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Speed Freaks do Bach

 

 

Speed Freaks Do Bach [rec.music.early, rec.music.classical.recordings]

Neb Rodgers (Clamnebula)
wrote (September 7, 2003):
Speed Freaks Do Bach
Please, stop turning sublime classical works into dance music.
By Jan Swafford
Posted Friday, September 5, 2003, at 10:37 AM PT

I'm pleased to possess, in a dusty sleeve from the cheapo-but-interesting days of Vox records, what appears to be the world's first recording of a major Baroque work on original instruments. It's Handel's "Royal Fireworks Music," recorded in 1961 with masses of keyless oboes and bassoons, serpent horns, valveless trumpets, hunting horns. I put it on for musician friends and watch them slide off the sofa laughing. It's a howling mob of splattering horns, and blatting oboes, everything gloriously out of tune. Oh, the pleasures of the really, really bad.

Nearly as great is the scholarly lecture on the flip side, in which we are informed that, believe it or not, this is exactly how Handel sounded in his time. Since brass instruments could not be played in tune, they simply carried on out of tune while everybody else was in.

Of course, our lecturer got it wrong. The game but incompetent pioneers on that recording simply didn't know how to play their horns. Listen to any decent original-instrument group of the last 30-odd years and you'll hear lucid, in-tune, elegant playing—as in of the Royal Fireworks by Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert. And the original-instrument folks have been creeping forward in history. We've seen more releases of Mozart, Beethoven, and beyond with original instruments.

read on here- http://slate.msn.com/id/2087887/

Hans Lick (A Tsar is Born) wrote (September 7, 2003):
< Nearly as great is the scholarly lecture on the flip side, in which we are informed that, believe it or not, this is exactly how Handel sounded in his time. Since brass instruments could not be played in tune, they simply carried on out of tune while everybody else was in. >
Sounds like the brass sections of nearly every Wagner opera I've ever heard, and all the early music groups I've heard play Handel to boot.

What I've never heard is an early music group playing Wagner.

Beth Diane Garfinkel wrote (September 7, 2003):
[To Hans Lick] I seem to remember that Roger Norrington and the London Classical players put out a CD of Wagner overtures some time ago.

Mason Verger wrote (September 7, 2003):
[To Clamnebula] He thinks Zinman takes fast tempos, he should listen to Roger Norrington's travesty of Beethoven.

Oliver Webber wrote (September 7, 2003):
< Roger Norrington's travesty of Beethoven. >
Well I know this is bound to produce reactions. Personally I love his Beethoven cycle, though not without reservations. However you have to remember that Norrington didn't make up the tempi - he took them from Beethoven. If you don't like them, fair enough, but think about who should take the blame!!

Ian Pace wrote (September 7, 2003):
[To Mason Verger] Why are Beethoven's own metronome markings a 'travesty'?

John Harrington wrote (September 7, 2003):
[To Hans Lick] Name the early music groups you've heard play Handel.

RX-01 wrote (September 7, 2003):
[To Ian Pace] Because in some cases the music is more beautiful when played more slowly (i.e. the 2nd movement of the 7th, the 3rd movement of the 9th)

Simon Roberts wrote (September 7, 2003):
[To RX-01] So they're a "travesty" of how you prefer to hear Beethoven?

Phil Wood wrote (September 7, 2003):
[To RX-01] Doesn't make it a "travesty of Beethoven" - just a travesty of the inaccuracies normally imposed on Beethoven (who you obviously feel got it wrong).

Adam wrote (September 7, 2003):
[To Ian Pace] I wouldnt have said a travesty, but there is plenty of evidence that Beethoven himself preferred the pieces a lot slower. Apparently he just wasnt very good at judging tempos in his head, so wrote fairly random numbers and trusted people to perform the music at a speed at which it sounded good.

David Wake wrote (September 7, 2003):
[To Adam] Such as ...?

< Apparently he just wasnt very good at judging tempos in his head, so wrote fairly random numbers and trusted people to perform the music at a speed at which it sounded good. >

Even if this is true, it does not imply that Beethoven would have preferred the pieces slower. Maybe he would have preferred them faster!

Simon Roberts wrote (September 7, 2003):
[To Adam] That would be more plausible if all his metronome markings were "too fast." It should be remembered that many of them aren't much different from what tradition has served up, while in some cases the metronome marking is *slower* than what we often get (e.g. Beethoven 7/iv).

Ajn wrote (September 7, 2003):
[To Phil Wood] I've enjoyed the recent book by Günther Schuller, The Compleate Conductor (NY/London: OUP, 1997).

Günther, who is a composer, leads a ragtime orchestra and is past presiedent of the New England Conservatory, has some unkind things to say about conductors, and matters of tempo is one of them. For the first movement of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony he timed soime 60 recordings.

