Bach's music?
What are angels? What do they sound like? How do you know? >
Operatic singing, in the context of this board, is the dramatic contrast of a human voice competing against and triumphing over large orchestral forces.

IMO, this is entirely inappropriate for the Bach cantatas, where the drama is in the complex intermingling of the (usually exquisite) vocal and instrumental (contrapuntal) musical lines.

What do angels sound like?

Beauty is in the ear of the listener; for me, angels, especially female ones, sing 'pure notes', with very restrained and tasteful (sometimes entirely absent) vibrato.

Robert Sherman wrote (January 19, 2003):
[To Alex Riedlmayer] I'm willing to accept that some of us may be so theologically advanced as to know what angels sound like. But I am mystified at how some, lacking time machines, are confident that they know what Bach's own singers and instrumentalists sounded like.

As I read Bach's brass writing in particular, and listen to it being attempted on original-type instruments by very skilled players, I become convinced that he wrote music as he could only hear it in his fantasies, and did not expect to hear it actually played in tune, with even scales, clean attacks, and so forth. I can't escape the thought that he wrote in the hope that at some future time, improved instruments would enable his fantasies to be realized in real sound that real audiences could hear. Of course that, like the contrary opinion, is only speculation. But if true, it would shed an ironic light on the retro-instrument movement.

Robert Sherman wrote (January 19, 2003):
[To Donald Satz] This is a philosophical difference, of course, on which I don't think there is a right or wrong opinion. My own view is that "Refiner's Fire" and "Why do the Nations" are meant to be exhibitionistic, they certainly are great fun in that mode, and Terfel's Handel disc is the best there is at that.

For whatever it may be worth, I generally don't like opera. I love oratorio, and Terfel's Handel strikes me as the ultimate at that type of oratorio.

Donald Satz wrote (January 19, 2003):
[To Robert Sherman] As Robert said above, there is no right or wrong way, but I am curious why listeners would want all instruments subordinate to the solo singer. Why not save some money and do away with the instruments all togehter? Then Terfel would be a one-man show, and we could fully concentrate on his crooning.

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 19, 2003):
Robert Sherman wrote:
< I am mystified at how some, lacking time machines, are confident that they know what Bach's own singers and instrumentalists sounded like.
As I read Bach's braswriting in particular, and listen to it being attempted on original-type instruments by very skilled players, I become convinced that he wrote music as he could only hear it in his fantasies, and did not expect to hear it actually played in tune, with even scales, clean attacks, and so forth. I can't escape the thought that he wrote in the hope that at some future time, improved instruments would enable his fantasies to be realized in real sound that real audiences could hear. Of course that,
like the contrary opinion, is only speculation. But if true, it would shed an ironic light on the retro-instrument movement. >
Bob, you must read (I hope you can understand German or get someone to translate it for you) the book "Die Blechblasinstrumete in J. S. Bachs Werken" by Gisela and Jozsef Csiba (1994 - Merseburger Verlag) ISBN 3-87537-260-3. This thorough and up-to-date analysis puts to rest the arguments and untenable theories that have been advanced by experts over the past two centuries. The Csibas have presented reasonable solutions to problems that have been plaguing those individuals who have been attempting to play 'retro-instruments' as you call them. There is now no excuse for blaring brass that play some notes much louder than others (or some so soft and out of tune that they can barely be heard) or play with bad intonation on many notes (not to mention actually skipping notes in the score or playing them down an octave.)

There is no need for special 'valve-trumpets.'

Much of the brass playing that I have heard in the various HIP recordings fall short of this goal. Yet they wish us to stand back in awe while we should be thinking "How wonderfully crude this type of playing sounds! This is just the way Bach heard brass instruments when he performed his own cantatas." These notions that have been perpetrated upon the listeners must now be dispelled. It will take time!

