The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Token Creek Festival concludes with beautiful Bach from Emmanuel Music of Boston. But can modern instruments – especially the piano – really do justice to his music?

September 6, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a combined review and commentary, written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT 88.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

The final concert program of this year’s Token Creek Festival this past weekend was entirely devoted to music of J.S. Bach (below), a composer plainly very dear the heart of composer John Harbison, co-founder and co-director of the festival.

The program included a violin sonata, a transcription of what has come down to us as the first Trio Sonata for organ, and three transcriptions chorale preludes (also originally for organ). But the core of the concert was a series of four arias from different Bach cantatas in the first half, and then a complete solo cantata, “Mein Herz schwimmt im Blut.”

Joining some of the usual Festival suspects were two particularly splendid visitors from Emmanuel Music of Boston. Soprano Kendra Colton (below) sang the arias with wonderful vocal beauty and agility, and invested truly moving emotional commitment into the exceptionally intense cantata.

And oboist Peggy Pearson (below) proved a wonder, with her richly colored tone and beautifully nuanced expression in her obbligato functions.

The performances were all strongly felt, and bespoke a great commitment to the beauties and intricacies of Bach’s music.

All of them, as Mr. Harbison pointed out in his customary introductory remarks, were given on modern instruments.

Now, there is nothing wrong with that — but only up to one crucial point.  That is: the use of a modern grand piano.

I know, here we go again. That same old argument: Should Bach be played on the piano (below)?  Now, I am a passionate lover of early music (among all parts of the total literature) and a convinced adherent of the period-instrument movement.  I am a historian by profession, after all.  So I am fascinated by efforts to get us back to the sounds in which music was originally heard–even if we cannot possibly recreate them definitively, much less recreate the ears with which its contemporaries heard them.

That said, I am not doctrinaire.  I can fully understand the reluctance of many musicians who play modern instruments to take the trouble to master their earlier forms.  And I am perfectly willing to recognize that pianists have valid things to tell us about Bach’s solo keyboard music.

But there is a critical fact here: The piano is not a harpsichord (below).  It is not a descendant of the harpsichord — the way modern oboes, flutes, bassoons, and whatnot are of their precursors.  It is a drastically different instrument from the harpsichord.  It is a very distant cousin of the harpsichord (which it deceptively resembles to the eye–all those keys, you know).  Its father was the fortepiano, its grandfather the clavichord. The clavichord is a distant cousin to the harpsichord. The piano, extended from the clavichord, is a percussion instrument: it has hammers that strike the wires. A harpsichord is a plucked instrument, its strings stroked by quills.  The two kinds of actions produce two very different types of sound.

In his introduction, Mr. Harbison argued that Bach was a “co-inventor” of the piano.  Now, it is true that, in his last years, Bach was a consultant and tester for some “Hammerklavierkeyboard instruments, which he liked.  But these were early forms of the fortepiano, and he liked them as an extension of the clavichord, which he had used as an instrument for very private playing.

It is open to question that he would ever have used these prototypes for anything more than solo playing, and that he would be pleased with the present-day grand piano is simply a personal stretch of the imagination.

Allowing the piano’s differences in dynamics and power as against harpsichord’s differences of color and tuning, I can certainly allow that the modern piano can bring very potent nuancing of its own to  Bach’s solo keyboard music, which has a way of rising to a perfect abstractness of sound that transcends the instrument.

I personally prefer the harpsichord, but I concede that is my taste, and other listeners may choose otherwise.

But the harpsichord/piano differences become far more problematical when we come to the keyboard in combination with other instruments. In the concert’s violin sonata, for example, the keyboard part is a kind of partner, if a junior one, to the violin part, and they do not directly get in each other’s way.

Where complications develop is in combining the keyboard instrument with others (below).  Both in a continuo role (with a cello and possibly also a double bass), and either as concertizing or ensemble instrument, the modern piano just hammers its partners into the ground, while investing a general clunkiness into any collaboration with string ensembles.

This is not some new doctrine I have learned from the period-instrument movement.  When I was a student, listening to recordings made in the 1930s and ’40s, I was terribly put off by the heavy-handed thudding of the piano when used as a continuo instrument in Bach’s “orchestral” music.