Here is a sample

BEETHOVEN Half note = 108
(LvB seems to be indicating that it should go "in one." beat per measure.

Norrington H=108
Gardiner H=108
Dohnanyi H = 104
Toscanini H = 104
Furtwängler H = 98-100
Hogwood H = 96
Strauss H = 96
Walter H = 96
Stokowski (1972) h = 92
--Stokowski (1940) H=86
Dorati H = 88
Koussevitzky H=88
Mengleberg H = 86
Leinsdorf H=78 (a surprise to me! I remember him rushing everything)
Krips H=76 (as expected<g>)
Boulez H = 74

The other annoying aspect of many performances is making the opening motive to sound like triplets.Schuller also has a list of conductors who play it "not tripletized" (his term).

Thomas Wood wrote (September 7, 2003):
[To Ajn] What this list shows to the haters of "speed-freaks" is this: if you don't like Gardiner's or Toscanini's or Beethoven's tempi -- don't listen to recordings that use tempi like that. There are a wealth of Beethoven recordings out there, reflecting a variety of approaches to the music. Get Krips or Boulez and stop complaining.

Jerry Kohl wrote (September 7, 2003):
[To Thomas Wood] The really weird thing about this list, to me, is that when Boulez's series of recordings of the orchestral music of Debussy first came out (ca. 1968), he was roundly criticised for taking sluggush tempos. I remember "Fêtes" from the Nocturnes and the Rhapsody for Clarinet and Orchestra being especially slow. I was so infuriated by these tempi myself that I went to the scores to see what Debussy specified, and find out how far off Boulez was. Guess what? He was bang on Debussy's metronome markings. So why is he so far from Beethoven's specifications?

Raymond Hall wrote (September 8, 2003):
[To Jerry Kohl] In fact I'd wager he was bang on with the LvB 7th final movement too.

Also, after checking the Debussy markings and finding Boulez was spot on, did that enamour you more to Boulez's readings? Just curious.

Always err on the side of being slightly slow. And Mahler's dictum was never to play at such a speed that no note cannot be correctly articulated. Music has to breathe.

Jerry Kohl wrote (September 8, 2003):
Raymond Hall wrote: < In fact I'd wager he was bang on with the LvB 7th final movement too.
Also, after checking the Debussy markings and finding Boulez was spot on, did that enamour you more to Boulez's readings? Just curious. >
Not really, no. But it did make me think again about "received wisdom"

< Always err on the side of being slightly slow. And Mahler's dictum was never to play at such a speed that no note cannot be correctly articulated. >
Stockhausen says much the same about the marking "as fast as possible"

< Music has to breathe. >
Except, of course, for passages meant to be breathlessly fast!

Eric Grunin wrote (September 8, 2003):
Ajn wrote: < I've enjoyed the recent book by Gunther Schuller, The Compleate Conductor (NY/London: OUP, 1997).
For the first movement of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony he timed soime 60 recordings. >
The book is provocative. Certainly it provoked me to create my 'Eroica' site, which does a rather more detailed comparison of 281 performances of Beethoven's Third (the 'Eroica').

Peter D. Daniels wrote (September 8, 2003):
Raymond Hall wrote: < Always err on the side of being slightly slow. And Mahler's dictum was never to play at such a speed that no note cannot be correctly articulated. Music has to breathe. >
You (or he) should've heard last Thursday's final concert in Trinity Church's (Wall Street) summer series. This year it wasn't ten classical concerts on a single composser or theme, but "American music" – each week was a different genre, such as jazz and gospel and r&b; it opened with Ruth Laredo doing a "semi-classical" program, and closed with Richard Auldon Clark's Manhattan Chamber Orchestra (from Manhattan
School of Music, IIRC, or maybe it's Mannes). In the six previous seasons he had given one or two programs with one or another of his orchestras, and he is known for doing everything fast and loud.

The program was MacDowell's Indian Suite and Copland's Lincoln Portrait (Judy Collins, speaker). The MacDowell certainly wouldn't be worth sitting through again, and Ms. Collins was very badly miked (she's now a sweet little old lady -- must be close to 70). The applause died out and the audience was leaving, but Maestro Clark came out and started the encore anyway -- "Stars and Stripes Forever." If the usual tempo is 132, this must have been at least 148; the cymbalist dropped the cymbals, and the glockenspielist literally couldn't play the little twiddles in the first strain fast enough. The most awful SSF ever.

Jerry Kohl wrote (September 8, 2003):
Peter T. Daniels wrote: < The applause died out and the audience was leaving, but Maestro Clark came out and started the encore anyway -- "Stars and Stripes Forever." If the usual tempo is 132, this must have been at least 148; the cymbalist dropped the cymbals, and the glockenspielist literally couldn't play the little twiddles in the first strain fast enough. The most awful SSF ever. >
LOL! He was probably anxious to finish while there was still anybody in the hall! In Seattle we call it an "ambulatory standing ovation" when the audience starts heading for the car-park before the performers can start their first encore.

