Prima la Musicologia – Bach Performance in Crisis

Returning home from a recent performance in London of Bach’s “Passion According to St. Matthew”, I was prompted to wonder whether I would ever again hear the opening chorus sung in the manner of a funeral ode (“Come, my daughters, help me lament”), or whether I will be stuck with the lilting Allegretto that I have come to expect, evoking an altogether more cheerful attitude to death than I can sympathize with. Personal preferences apart, it struck me how difficult it has become to experience the more expansive, lyrical and expressive sides to Bach’s music – a recitative that is given space to breath, a cadence that seems meaningful, an aria or chorus that communicates the text, not just the musicology.

There have always been differing opinions as to how music should be performed. The idea of historically informed practice has over the past few decades become a respected and successful alternative to more traditional views, drawing inspiration from historical research and the characteristics of original instruments. In doing so, it has revealed many new possibilities of interpretation and added even more variety to the panoply of attitudes and perspectives of our time. The historically informed view has achieved particular success in the baroque and classical repertoire, influencing to no small degree how musicians in general perform this music and enriching our awareness both of the repertoire and of the potential it contains.

Within this area of music, the works of Johann Sebastian Bach occupy a special place. For well over a century, he has universally been regarded as the pre-eminent composer of the baroque era, and his music influenced the great works of the 19th century more significantly than that of any other baroque composer. He remained a towering figure throughout the 20th century for audiences and musicians alike, and his music was interpreted by virtually all great performers in possibly the greatest variety of styles any composer has ever been subjected to. From the burning operatic passion of the conductor Willem Mengelberg to the tenderness of the Adolf Busch Chamber Orchestra, the rhythmic vitality of Glenn Gould and the austerity of the Philippe Herreweghe’s Collegium Vocale, Bach’s music has served to reflect every aspect of human existence and every outlook on its future.

More recently, an unusual situation has arisen. While instrumentalists around the globe continue to perform Bach in the accustomed variety of styles, Bach’s orchestral and choral works seem to be suffering a sad neglect. This area of his works has traditionally been performed as frequently as any other area, although perhaps by a more select number of interpreters. Symphony orchestras never were quite as likely to showcase the Orchestral Suites or the Passions to the same degree as pianists were likely to play the occasional Partita or Prelude and Fugue. Nowadays the great orchestral and choral works seem to have become dominated almost completely by historically informed ensembles, and on the rare occasions when a major symphony orchestra undertakes such works it often strenuously attempts to become such an ensemble, to the degree that Simon Rattle made the Berlin Philharmonic almost become the Sixteen when performing the St John Passion some years ago. Any lover of Bach wishing to enjoy the annual Passion performances in London over the past years will have had little variety in style to pick from beside historically informed ensembles or those imitating them. Is it not reassuring to be able to choose between Bernard Haitink and Roger Norrington when experiencing Beethoven’s Symphonies? Should we not have a similar choice when hearing Bach’s B Minor Mass? Can there be so little scope for difference in a work of such depth and sophistication?

It can be argued that there is not a lack of variety in style, but that the music is being played in the correct style, and that previous or other styles of playing are mistaken or ill-informed. One often hears talk of “dated” or “outdated” styles, referring to performances that use large ensembles, too much expression or certain types of phrasing and articulation. It is undoubtedly true that there are always aspects of playing that are associated with modernity or with the past, and that, to a degree every time is dominated by broad parameters of style, both in respect to composition and to interpretation. However, this has in the past half century allowed for a much greater breadth of views than seems permissible or advisable today.

Moreover, it only seems to apply to a certain area of repertoire. The fact that we can today hear Grigory Sokolov, Daniel Barenboim and Murray Perahia play Bach’s Keyboard Partitas, but also Christophe Rousset, Lars Ulrich Mortensen or Masaaki Suzuki must be a positive thing; it is surely inspiring to be able to choose between Hilary Hahn and Rachel Podger, or Yo-Yo Ma and Jean-Guihen Queyras. Why do we seem to be happy to acknowledge the existence of, or even to enjoy Perahia’s Bach recordings, but greet the possibility of a large-scale expressive and slow St Matthew Passion with a sharp intake of breath, muttering something about “old fashioned” and “romanticized”? Is it not a question of what one finds in the music and how one wishes to communicate it, rather than of modern or old fashioned?

Ultimately, it must be a question of quality. Was the performance moving, did it convey the meaning of the words, did it communicate something beyond the notes? Bach performances from the past are often accused of being mannered in their slow tempi, their use of vibrato and their tempo fluctuations. But is it not mannered when an aria with the text “Penance and remorse grind the sinful heart in twain” is set to a brisk dance-like accompaniment, just because we are afraid of sounding romantic? Are we not robbing ourselves of some wonderful musical experiences by restricting our view of these towering works so severely? Surely it is not outdated to have differing views on the priorities of music interpretation, to uncover new potential in the works. Is it not true that not only does every time have its own Bach, but many Bachs; the genius of Bach lies not only in the beauty and intelligence of his music, but also in the inexhaustible depth of its possibilities.

Can I therefore enter a plea to programme planners at the South Bank Centre and the Barbican for a Matthew Passion conducted by Valery Gergiev, or a B Minor Mass by Daniel Barenboim, just to confirm to us that not every baroque piece in 3/4 or 6/8 time is a brisk dance, that recitatives need not always follow a strict tempo, or that Bach could be at least as expressive and descriptive as any other composer. After all, we are told that we live in a multicultural world where different attitudes and beliefs must coexist and be nurtured – let us apply this to the great orchestral and choral works by one of the greatest composers who ever lived.

First published in Musical Opinion, July/August 2008


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