Alex Riedlmayer wrote (January 20, 2003):
Robert Sherman wrote:
< I'm willing to accept that some of us may be so theologically advanced as to know what angels sound like. But I am mystified at how some, lacking time machines, are confident that they know what Bach's own singers and instrumentalists sounded like. >
This also irritates me, though at least Bach's contemporaries could truthfully claim to have heard him playing his own music. Usually I see it this way: people admit the technical deficiencies in a performance, but excuse them by pointing to the deficiencies of Bach's musicians. Of course, Bach had some particularly unkind words for unproficient musicians; more importantly, we live in an age where taste, artistry, and technique have changed extraordinarily from what they were in Bach's time, let alone the generation before of which Bach had similar things to say in the Entwurff.

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 20, 2003):
Rodrigo Maffei Libonati stated:
< Sometimes I feel that someone who has never listened to Ms. Mathis, a reputed Schubertian (therefore, an intelligent and sensitive singer) on reading our list would think she is a kind of Elena Obraztsova trying to sing Bach. >
I think you may have 'hit the nail on the head.' To my ears she sounds much like "eine abgedroschene Opernsängerin" ("a well-worn-out opera singer" = this implies that the vocal control that this individual may have once had is no longer present or only appears momentarily only to be replaced with unpleasant sound production quickly thereafter.) To confirm this opinion, which I realize may put me into a minority of only one, I pulled out a recording of Johannes Brahms "Liebeslieder-Walzer" on DG 423-133 which features Edith Mathis, Brigitte Fassbaender, Peter Schreier, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with Karl Engel and Wolfgang Sawallisch on the piano(s). I remember buying this and thinking, "It can't get any better than this." I was mistaken, and this was not because of Fassbaender, Schreier, or Fischer-Dieskau. This recording features the unbelievably bad singing of Edith Mathis. She literally destroys whatever value this recording could have had for me. Her voice sounds like some of the worst sopranos that you can imagine singing at the Met, and yet she was only 43 at the time this recording was made. Here she is definitely past her prime. I simply can not imagine what her Hyperion Schubert album, which she recorded at age 54, must sound like.

It's not only her lack of vocal control that is disconcerting, she also has serious problems trying to blend her voice with the others. She always 'sticks out like a sore thumb' in the musical ensemble. Sure, she sings a little softer at times and then her voice becomes almost acceptable, but do not let her unleash the full fury of her uncontrolled voice because then she can 'kill off' even the best voices that were ever assembled to sing with her. Is this a 'prima donna' effect or something like Bryn Terfel's recording that Don Satz was trying to describe for us? Or is she simply not able to help herself without resorting to overkill. Her insistent and penetrating vibrato is only part of the problem. She lacks, in my estimation, the ability to adjust and blend with an ensemble. She maintains all the overwrought mannerisms of an opera singer even when singing compositions that demand greater simplicity.

For comparison (I am copying Brad's method here), I listened to an earlier recording of the "Liebeslieder Walzer" very likely recorded from the radio in 1959 and featuring Erna Berger, Gertrude Pitzinger (who in this recording is the 'spoiler' - she isn't mentioned on the face of CD), Walter Ludwig and Erich Wenk (who also appears in some of the Bach cantata recordings.) And guess what? Erna Berger, who was almost 60 years old when this recording was made and whose career far outshines any of Edith Mathis' achievements in opera, gives a much better performance of the soprano part in the "Liebeslieder Walzer." Hearing her at age 60, I can still understand why Furtwängler said of her that she was, "die Beste, die wir haben." She had a combination of "Stimmqualität, Gesangs-Kultur und musikalische Intelligenz" ["quality of voice, a cultured understanding of what singing is all about, and musical intelligence."] The latter should prevent a singer from continuing to sing when the voice no longer is as capable as it once was. I do not perceive these qualities in Edith Mathis' singing. This is only a personal observation and conclusion, and I do not expect others to be swayed by my opinion without having investigated this matter on their own.