John Harrington wrote (September 8, 2003):
[To Jerry Kohl] In Seattle, they call it the car-park??

Daniel Kolle wrote (September 8, 2003):
RX-01 thought hard and said: < Because in some cases the music is more beautiful when played more slowly (i.e. the 2nd movement of the 7th, the 3rd movement of the 9th) >
I am not a fan of slower tempos. This is why I hate the older (1980s) Bernstein. Play it fast, damn it!

Eric Grunin wrote (September 8, 2003):
Jerry Kohl wrote: < So why is he [Boulez] so far from Beethoven's specifications? >
I heard that Boulez was experimenting, seeing what would happen if he made the tempo relationships between the movements strict:

whole-measure in I =
eighth-note in II =
whole-measure in III =
half-note in IV.

The idea doesn't seem to have caught on.

RX-01 wrote (September 8, 2003):
Daniel Kolle wrote: < I am not a fan of slower tempos. This is why I hate the older (1980s) Bernstein. Play it fast, damn it! >
I'm not a fan of either slow or fast. I like both. However, what I don't get is why should one try to reproduce the ugly, dry period sound in Beethoven's music. Both Rattle (only in some instances, ie. 3i) and Zinman have proved that Beethoven can be play very fast without loosing the rich string sound.

Simon Roberts wrote (September 8, 2003):
RX-01 says... < I'm not a fan of either slow or fast. I like both. However, what I don't get is why should one try to reproduce the ugly, dry period sound in Beethoven's music. >
Some of us like that "ugly, dry period sound"....

Both Rattle (only in some instances, ie. 3i) and
< Zinman have proved that Beethoven can be play very fast without loosing the rich string sound. >
You think Zinman's strings sound "rich"?

Jerry Kohl wrote (September 9, 2003):
John Harrington wrote: < In Seattle, they call it the car-park?? >
No, no, no! Please try and pay attention! In Seattle, we call it an "ambulatory standing ovation". (Where on *earth* did you get the idea we call it a car-park? ;-)

Jerry Kohl wrote (September 9, 2003):
[To Eric Grunin] That certainly seems a possibility.

< The idea doesn't seem to have caught on. >
With other conductors, you mean? Perhaps not. But it is a cornerstone of at least two highly reputed books on the theory of form in tonal music, which adopt the opposite tack: by studying the tempos and/or durations of the performances of symphonies, concertos, sonatas, etc. a proportional relationship corresponding to the key-relations may be discovered. I think the idea is that these relationships occur whether the performer is aware of them or not., however

Jerry Kohl wrote (September 9, 2003):
RX-01 wrote: < I'm not a fan of either slow or fast. I like both. However, what I don't get is why should one try to reproduce the ugly, dry period sound in Beethoven's music. >
I couldn't agree with you more. The beautiful, vibrant, warm period sound is much preferable.

Alan M. Watkins wrote (September 9, 2003):
[To Neb Rodgers] I cannot argue with your comments because most of the recordings I do not know although I do wonder how a player in 2003 (and one born in the previous century) can play as a player of the 17th or 18th century even if he is using an instrument of that period. The player, of course, cannot be of that period and surely the approach would therefore be different?

I am not clear in my own mind as to what authenticity is but a month or so ago I heard an "authentic" performance of Ma Vlast on CD (London Classical Players). This is a work I have probably played 150 times and I would humbly submit that this recording is not authentic.

For a start it ignores virtually all of Smetana's dynamic markings and there are dreadful wrong entries all the way through it. In movement II (Vltava) the timpanist virtually plays the opposite of what is written (and over plays the crescendi), in movement III the cymbal player has no idea what he is about and a wind player is a bar late and in Movement V the timpani solo is absolutely dreadful (it is so dreadful, I will blame the recording engineer).

If THAT is historical authenticity I will stick to how we play it today. The horns are badly adrift in the finale (two false entries by my ears) but that is not my section.

I suppose if your argument is right then the London Classical Players performance IS authentic.

I can tell you we would be "laughing off the sofa" here.

Brendan R. Wehrung wrote (September 9, 2003):
Jerry Kohl writes: < No, no, no! Please try and pay attention! In Seattle, we call it an "ambulatory standing ovation". (Where on *earth* did you get the idea we call it a car-park? ;-) >
Watching "Morse" on A & E?

