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Baching Up The Wrong Tree?


MusingMuso
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I have a problem....well lots actually....but we'll stick to music.

 

I am appalled at myself, due to what appears to be a complete lapse in my normal sensibilities concerning "historically informed performances."

 

I take the trouble to go to Holland, where I can hear the right music played on the right organs (plus a lot of other muck), and yet, when I return home, what do I do?

I'll tell you!

 

I get in the car, and to satisfy the Bach famine (which has lasted maybe 6 hours), I start to listen to Murray Perahia (piano) and the Academy of St.Martin-in-the-fields, performing the Bach Keyboard Concertos no's 1, 2 and 4. (I don't know what no.3 ever did wrong)

 

I never tire of the energy and flawlessness of that CD (SonyCB811-CF), which just picks you up, shakes you about from head-to-toe; leaving one feeling breathless and just a wee bit overwhelmed by the sheer artistry and panache of the performances.

 

Yet I know that I am immersed in the realms of transcription, using a modern concert grand-piano instead of a harpsichord.

 

It MUST surely be the same as Virgil Fox playing gigantic Skinner, or Carlo Curley playing 100,000 watt Allen, or perhaps Edwin Lemare playing the Gigue Fugue on Tubas. (Oddly enough, the Lemare actually comes across very well on recordings)

 

Yet there is something even stranger. I can thoroughly enjoy another type of "historically informed" performance, which I have only ever come across in Holland, to my absolute delight.

 

These are those performances which use the Straube editions of Bach, and seek to re-create, as accurately as possible, the late romantic way of playing Bach in germany; complete with marcato subjects or countersubjects, vast dynamic changes and even the use of crescendi and diminuendi within specific sections; normally played "flat" by almost all "historically informed" organists of to-day.

 

Oddly enough, it was compelling and magnificent.

 

It takes me back to an old, and very capable organist in Halifax, who played for an evening service one Sunday, when Philip Tordoff was away. The Bach G-minor Fantasia and Fugue was played very accurately, but the Fugue was played in the typical romantic English way; the modest registration at the start, the addition of Mixtures, then the fire of Swell reeds, then Trombas, then Ophicleide and Open Woods, and finally......OMG....the Tuba!

 

The organist (now deceased) turned to us and said, "If only Bach could have played an organ like this!"

 

I felt like saying, "If he had, he would probably have topped himself".

 

It was absolutely horrendous, and yet, no thicker and no louder than hearing the Straube re-creation in Holland.

 

So I wonder why one man's romantic Bach is another man's romantic poison?

 

Any ideas?

 

MM

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Maybe it's the difference between an interpretation arising naturally out of the music (albeit not one Bach intended) and one imposed on it by the player. Whatever the reason, sensitivity and musical insight are probably at the root of it.

 

================

 

Absolutely spot-on!

 

But can it be taught?

 

MM

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Actually I'm inclined to think not. But I think that it can be readily self-developed, simply by immersing one's self in first rate performances of anything and everything other than organ music - orchestral, chamber, choral music, the lot, from all musical periods and in all styles. In short, it's about gaining an adequate appreciation of what makes a satisfactorily moving performance. Sometimes the organ is the organist's worst enemy. A narrow perspective does no one any good. Listen and experience, again and again and again. Don't play like an organist - play like a musician.

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Sometimes the organ is the organist's worse enemy. A narrow perspective does no one any good. Listen and experience, again and again and again. Don't play like an organist - play like a musician.

 

Too true!! - and it accounts for the way many organists (and some church musicians) are perceived by the 'greater musical population'.

 

AJJ

 

PS This could be the start of another thread!

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"...The Bach G-minor Fantasia and Fugue was played very accurately, but the Fugue was played in the typical romantic English way; the modest registration at the start, the addition of Mixtures, then the fire of Swell reeds, then Trombas, then Ophicleide and Open Woods, and finally......OMG....the Tuba!"

 

How many of us were brought up with the Novello Bach editions with registration suggestions along these lines. It seems to me that too many organists rely on the variety of stops at their disposal to 'colour' the performance, rather than convey expressiveness through tempi, rubato and articulation.

 

Here's a thing : go back to the piano. Think of it as a one-stop one manual. Now practice that Bach fugue. No manual changes. No registration changes. Where does the shape and expressiveness come from now...?

 

H

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Too true!!  - and it accounts for the way many organists (and some church musicians) are perceived by the 'greater musical population'.

 

AJJ

 

PS This could be the start of another thread!

