The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Why do Bach and Handel seem more necessary and deeper than Telemann and Biber?

May 10, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

First, A REMINDER: Tonight, Monday, at 7:30 p.m. in  the Overture Center’s Playhouse, the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Rhapsodie Quartet (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) will perform a free chamber music concert (with a $5 donation at the door suggested). The program includes the Largo movement of Haydn’s String Quartet in C Major, Op. 64, No. 1; Bela Bartok’s String Quartet No. 2; and Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet. Member include co-concertmaster Suzanne Beia and Laura Burns, violins (front); principal violist Christopher Dozoryst and principal cellist Karl Levine (back). The quartet is part of MSO’s HeartStrings community program.

Now, on to the regular posting:

Friday night I attended the concert by the Baroque Band from Chicago (below).

The early music, period instrument group performed here as part of the biennial meeting of the American Bach Society, which was being hosted for the first time ever at the University of Wisconsin School of Music.

It was an enjoyable event, and one that should have drawn a larger crowd to Mills Hall than the 100 or so participants in the conference.

But then it is the end of the semester and people were either writing final papers or studying for final exams or perhaps taking in the citywide Gallery Night, which happened at the same time, and perhaps staying home because of the cold, rainy weather.

The theme of this year’s conference is J.S. Bach and his German contemporaries. So the concert featured music by Georg Philipp Telemann (an Overture in D major), Heinrich Biber (Parts 1 and 5 of the “Mensa Sonora”) and the Concerto Grosso, Op 6, No. 4, in A minor by Handel as well as that perennially popular Concerto No.,1 for Harpsichord in D major by J.S. Bach.

The whole concert proved entertaining and exciting as well as instructive. It was valuable for specialists and the general public alike. Special moments included the wonderful gamba part, played by Craig Trumpeter (below) in the Telemann Overture.

But for me was the highlight was the harpsichord part (played by David Schrader, below) of the Bach concerto, which, to my taste, should be been more prominent – which is to of say louder.

But even as I was listening to the concert, I kept thinking: One of the great contributions of the early music and period instrument movement over the past 30 or so years has been the revival of previously lost music and musicians from the Baroque era and before.

But another part of the legacy is that, for me, at least, it highlights even more just how far Bach and Handel stood – and continue to stand — above their contemporaries (with the exception perhaps of Vivaldi, whom Bach deeply admired.)

So I find myself asking: What is it about the music of Bach and Handel that makes it seem so immediate and relevant, so necessary and deep, so vital?

Oh, the other composers and works have their moments, to be sure. And it is not a question of good versus bad so much as good versus better or best.

But neither Telemann, who had a higher reputation than Bach at the time, nor Biber could match the fun and profundity, the vitality and reliability of those two Old Masters.

So for me Bach (below) remain tops, No. 1 by far. He is the Big Bang of western classical music.

Just a couple of steps below him is Handel, who sometimes equals him but never surpasses him.

And a few steps lower on the ladder and on my personal playlist of the Baroque, come Telemann and Biber.

I imagine I am not alone. But I also imagine there are many who disagree with me – including academic scholars and performing specialists who have their own axe to grind, their own subject of study to elevate and promote.

So I ask you, readers:

If you share my view, what is it that makes Bach and to some degree Handel so necessary and so deep? Is it the appealing melodies, the poignant harmonies, the long phrases, the just-right rhythms?

And what is that keeps the others from reaching those heights and seeming too often to be dance-like diversions that are entertaining but not culturally necessary or primary?

And if you disagree, I’d love to hear why and be directed to specific pieces you think prove my instincts misdirected.

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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