Oliver Webber wrote (September 9, 2003):
[To Alan M. Watkins] Well, I haven't heard the recording you describe, but your description is certainly not a description of "authentic" performance, just of a rotten performance!! There are of course, good and bad performers in the field of authentic performance, just as there are in modern performance. I maintain though that the best performances with period instruments can and do achieve sounds and interpretations that are impossible to match with modern instruments. Of course they will be different from 18th (or 19th) century performances - we can never know exactly how they sounded. But the instruments teach us so much about the kinds of sounds, phrasings, articulations etc that were possible, and the treatise teach us a lot about what was explicitly desired that we can go some way towards "pretending" to be a performer of another era, which, while it is never going to be the only or "right" way to approach music, is one thta I have found fascinating and hugely musically rewarding.

Oliver Webber wrote (September 9, 2003):
< and the treatise teach us a lot about what was explicitly >
that was meant to be "treatises" of course

Jerry Kohl wrote (S9, 2003):
[To Oliver Webber] Well said, Oliver. To which I might that all of the "mistakes" mentioned assume that the present published score is accurate. While it does seem unlikely that entrances a bar late and/or early can have escaped notice for over a hundred years, only now to be rectified in such a way as to be conspicuous to those long familiar with the "erroneous" score, certainly the question of dynamic markings may be controversial, if the performance has gone back to a manuscript version which may have been shy of them. If this is the case (and I emphasize "if"), it raises the serious question, however, of how much credence should be put in a pre-publication manuscript, in cases where the composer was responsible for corrections to the published score.

William M. Klimon wrote (September 9, 2003):
Any thoughts on this: http://slate.msn.com/id/2087887

Ian Pace wrote (September 10, 2003):
[To Alan M. Watkins] I doubt if any would call the things you rightly decry 'historically authentic'; ignoring the dynamic markings in particular would be quite the reverse. I don't know, is it possible that another edition has been found in which the dynamics are different? Whatever, one can criticise substandard playing with some degree of objectivity quite independently of whether the performance claims to be HIP or not, and such things can equally be found in many more mainstream performances.

Alan M. Watkins wrote (September 10, 2003):
[Ti Ian Pace] You may be correct but the edition I know is based on Mr Smetana's scrawled MSS. So far as I know there is only one but if there is another edition that has been found, I can say that Movement II makes no sense at all.

Smetana was a brilliant writer for percussion (one of the very finest in the business) and one of his distinguishing characteristics is that he almost always gets the "balance" with other sections absolutely spot on. Ma Vlast contains some brilliant writing for the timpani and is a work that calls upon a timpanist to exercise virtually every technical aspect that there is for the instrument.

The original poster took issue with the standard of "authentic" playing in the recording of Handel. I have "attempted" countless historical performances but like "mainstream performances" sometimes they are great and sometimes they are not.

It's the PERFORMANCE that counts (in my opinion) not whether it is historical or modern. We are equally capable of fouling up either.

Matthew H. Fields wrote (September 11, 2003):
A Tsar Is Born wrote: < Sounds like the brass sections of nearly every Wagner opera I've ever heard, and all the early music groups I've heard play Handel to boot.
What I've never heard is an early music group playing Wagner. >
Louis Dean Nurenberger at Oberlin led an array of recorders, shawms, and rankets, bells, and singers through parts of Orff's Carmina Burana on an early-music Collegium Musicum concert back in about 1983. It rocked.

Matthew H. Fields wrote (September 11, 2003):
RX-01 wrote: < Because in some cases the music is more beautiful when played more slowly (i.e. the 2nd movement of the 7th, the 3rd movement of the 9th) >
Faster tempi work okay in a dry room, though.

Matthew H. Fields wrote (September 11, 2003):
Jerry Kohl wrote: < The really weird thing about this list, to me, is that when Boulez's series of recordings of the orchestral music of Debussy first came out (ca. 1968), he was roundly criticised for taking sluggush tempos. I remember " Ftes" from the Nocturnes and the Rhapsody for Clarinet and Orchestra being especially slow. I was so infuriated by these tempi myself that I went to the scores to see what Debussy specified, and find out how far off Boulez was. Guess what? He was bang on Debussy's metronome markings. So why is he so far from Beethoven's specifications? >
Ummm, something about French and German sensibilities?

Ryan Taneka wrote (September 11, 2003):
[To Neb Rodgers] Oh, I thought this was a drug related article. :(

Jerry Kohl wrote (September 11, 2003):
[To Matthew H. Fields] The thought did occur to me, then I remembered that Boulez has been famously described as "the most German of all French composers", and I got a little confused about why he should be sticking two fingers up to Beethoven.