 

I recently spent time listening to some Bach trio sonatas played on "real" instruments - very illuminating. Now, when I approach the organ trios, I'm thinking about, for example, the pedal line being played as a cello. This seems to help me enormously with the phrasing, which I now think of as being bowed, rather than resorting to my previous rather abstract articulations.

 

I think this approach can also work well in other works - the slow sections of the Gminor fantasia spring to mind.

 

JJK

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Just for the sake of it: are dutch organs an accurate choice for Bach?

 

Musically, they are -like others-, but historically, not at all:

they belong to another style.

The belief the northern organ is the one for Bach is a typically

neo-baroque idea.

So the late romantic british job is no more, nor less "accurate"

a choice. But about what Bach would have thought, made, or not,

with it, we do not know.

 

Pierre

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Just for the sake of it: are dutch organs an accurate choice for Bach?

 

Musically, they are -like others-, but  historically, not at all:

they belong to another style.

The belief the northern organ is the one for Bach is a typically

neo-baroque idea.

So the late romantic british job is no more, nor less "accurate"

a choice. But about what Bach would have thought, made, or not,

with it, we do not know.

 

Pierre

 

 

=============================

 

Historically, the organs in the Netherlands are as old, and in many cases, older than almost anything anywhere else.

 

One could argue that there is no such thing as a true Bach organ, simply because Bach played a variety of instruments which derived from different styles. He was, of course, aware of Schnitger and Silbermann; two very different organ builders; one of whom derived from the German tradition and the other of whom derived from the French tradition.

 

There is absolutely nothing which Bach wrote which could not be played to perfection on any number of Netherlands instruments; so once again, the music must have the last say, rather than historical pedantry.

 

It could, and should, be argued that Bach seldom played the best organs; but his interest in the Schnitger organ at Hamburg is sufficient proof, I think, that he admired this style of organ-building enough to want to go there.

 

I would suggest that "neo-baroque" thinking also pervades the realm of those who would limit musical choice to "authentic" Bach organs, which as far as I can tell, amount to one half-decent Trost organ at Altenburg, the Hildebrandt organ in St. Wenzel, Naumburg and not much else.

 

 

MM

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Bach knew Gottfried Silbermann personnally, while from Schnitger he tried ONE

organ....Not the same thing by far!

 

And yes Silbermann introduced french influencies in Saxony, but it is only one part of the Libretto; the Silbermanns were influenced by Casparini too.

The Casparini family was hugely inflencial in central, southern and eastern Germany since the 1703 Görlitz organ, a synthesis of german and italian styles.

 

The Silbermann organ was rather conservative compared to Engler's, Trost and others, but even then, it remains widely different from a Schnitger. Indeed, the difference is bigger than the one between a Cavaillé-Coll and a Willis.

 

We may call that pedantry, but then many thoughts, writings -and above all many actual

jobs!- may be filed as pedantry.

 

This said, I myself have of course learn many things with the neo-baroque people!

 

Pierre

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Bach knew Gottfried Silbermann personnally, while from Schnitger he tried ONE

organ....Not the same thing by far!

 

 

 

=======================

 

Does it matter, I ask myself?

 

If the music fits the organ, then you play Bach. If it doesn't, you play something else.

 

The only achievement of the "neo-baroque" movement was to remind everyone that there should be order and proportion in the building of organs....the very essence of the word "classical".

 

The late romantic organ had moved so far away from its classical roots, it was in danger of becoming something else entirely......like a pre-electronic synthesiser.

 

MM

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I never mean, of course, one "cannot" -or may not- play Bach on a Schnitger.

The problem, though, in so doing, is to end up with "this is the one we NEED for Bach".

So as long as we avoid that, there is -should- be no problem playing whatever we want on whichever organ we may have at hand.

 

The main achievement of the neo-baroque fashion is the rediscovering (or rather even the discovering!) of the styles. Ancient organs are no longer seen as poor things of the past in need of updating to be worth anything, but as "entities per se".

Paradoxically maybe, this we owe to people like Helmut Bornefeld, Lawrence Phelps, Norbert Dufourcq and others, who saw no interest besides Schnitger, Silbermann (with restrictions this one!) and Dom Bédos, in any organ.

It is interesting to study how Lawrence Phelps did indeed evolve in the course of his career, up to re-assessing Cavaillé-Coll -among the firsts to do so-.

 

These people opened the doors for guys like me by doing precisely the reverse -in appearence-.

 

Complicated matter? Indeed it is.

 

The late romantic organ is deeply rooted in the tradition, more: the baroque tradition. It would have been unconceivable without Casparini, Holzhey, Green, Gabler, Clicquot, Jordi Bosch (etc); should you want to understand Skinner or Oscar Walcker, you need to begin with "L'Art du facteur d'orgues" by Dom Bédos.

