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Friday, September 21, 2007

Motetten, Mo' Problems

Next time you want to stir up a whole pot of crazy, just start talking "performance practice" with a roomful of Bach queens. Sure, it might start out as a civil, intellectual conversation, but before you know it, they're all shouting Authentic This, and Authentic That, Correct This, and then the hair-pulling starts. Of course, by Bach queens, I mean those other Bach queens. JoJo and I may have a dozen different Goldberg Variationses or so, despite living in a hovel, but we are ideologically pure. Completely. To show you what I mean, let's first watch this YouTube video, posted a little under one year ago, of period-instrument veteran Ton Koopman playing Bach's "little fugue" in G minor:

Wow! Pretty exciting, right? Koopman adds a few subtle ornaments, and takes the fugue at a breakneck speed (but not so fast you can't tell what's going on); elegant, but with plenty of gusto--in other words, some of the best musicianship that the current fashion in historically informed performance has to offer.

And now let's take just a glance at the YouTube viewer comments. Go ahead, click here.

Did you see that? There are THREE HUNDRED SIXTY FIVE COMMENTS on that video, as of this writing, most of them weighing in on an absurdly vitriolic argument between just a handful of commenters. (I'm especially pleased to note the dude who, to cement his Bach cred, cites his first-name-basis relationship with organ virtuoso Virgil Fox, pictured above. Another glimpse into Virj's unorthodox Bach performance practice may be had here.) Why the hysterics? Why does everybody have so much invested in this shouting match? What's so great about making "correct" music?

One of the most important shapers of modern Bach performance practice was Wanda Landowska, the first star harpsichordist of the twentieth century. Bach queens that we are, we've just bought a DVD documentary about her, basically just for the performance footage:

If I may quote a pair of Koopman Kommenters,

Too bad the camera kept on cutting away RIGHT when I wanted to see how something was done Yes, this is typical almost all classical music films (as well as pornos :-) )

But these frustrations aside, I hope you can see why JoJo & I had to have a DVD of Landowska. Look at those fingers! Even if she had not been such a pioneer, she would still have been one of the last century's greatest keyboardists. But what's interesting about Landowska's greatness, for the purposes of this blog, is that she was neither "authentic" nor "correct" in her performance practice. She was certainly sure of herself--"You play Bach your way," she famously joked, "and I'll play him his way"--but her custom-built harpsichord was enormous, with a steel frame and a penetrating tone, dwarfing in size and sound anything that Bach would have used. And if memory serves, her Bach-his-way mot referred not to the use of harpsichord but to her strange, square, and almost certainly mistaken rhythms in the first fugue of the Well-Tempered Clavier (big giant mp3 available here).

Still, I say that she was a superior artist not just despite but, in part, because of these peccadilloes. Landowska's iconoclastic approach to interpretation is one of the reasons her recordings are still worth listening to so many decades and performance-fads later.

Her harpsichord may not resemble 18th-century (or 21st-century) specimens, but it is a gorgeous machine and makes a rich, tremendous sound. Poulenc wrote his Concert Champêtre for it and for her; Ton Koopman's recording, on an "authentic" Baroque instrument, is a hilarious botch--the solo is practically inaudible.

Thanks to our friend Don--and to the lovely gentlemen then executing the estate of Denise Restout, Landowska's widow--here's a color photo of that same harpsichord from the video above, taken in that same living room, but this time with JoJo at the controls. (Not pictured: JoJo's inexpressibly intense glee.) It was more than a little out of tune, but still a spectacular work of art, from the impossibly elegant lid over its keyboard to its ranks and ranks of crisscrossing strings. If you ever get the chance to see and hear a Pleyel harpsichord in person, dude, take it.

What's got me thinking about all of this is the new Hilliard Ensemble CD of Bach motets. Martin Geck's liner notes summarize what is probably the most heated debate of Bach performance practice, the controversy over the size of the choir that should be used--musicologist Joshua Rifkin having discovered late last century that Bach's music was probably written not for a "choir" in the traditional sense, but for a small ensemble of vocal soloists. This revelation has, not surprisingly, gone down pretty poorly with Bach traditionalists, but is finally managing to gain some traction these many years later, resulting in some exquisite recordings by the Hilliards, Paul McCreesh and Konrad Junghänel, in addition to Rifkin's own. And keep in mind, this is all based in some pretty solid scholarship. But here's where I get off the bus:

"Rifkin feels that Bach feels that Bach proceeded so economically not because of the evident shortage of virtuoso boys' voices, (a shortage of which he himself complained), but for artistic reasons." Well, Bach complained about a lot of things. One of them was that his choir was just too small--he wanted, at minimum, three voices on a part. His ideal choir and the choir he was stuck with were two different things. Richard Taruskin snipes, in his Oxford History, "One often daydreams about what the music heard today sounded like when first performed. It would seem that in the case of Bach, it might be better not to know."

So on the one hand, Bach was probably writing his music for a choir many times smaller than is commonly used nowadays, but on the other hand, he probably wished he was writing for a choir just a few times larger than the one he was using. But on the other other hand, for all of our idealization of Bach as a creator of abstract music, was an imminently practical composer. His vocal music, even at its most difficult, sits quite easily in the voice--of all the motets recorded here, it is worth noting that the most spurious, BWV 230 (though brilliant, lovely, etc.) is also the most likely to cause vocal strain. And to pick up where I left off with Geck, the motets' "intricate counterpoint would, [Rifkin] argues, be heard to better effect when sung one voice to a part. In other words, Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied requires a different kind of choral body than the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah." But on the other, other, other hand, what happens in those moments when Bach reaches for a Handelian grandeur that the four- or eight-person choir just can't achieve so convincingly?

This is why my favorite interpreter of the motets is still René Jacobs--the countertenor-cum-conductor best known for his recent Mozart operas--whose sense of drama is a surer guide than any dogma. He augments a chamber choir with the subtle, colla parte accompaniment suggested by historical evidence (NB: the historical evidence is, again, totally self-contradictory) and alternates pragmatically between soloistic and choral textures, and the result is extremely effective. Is the Hilliard Ensemble disc, one-on-a-part, a-cappella, something less? No--it's something different, something purer. When they get to the most emotionally intimate motet, Komm, Jesu, komm, I can hardly imagine a superior performance.

Really, there is hardly a reasonable approach to Bach's scores that would not illuminate another facet of his genius. There are no wrong answers here, only wrong arguments--his music is almost indestructibly elastic. Or as a favorite teacher put it, "The answer to the old question, 'Should Bach be played on harpsichord or piano?' is yes."

5 comments:

Mom and Dad said...

It drives us crazy that you're giving it away when you could be selling it.

Dan Johnson said...

I think I'm going to have to start moderating my comments section.

Maury D'annato said...

Now, if I had to choose a piece by Poulenc (a recording of which) to be marooned on the Ile de la Grande Jatte with it wouldn't be Concert Champetre, but I have long wondered if it was recorded with Landowska at the eighty-eights or forty-fours or whatever has a harpsichord.

The Omniscient Mussel said...

How is it possible to play with those fingers? Wanda, darling...a few minutes with my childhood piano teacher will get that cleared up.

Dan--You do make a very good point and, incidentally, it is one with which I wholeheartedly agree. Menuhin's 1960s recordings of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas are hilarious in places but after the "performance practice" sound is exorcised, they are really quite excellent in their own way.

william dehning said...

I agree with your parents, Dan. This piece displays not only superb scholarship but also superb writing. Also a delightful sense of humor. Good for you. And didn't you sing Komm, Jesu with us in Spain?

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