Jerry Kohl wrote (September 11, 2003):
MWindi4108 wrote: < Perhaps I can put in my tuppence worth. From my own experience it is very difficult sometimes to accept hearing a piece of music performed differently when you have known and loved it as it was performed. One thing that Norrington and selected others did was to strip the accretion of years from such works and try to recreate the original. Some find this interesting and exciting, others see it as tampering with tradition. It is no different from seeing a great painting after cleaning. Some people find the vivid colours just too much to handle, others are suddenly aware of the vibrancy thus revealed. >
A better analogy might be to say that it is like visiting Milan to see Da Vinci's "Last Supper", after having known it only from copies painted in acrylics on a tastefully textured plastic surface. But that might be construed as a provocative comparison ;-)

Ken Moore wrote (September 12, 2003):
[To Jerry Kohl] Not so much provocative (I don't mind if you dislike Norrington's approach, if that's what you mean) but not bearing detailed investigation. Many of Da Vinci's other paintings were produced successfully by slow and careful work that resembles Beethoven's compositional processes, but in Da Vinci's time good murals were produced only by fast workers who could paint onto wet plaster before it dried. Some of Beethoven's early work is a trifle short of inspiration, but he never produced such a technical disaster as the "Last Supper".

Nightingale wrote (September 12, 2003):
[To Ryan Tanaka] LOL!!

Michael Pan wrote (September 12, 2003):
Oliver Webber wrote: < Well I know this is bound to produce reactions. Personally I love his Beethoven cycle, though not without reservations. However you have to remember that Norrington didn't make up the tempi - he took them from Beethoven. If you don't like them, fair enough, but think about who should take the blame!! >
I like Norrington's Beethoven, too - both live on an disk.

If you would like to send a private email to me, please take out the TRASH, so to speak. Please do not email me something which you also posted.

Neb Rodgers wrote (September 12, 2003):

[To Ryan Tanaka] If music be the drug of life, play on.

Ken Moore wrote (September 12, 2003):
Jerry Kohl writes: < If you prefer (and if it will help you to grasp my point better), please substitute another painting of your choice--say, Rembrandt's Night Watch, or Picasso's Guernica. I'm not saying that you will necessarily prefer it to the copy, but at least you know it is what the artist painted. >
Thanks for the clarification, and I agree with your aesthetic view.


Speed Freaks Do Bach [alt.music.j-s-bach]

Charles Francis
wrote (September 9, 2003):
Interesting article at: http://slate.msn.com/id/2087887

Sybrand Bakker wrote (September 9, 2003):
[To Charles Francis] Someone prejudiced on a crusade, obviously. Now that does sound familiar, Charles, does it? Found another hobby horse?

Charles Francis wrote (September 10, 2003):
Sybrand Bakker wrote: < Someone prejudiced on a crusade, obviously. >
What is the basis for that claim, Sybrand.

< Now that does sound familiar, Charles, does it? >
'prejudiced on a crusade' does ring a bell, Sybrand.

< Found another hobby horse? >
Non Sequitur.

Max Schmeder wrote (September 10, 2003):
Brisk tempos could have been an outgrowth of delegating little time to rehearsal. Brisk sight-reading with an ensemble artificially injects an intensity that otherwise takes a long time to cultivate.

Max Schmeder wrote (September 12, 2003):
Regarding my earlier complaints about Brandenburg velocities..Of the famously fast performances: MAK, AAM, and La Stravaganza, it is clear to my ears that La Stravaganza plays at superior level, so if you do like fast,that is the way to go.

BTW, I'm on the lookout for a incredible performance of the 4th concerto, or at least the first movement. I heard it on the radio a few years back. It's HIP and the treatment of the emergent notes is just so sensual, it's breathtaking. (and the tempo is not too rapid :) If anyone thinks they know what ensemble I may have heard, please let me know.

Greg M. Silverman wrote (September 12, 2003):
[To Max Schmeder] Il Giardino Armonico perhaps? Their version meets all your criteria...

Max Schmeder wrote (September 13, 2003):
[To Greg M. Silverman] Will check it out, thanks for the tip.

ps. Since I don't have money to burn I hope you're really think of that movement in particular and not just recommending your favorite Brandenburg set! :-)

Greg M. Silverman wrote (September 13, 2003):
[To Max Schmeder] Ha! You busted me! I love their intrepretation of all the Brandenburgs, but it may be the one in question. Check it out on Amazon.com.

Max Schmeder wrote (September 18, 2003):
[To Greg M. Silverman] I will! Thanks,

Davyd wrote (September 11, 2003):
[To Charles Francis] Hypothesis: The few remaining classical radio stations have to play the shortest recordings they can find so they have enough time for commercials. Performers who aren't already world-famous and want their stuff to get played on the radio will therefore compete to release the shortest recording ever of a given piece.