Rodrigo Maffei Libonati wrote (January 20, 2003):
[To Thomas Braatz] As I have previously said, you don't need to explain why you don't like Mathis singing Bach: I don't like her performances either. However, I don't seem what singing opera has to do with it. Most Bachian singers are opera singers as well and that didn't make any difference. For example, the much praised Kurt Equiluz appeared in many performances at the Vienna State Opera, Anna Reynolds - who received warm reviews of the members of this list - sings the mezzo soprano role in Peter Maag's recording of Verdi's Luisa Miller and the role of Magdalene in Wagner's Meistersinger. Furthermore, considering Ms. Mathis career, I wouldn't say she viewed her Bach performances as a prima donna act. I would rather think she did her best, only it wasn't up to the best standards. As we say in law, in dubio pro reo. When in doubt, one should presume things in favour of the one being charged.

With compliments,

Philippe Bareille wrote (January 25, 2003):
Robert Sherman wrote:
< As I read Bach's brass writing in particular, and listen to it being attempted on original-type instruments by very skilled players, I become convinced that he wrote music as he could only hear it in his fantasies, and did not expect to hear it actually played in tune, with even scales, clean attacks, and so forth. I can't escape the thought that he wrote in the hope that at some future time, improved instruments would enable his fantasies to be realized in real sound that real audiences could h. Of course that, like the contrary opinion, is only speculation. But if true, it would shed an ironic light on the retro-instrument movement. >
I thought this kind of debate was over!
In my opinion these speculations are no longer valid. It is absurd to pretend that Bach didn't like the instruments he had at his disposal and was thinking that so-called further improvement would enable audiences to really enjoy his music in the future! Harnoncourt and other (despite strong resistance at the time) have convincingly demonstrated that original instruments are certainly most adequate for baroque music. It is very subjective actually. When you have been reared listening to Bach played on authentic instruments, you find very weird to hear the same music with modern instruments and vice versa. If Bach had had our instruments he would have composed completely different music.

Alex Riedlmayer wrote (January 25, 2003):
Philippe Bareille wrote:
< I thought this kind of debate was over! >
It is never over. People like Andrew Parrott who claim to have settled matters conclusively misplace the burden of proof. They should heed the dictum: "Judge not, that ye not be judged."

< It is absurd to pretend that Bach didn't like the instruments he had at his disposal and was thinking that so-called further improvement would enable audiences to really enjoy his music in the future! >
It is not so absurd: read Bach's comments in the Entwurff on why old(er) music no longer sounded good.

< Harnoncourt and other (despite strong resistance at the time) have convincingly demonstrated that original instruments are certainly most adequate for baroque music. >
Neither performers, scholars, nor critics should make such sweeping judgments. The passage of time has not made the enervated and out-of-tune Teldec recordings more appealing to me.

< If Bach had had our instruments he would have composed completely different music. >
This kind of statement, necessarily in the subjunctive, cannot be logically supported. It says nothing about Bach.

Hugo Saldias wrote (January 25, 2003):
[To Alex Riedlmayer] The music of Bach inspires all kinds of performers.
As far as there is a desire to "make music" what the germans called musizieren ALL instruments are Ok for me.I do prefer modern but his music goes over those details.His music moves us all it does not matter what type of instruments is played on.

And I think Bach will agree on this:
As far as you play it with your heart, IS MUSIC.

Robert Sherman wrote (January 26, 2003):
[To Philippe Bareille] Sorry, I didn't realize a member of this group is possessed of telepathy as well as time travel, and knows for sure what Bach thought.

Matthew Neugebauer wrote (January 26, 2003):
[To Robert Sherman] All right-before this turns into a spitting match, I'll add my two cents

< If Bach had had our instruments he would have composed completely different >
While the music may not be completely different, the idea that it would quite (as opposes to completely) different seems very likely to me-in fact, I can guarantee that since Bach was for sure the Avant-Garde of his times (even though he incorporated many traditions-he expanded them), he would be the Avant-Garde of whenever else he would've been.