 

Pierre

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=======================

 

Does it matter, I ask myself?

 

If the music fits the organ, then you play Bach. If it doesn't, you play something else.

 

The only achievement of the "neo-baroque" movement was to remind everyone that there should be order and proportion in the building of organs....the very essence of the word "classical".

 

The late romantic organ had moved so far away from its classical roots, it was in danger of becoming something else entirely......like a pre-electronic synthesiser.

 

MM

 

Hear hear to all of this.

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It seems to me that musical scholarship is driven as much by fashion as any other part of life. Each generation discovers a new Holy Grail, and declares that the Holy Grail of 30 years earlier is now superceded. They would like you to think that the new truth is based on vast amounts of incontrovertible evidence, but often it is actually just one possible interpretation of a couple of paragraphs from a book that touches only peripherally on the point at issue. Often they generalise wildly from a special case.

 

I won't give large numbers of examples, as I'm sure you can all find your own; but the recent question about the scantiness of evidence for varied ornamentation of repeats illustrates my point well enough. Another one that amuses me is singing Bach cantatas etc with one voice per part - it can be well done and be valid in itself, and there may be some historic justification for it in some special circumstances; but Bach had a choir to sing them each week, and asked for its size to be increased.

 

So enjoy playing Bach on an organ that Mendelssohn might have used, or listening to Virgil Fox, or Kreisler playing Bach violin concertos, or Richter playing WTC on the piano. It is, as you say, the music that counts in the end, and we can each show a little bit of it in our own mirror.

 

Paul

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It seems to me that musical scholarship is driven as much by fashion as any other part of life.  Each generation discovers a new Holy Grail, and declares that the Holy Grail of 30 years earlier is now superceded.  They would like you to think that the new truth is based on vast amounts of incontrovertible evidence, but often it is actually just one possible interpretation of a couple of paragraphs from a book that touches only peripherally on the point at issue.  Often they generalise wildly from a special case.

 

I won't give large numbers of examples, as I'm sure you can all find your own; but the recent question about the scantiness of evidence for varied ornamentation of repeats illustrates my point well enough.  Another one that amuses me is singing Bach cantatas etc with one voice per part - it can be well done and be valid in itself, and there may be some historic justification for it in some special circumstances; but Bach had a choir to sing them each week, and asked for its size to be increased.

 

So enjoy playing Bach on an organ that Mendelssohn might have used, or listening to Virgil Fox, or Kreisler playing Bach violin concertos, or Richter playing WTC on the piano.  It is, as you say, the music that counts in the end, and we can each show a little bit of it in our own mirror.

 

Paul

Paul - the one to a part thing rests on pretty solid grounds. You have to distinguish between what Bach wanted and what he got. It's such a huge topic there's no room to rehearse the arguments, but there's a great deal of evidence that one to apart was the reality, even if his ideal was something different. Parrott and Rifkin are the people to read on this.
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There is actually quite a lot of literature on the subject of soloists versus choirs for Bach cantatas. It is not proven that Bach intended his cantatas for soloists, but in the realm of historical performance it is rarely possible to prove anything absolutely. As Stephen says, the arguments for it are pretty convincing. Musicology is not (or should not be) like a fundamentalist religion - "this is what the book says, so this and no other is the truth". It is more a question of "these are our findings based on the evidence we have, but it is all subject to further discoveries - or re-interpretation." (There can sometimes be an element of "fad", yes.)

 

It may well be that the lack of responses on the ornamentation issue was due to a lack of knowledge among members of this board rather than a lack of evidence.

 

As far as Bach organs are concerned I am of the opinion that there is no one type of Bach organ. The early Prelude and Fugue in A minor clearly owes everything to Buxtehude in terms of style and rhetoric. Are we really to think that Bach did not consider a North German instrument appropriate for this and some of his other early pieces?

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Of course; but none the less, there are fundamentalists in musicology as elsewhere!

There is certainly a reluctance amongst musicologists to admit when they are beaten. But then you don't get a PhD without being able to defend your theory up to the hilt. And it's difficult to do a volte face and admit that all your published oeuvres are based on false premisses without looking a complete twit.

 

All the unbiassed onlooker can do is get to grips with the opposing arguments and make his or her own informed decision. This is easier said than done, of course. Most performers don't have the time, or even the inclination, to go to such lengths. They want a neat answer given to them on a plate - and it's a perfectly reasonable desire. I am sure that most musicologists would love to be able give them one, but in reality it's hardly ever that simple.

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