Speed Freaks Do Bach [BCML]

Charles Francis
wrote (September 10, 2003):
I guess many Bach connoisseurs will empathize with the intellectual thrust of this article: http://slate.msn.com/id/2087887

Peter Bloemendaal wrote (September 10, 2003):
[To Charles Francis] Well, I don't. What the distinguished author shows is that one recording, no doubt a live one, from the early stages of performing baroque music on period instruments, sounds terribly. That is not fair because musicians at the time still had a lot to learn. Besides, today we have digital recording techniques. We do not have to record live or at least long musical sequences without interruption. Moreover, this music example does not contribute anything to the point the critic is trying to make. Ridicule first and then admit that later performances on period instruments are better. It's like slapping someone in the face and later, without apologizing, saying the guy isn't that bad after all. The writer simply does not like HIP performances. I know both Rilling's and Gardiner's SMP. Both their opening choruses are quite convincing and the respective tempi and dynamics a matter of interpretation. There are other movements where Rilling is faster than Gardiner. It is never a matter of "speed for speed's sake". The example of Beethoven's 6th I do not find very convincing either. I prefer Karajan's tempo but find his interpretation boring and the recording technically not very satisfying. I think Hogwood is a little too fast. The recording sounds fine but what bothers me most is not the pace but the excessive use of dynamics, which has nothing to do with tempo or dance. I do not know how old the honourable author is but he sounds obsolete to me.

Uri Golomb wrote (September 10, 2003):
Peter Bloemendaal wrote: < I know both Rilling's and Gardiner's SMP. Both their opening choruses are quite convincing and the respective tempi and dynamics a matter of interpretation. There are other movements where Rilling is faster than Gardiner. It is never a matter of "speed for speed's sake". >
But which Rilling performance are you referring to? I don't know either of Rilling's SMPs, but I do know enough of his other recordings to guess how different his two recordings of the SMP probably are; and my guess is that his 1990s recording features almost invariably faster tempi, sharper articulation and thinner-sounding textures than his 1970s one. In short, Rilling seems to incorporate much HIP practice into his own.

I know that Gardiner's SMP has a reputation as being too bouncy and cheerful. I can understand why, but for the most part, I disagree (if you want a truly bouncy "Kommt, ihr toechter", try Peter Schreier's recording) -- in fact, many movements in Gardiner's performance, including the opening and closing choruses of part 1, are highly dramatic, more so than most "modern-instrument" perforamnces I know (cf. http://homepages.kdsi.net/~sherman/golomb1.htm, which includes my comparison of Gardiner's and Furtwangler's SMPs).

Peter Bloemendaal wrote (September 10, 2003):
Peter Bloemendaal wrote: << I know both Rilling's and Gardiner's SMP. Both their opening choruses are quite convincing and the respective tempi and dynamics a matter of interpretation. There are other movements where Rilling is faster than Gardiner. It is never a matter of "speed for speed's sake". >>
Uri Golomb wrote: < But which Rilling performance are you referring to? >
The comparison of Rilling and Gardiner was an allusion to the music examples provided by Jan Swafford in the Slate article. So this was about the 1970's Rilling. I do not possess that recording, but I have the one from 1994, which as you rightfully remarked, shows that Rilling had (nilly-willy or consciously) undergone many influences of the so-called HIP performers. The '94 Rilling and the '89 Gardiner SMP almost have the same duration. Rilling is 3 minutes faster. Their opening choruses have the same tempo. Rilling's "Aus Liebe" is a bit faster, Gardiner's "Erbarme dich" is faster, Rilling's "Können Tränen meiner Wangen" is faster and Gardiner's "Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder" is faster. The idea that either of them tried to break a speed record or produce a dance version of SMP is too ridiculous for words.

Alex Riedlmayer wrote (September 10, 2003):
Peter Bloemendaal wrote: < Well, I don't. What the distinguished author shows is that one recording, no doubt a live one, from the early stages of performing baroque music on period instruments, sounds terribly. That is not fair because musicians at the time still had a lot to learn. >
Saying that the players "still had a lot to learn" doesn't excuse the ugly sounds that can be heard on old recordings. (And I don't hear recordings of live events having significantly worse playing than studio recordings.)

< Besides, today we have digital recording techniques. We do not have to record live or at least long musical sequences without interruption. >
Recordings are still made those ways. Some fanatics prefer to hear historical events recorded in single takes, with applause preserved.

< I know both Rilling's and Gardiner's SMP. Both their opening choruses are quite convincing and the respective tempi and dynamics a matter of interpretation. There are other movements where Rilling is faster than Gardiner. It is never a matter of "speed for speed's sake". >
Which Rilling recording? The article refers to the former; I can refer to the latter.

More recent recordings of Baroque and Classical music suffer from noisy and numerous figured chord instruments.

< I do not know how old the honourable author is but he sounds obsolete to me. >
Are you insulting him?