I made the same argument when dealing with the question of if Bach had the modern instrument capabilities, he would have definitely used them-to put it in perspective, 300 years from now people will see the instruments we have today in a similar light as we see a natural trumpet. What I mean is that for Bach, the natural trumpet, the cat-gut violin, etc. (emph) were the modern instruments to Bach, just as the intruments we have now are the modern instruments to us.

To get back to the question, in the same way that film music and other styles we have today are considered modern to us, the styles that were around in Bach's time were modern to him.

My conclusion: modernity by definition moves forward every second that humanity does through time.

Ludwig wrote (January 26, 2003):
[To Matthew Neugebauer] Not intending to lNFLAME things and my usual viewpoint is from the historically accurate performance school BUT yes it is true that Bach would have composed differently had he had the same instruments that we have today and why not? However, given his writings for trumpet; instead of the what we
consider difficult to play his writings for trumpet might be considered impossible given the same proficiency of trumpet players just as Tschaikovski's Piano Concerto #1 was considered until it receIved it's premiere in Boston of all backwoods places. (no offense meant here but Boston was not the cultural place then as it is today.

As a composer, myself, I am influenced in what I write by the instruments and tone colors they possess and this is because some passages sound better on certain instruments than say on the Piano or Harpsichord (an instrument for which I write for). For example: Harp glissandi,(sp? glizzandi?) do not sound as well on other instruments in a passage from the impressionists age and even on a Harpsichord with an Orchestral Harp stop (i.e. sounds like a real harp--which the Canadian firm Sabathil often includes on their Harpsichords) the same passage does not come off as well because the technique for playing these passages can not be applied to the Harpsichord.

While Bach never is known to have written Opera per se; his operatic materials are found in the Passions which could have been acted out if he had so desired just as the people of Oberammergau perform their passion play and still do. After all an Oratorio is an opera that is no action and no scenary usually based on a religious text.

Philippe Bareille wrote (January 26, 2003):
Matthew Neugebauer wrote:
< What I mean is that for Bach, the natural trumpet, the cat-gut violin, etc. (emph) were the modern instruments to Bach, just as the intruments we have now are the modern instruments to us.
To get back to the question, in the same way that film music and other styles we have today are considered modern to us, the styles that were around in Bach's time were modern to him.
My conclusion: modernity by definition moves forward every second that humanity does through time. >
You hit the nail on the head Matthew. Whether Bach liked his instruments or not is not even the point. he composed for those instruments, however imperfect they might sound a few centuries later. It is a FACT that has nothing to do with telepathy or time travel! For example in two centuries people may find our pianos rather unsatisfactory. All the rest (e. g: what Bach thought) is merely speculation of course. I don't pretend to know what Bach thought but I am just trying to advance some arguments that many more learned musicians have developed over the past 30 years.

In the 1960's it was considered outlandish to play Bach on period instruments. In 2003 there is no denying that HIP attract large audiences and musicians. Hence, those original instruments (with better trained performers) are becoming more and more appealing to our ears and that suggests that they may be utterly right for this kind of music. But in the ends it boils down to personal taste.

Continue of this discussion on: HIP – Part 7 [General Topics]

 

Bachs verbal style

Ed Myskowski wrote (March 23, 2011):
In the course of trying, without success, to Google the Japanese words for <never give up>, I came across the following site: On Flogging (Updated)
with reference to the book:

<What was going on in Yokohama in the Meiji Era?>

which includes the comment:

<The oral language delights in courteous expressions, and one of the most remarkable features of the polished style of speech is the use of long words and circumlocutions.>

*Circumlocution* perhaps qualifies as onomatopoeia?

The description is also remarkably apt for what is preserved of Bachs writing style, from 100+ years earlier, especially in job applications and . It is worth noting that such applications for advancement were not without success, and accompanying satisfaction. From the 1739 title page of Clavierubung III:

<by Johann Sebastian Bach, Royal Polish and Electoral Saxon Court Composer, Kapellmeister and Director of the Chorus Musicus in Leipzig. Published by the Author.>

 

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Last update: ýNovember 29, 2011 ý10:35:59