It was only as the period-instrument movement acquired momentum, that I understood why — I understood that the plucked-string sound of the harpsichord blends with string partners, whereas the pounding piano sound is not only anachronistic but also sonically incompatible.

Again, others may have different experience and different perspectives, but my opinions have foundations.  And such opinions, formed over more than half a century, left me feeling discomfort with every part of this concert program, except when Mr. Harbison briefly forsook the piano and switched to viola.

Now, these ruminations also relate to remarks that Mr. Harbison (below) made in the recent interviews that this blog had with him and posted in late August.  One of his comments was: “We’ve lost Bach at the big symphony orchestras. I talk to instrumentalists . . and they all say the same thing: “We’ve lost Bach.”  In a way, it’s good-bye to Bach in the current scheme of things. It’s an inadvertent but genuine result of the original performance movement. There are a lot of professional players and audiences who don’t get to play or hear this great music.  The story is the same with Haydn.”

It is not fully clear to me what precisely is the complaint, and what the solution(s), that Mr. Harbison had in mind.  “Lost Bach at the big symphony orchestras?”  Bach never belonged to them!  The world of large concert halls and audiences was a product of generations that followed him.  His music was never meant for them, and doesn’t directly fit into them.

Is Mr. Harbison therefore suggest that players and audiences would be served by going back to big-orchestra transcriptions by Stokowski, or Elgar, or Respighi?  (In fact, it would be fun to resurrect some of them, as period pieces of their own, but not as actual Bach.)

I surely hope he does not mean we return to the appropriation of Bach’s “orchestral” music by symphony orchestras, with vast ensembles, based upon massive string sections, turning Bach’s superbly designed textures into mud.

I would think that instrumentalists today can find ways to join with each other in appropriately smaller ensembles that allow them to enjoy Bach’s music, whether on period or modern instruments.  Consider the example of our Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below), which does particularly wonderful work with Haydn symphonies, by the way.

Mr. Harbison speaks of singers “who are also being tracked away. They are considered not eligible for Bach and Mozart.”  Let’s set Mozart aside (Mozart!) and think about Bach’s vocal music.  Of what does it consist?  Let’s remember that all we are likely to hear of it (in big concert halls) are the four large-scale works: the B Minor Mass, the two Passions, the “Christmas” Oratorio — the last not really a single work but a six-part cycle.

But the bulk, the heart, of Bach’s vocal writing is the body of his cantatas, some 200 of them alone on sacred texts.  Why don’t we hear more of these in our big halls?  In the first place, because they were not written for big concert halls, but for use in churches.  How many churches nowadays would trouble themselves to do Bach cantatas regularly? A few, but not many.  They belong to a cultural world totally different from ours. In the second place, the cantatas just do not fit the current conventions and finances of big-budget big halls.

I do, to be sure, agree heartily with Mr. Harbison’s regrets over Bach’s motets.  They are fabulous works.  But who is to do them?  One problem is that the US has only the patchiest tradition of choral singing and groups as against European countries.  The few choral groups we have these days seem much more interested in either new music or teasing tidbits.

There are solutions.  Mr. Harbison himself is a trailblazer in his work with Emmanuel Music and its commitment to regular cantata performances.  Here in Madison we have the smaller-scale but plucky local example of Trevor Stephenson’s Madison Bach Musicians (below top and bottom), with their period-style renditions.

Period instruments or modern, it doesn’t matter (though I doubt there will be many pianos used in Bach cantatas even today).  What we need are more conductors who will crusade for revivals of this music, on its terms, and not through “big symphony orchestras” and huge concert halls.

The audience is maturing, and more and more of the public is willing to accept Bach (yes, and Haydn) in redefined performance media and venues.  Leadership and education, these are the keys.

And, yes, let’s talk about Handel (below), too.  His operas are at last finding a place in our opera houses, but how many singers explore his vast legacy of Italian cantatas, much less his monumental output of oratorios.  We need more than a “Handel Aria Group,” and we have the singers and players who now have access to the training that will open this material to them in responsible ways.  Leadership and education — those are the keys.

In the end, we must be grateful to Mr. Harbison, not only for the wonderful music-making he brings us at Token Creek, but for stimulating dialogue that allows us to think seriously about musical choices and possibilities.  I hope he takes the foregoing as simply my contribution to such a dialogue.

Posted in Classical music

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