Bradley Lehman wrote (September 10, 2003):
Peter Bloemendaal wrote: < (...) The writer simply does not like HIP performances. (...) I do not know how old the honourable author is but he sounds obsolete to me. >
Clearly. S/he obviously has no willingness to listen to performances that are based on a metrical structure up one level (e.g. minims as the main beat, where more sentimental performances from earlier in the 20th century focused too much on the crotchets). The tempo may still be slow in character, and quite expressive, at a different metrical level. Reading the article I got the impression that s/he simply didn't want to hear something s/he wasn't already accustomed to, having "learned" the pieces long ago.

(Also relevant to this same topic: Zander conducting Beethoven.)

And the following sentence from the article suggests that s/he does not understand Vivaldi, either. "We're seeing the Vivaldi-ization of Bach: gloom banished, minimal v, implacably crisp, bouncy." That's quite a shallow assessment of the Red Priest and his music.


Interesting article on HIP by Jan Swafford [Bach_Cantatas]

Douglas Neslund wrote (September 11, 2003):
Speed Freaks Do Bach
Please, stop turning sublime classical works into dance music.
By Jan Swafford

I'm pleased to possess, in a dusty sleeve from the cheapo-but-interesting days of Vox records, what appears to be the world's first recording of a major Baroque work on original instruments. It's Handel's "Royal Fireworks Music," recorded in 1961 with masses of keyless oboes and bassoons, serpent horns, valveless trumpets, hunting horns. I put it on for musician friends and watch them slide off the sofa laughing. It's a and blatting oboes, everything gloriously out of tune. Oh, the pleasures of the really, really bad.

Nearly as great is the scholarly lecture on the flip side, in which we are informed that, believe it or not, this is exactly how Handel sounded in his time. Since brass instruments could not be played in tune, they simply carried on out of tune while everybody else was in.

Of course, our lecturer got it wrong. The game but incompetent pioneers on that recording simply didn't know how to play their horns. Listen to any decent original-instrument group of the last 30-odd years and you'll hear lucid, in-tune, elegant playing-as in of the Royal Fireworks by Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert. And the original-instrument folks have been creeping forward in history. We've seen more releases of Mozart, Beethoven, and beyond with original instruments.

In the process we hear scholarship go right and we hear it go wrong. Sometimes, we hear it go nuts. After all, research can take us only so far. We can't really know what music sounded like before recordings arrived, and the historical data is vague and contradictory. The older the music, the more uncertainty. As the early-music movement matured from its first burgeoning in the '70s, the exponents 'fessed up: Their original claims of authentic performance" gave way to the more modest "historically informed performance" (aka HIP). Musicians make guesses informed by the evidence, further informed by their sense of musicality. It's musicality that makes the thing work or not. Our Handel performers guessed wrong, and they lacked the chops to do even the wrong thing right.

The first really good original-instrument orchestra I heard was the Academy of Ancient Music, in the late '70s. The recording was Mozart's "G Minor Symphony," and my jaw dropped in the first bars. The familiar opening theme sounded nervous and muscular rather than logy and saxophonish, as it does with big modern orchestras. Wow! I thought as the piece went on, You can actually hear every note in the score. It was as if that long-familiar piece had been restored and renewed. I was instantly an enthusiast.

After conceding much of the Bach-and-backward repertoire to original instruments, mainstream orchestras began to get hip to HIP. In the '80s atsymphony performances in Boston and elsewhere, you started to see much of the string section disappear for Mozart and Beethoven. As Glenn Gould played Bach aspiring to make his piano sound like a harpsichord, modern orchestras began to aim for a leaner and cleaner sound in the Classical-period repertoire.

Ah, the '70s and early '80s. That was the good time, when performers often beautifully balanced the scholarly and the expressive. This is the period of some treasured HIP recordings, like Nicholas Harnoncourt's Monteverdi Vespers." Then, in the '90s, in the midst of its triumph, for a lot of us early music and its influences went sour. Lean and clean turned mean.

Sometimes textures got so slimmed down they became anorexic, as with the conductors who started doing big Bach choral works with one singer on each part. The more obvious extremes, though, have to do with tempo. Clock the last 40 years and you'll find the beat getting relentlessly faster. The scholarly rationalizations are more sophisticated now, but somehow what they invariably add up to is: You can't be skinny enough or fast enough.

There's a speed sweepstakes going on. Six years ago in Boston I heard a Bach "B Minor Mass" from which slow tempos had been essentially banished. No more grandeur, no more sublimity, no more sweetness, no more tragedy- all qualities in which the "B Minor" is incomparably rich. Or used to be. In this performance the speeds were brisk, brisker, breakneck. In the Crucifixus" movement, Christ trotted all the way to Golgotha, pumping his cross.

I thought that was the last freaking straw, everything fast as possible, until two years ago I heard a conductor take movements of the "B Minor" faster than possible, chorus and orchestra scrambling desperately to catch up. In the crowd after the performance I heard one guy exclaim, "I didn't know Bach was so bouncy!"; another, an organist no less, wondered, "I don't get it. What's the big deal about that piece?" The most trenchant comment was from an older composer, who sighed as I passed, "Too bad. It really is the greatest music in the world."

There's incompetent bad, which as in my old Handel recording can be highly entertaining. And there's sophisticated bad, which is just depressing. There s no way to say to what degree those Bach tempos were "authentic." The main basis for those tempos is fashion, not hard evidence. What can be confidently said is that a two-hour religious work of often tragic import containing little or no slow music is inexpressive, unmusical, and silly.

We're seeing the Vivaldi-ization of Bach: gloom banished, minimal variety, implacably crisp, bouncy. And the slim 'n' speedy virus has infected good conductors. When the well-reviewed 1989 John Eliot Gardiner recording of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" appeared, as a Gardiner fan I ran to get it. This time the great chorus of lamentation that begins the "Passion" was indeed an occasion of mourning: I'd blown 20 bucks. Gardiner takes the chorus of lamentation at near-gigue tempo. Jesus is crucified, his performance cries. Let's dance!

To see what I mean with the piece's mournful opening movement, compare the by the distinguished Bachian Helmuth Rilling with . Gardiner's is nearly 20 percent faster-and Rilling's was faster than Herbert von Karajan's and Otto
Klemperer's recordings of a few years earlier.

What it amounts to is that the influence of the early-music movement is turning everything into dance music. And the virus is spreading in the repertoire. Compare the tempos of Beethoven symphonies in the classic '60s Karajan set with a recent "authentic" set by David Zinman: Nearly every movement of every symphony is several notches faster in the newer one. In addition, the musical phrasings, the commas and colons and semicolons, are glossed over in favor of momentum.

Let's compare beginnings of Beethoven's "Sixth Symphony," the "Pastoral," whose first movement is titled "Awakening of happy feelings on arriving in the country." Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic in the 1960s. Now here's from a late-'80s original-instrument set by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music. I admire that band, that conductor, and much of this set, but I don't know what planet Hogwood's "Pastoral" is on. Our traveler is jogging too fast for happy feelings-he's anaerobic. Hogwood's tempo is nearly three metronome clicks faster than Karajan's, whose tempo is on the brisk side for his time. But Karajan wouldn't even rate on today's dog track.

There's something more troubling going on here, beyond tempos in classical music. I think people don't want any music to be serious anymore. It's all rock 'n' roll now. Many people know mainly dance music, and that's all they want to know-even in classical pieces. There's an increasing disconnect between music and meaning. I saw that in the big New York rock concert in memorial of 9/11. In a way I understand it: When tragedies happen, creative people respond by doing what they do. But in a larger sense that concert disturbed me. What it said was, Three thousand people have died. Therefore, let us shake our booties.

The old saw to mind that for everything there is a season. There's a time to shake that thing and a time to refrain from shaking it. Maybe one of the times to refrain is right after a catastrophe. Rocking in response to disaster mixes up the purposes of mourning and getting down, which belong to different seasons. Some kinds of music are there for serious moments, others to party with, and to erase the difference is to erase the purpose and integrity of any music.

The moral here is that in the absence of solid evidence, and sometimes in the presence of it, scholars are apt to believe what they want to believe, as whispered to them by fashion. The lecturer on my old Handel recording probably believed in progress, so it suited him that old instruments sounded lousy. When Wanda Landowska started playing harpsichord many years ago, some believers in progress were outraged that she'd resurrected an "obsolete," inferior" instrument. These days, literally and figuratively, scholars like to dance; fast and lean is the answer to everything. Perhaps some performers are just bored with the repertoire, so they inject it with speed. Maybe those performers should give the music a rest, because a lot of listeners aren't bored with the music. We'd like strong, engaged, passionate performances rather than the Bach and Beethoven Lite we're getting.

I hope someday our greyhoundish conductors will stop and smell the flowers: rediscover that tempo has something to do with meaning and expression and that a scrawny sound isn't always the right sound. I hope they'll let music be tragic and intense and sumptuous again, when it needs to be. For myself, I'm swearing off live performances of Bach for a while, until conductors have worn themselves out chasing that rabbit.

Jan Swafford is a composer and writer living in Massachusetts. He is the author of Johannes Brahms: A Biography and Charles Ives: A Life with Music.

Gene Hanson wrote (September 11, 2003):
[To Douglas Neslund] Thanks for the Jan Swafford article, Doug. (All you HIPsters please take notice.)

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Last update: ıNovember 14, 2003 ı13:41:01