Saturday, January 26, 2008

Climbing Mount Bach

I am now on the final Volume of the Brilliant Classics Bach Edition, which contains all of the organ works of Johann Sebastian Bach. The means that I have now listened to all of the cantatas. My violinist neighbor, who is as interested in recorded performances as "live" ones, was asking me about my listening practices. I told her that my Bach Edition experience reminded me of an old Japanese proverb, which states that there are two kinds of fools: the man (accepting the cultural bias of the language of the time and culture) who has never climbed Mount Fuji, and the man who climbs Mount Fuji twice. This was my second traversal of the cantatas, the first having taken place when I purchased the earlier Bach 2000 collection; and, yes, I felt more than a little foolish on more than one occasion! After all, Bach wrote one of these every week. That means that they cover the church calendar for an entire year; and, if I remember my Schweitzer correctly, they actually cover about three cycles of that calendar. Meanwhile, while Bach 2000 basically followed the ordering of the BWV numbers, I have yet to figure out the logic (if any) behind the Bach Edition ordering. This really did not interfere with the listening; but it means that, if I want to listen to a specific cantata, I shall have to consult the data CD that comes with the package, because knowing the number of the cantata will not help me home in on its location.

Things are different now that I am in "organ territory," though. For one thing I already had three collections of the entirety of Bach's organ music, and I never felt this was a matter of "Fuji foolishness." The organist in the Bach 2000 collection is Ton Koopman. Then I wanted to replace my vinyl collection from the Musical Heritage Society recordings of Michel Chapuis, which came with notes by Harry Halbreich (originally written in French) that played a major role in my learning how to listen to Bach organ music. Then Archiv came out with the CD collection of their release of the recordings made by Helmut Walcha, which had been the favorite of the set I hung out with back at MIT; and Collectors' Choice Music made it available at a tempting discount. I have never heard of Hans Fagius, who is the Bach Edition organist; but I am perfectly happy to have him join the others.

The thing about organ music, of course, is that it always depends on the organ; and, as long as we eschew electronics in favor of bellows and pipes, no two organs are ever the same. This, in turn, means that no two performances of any work (by Bach or anyone else) on different organs need necessarily be the same and usually cannot be the same. Particularly when it all comes down to turning intricate counterpoint into sound, whether in a fugue, chorale prelude, or trio sonata, the organist has to figure out how to separate and then prioritize the individual voices; having made those choices, the organist must next figure out how to render them through the constraints and capabilities of both the "plumbing" of the organ itself and the acoustics of the space within which the pipes sound. (After all of those decisions have been made, then the recording engineer has to come along and make sure that his microphones and mixer board "hear" what we would be hearing, were we at a "live" performance.) Thus, in many ways the task of the organist is not that different from the task of a conductor facing a specific symphony orchestra in a specific concert hall. The result, then, is that there is considerable diversity both within and across these four collections; and I suppose this is one reason that I cannot get enough of the stuff, just as I cannot seem to get enough of performances of Wagner and Mahler.

How much is this true of the content of the "Keyboard Works" Volume, where I had previously suggested that most performance settings for this music are artificial or (to use one of the highly-charged words among musicologists) "inauthentic?" This strikes me as a two-sided coin. In Bach's day there was as much diversity among keyboard instruments as there was among organs; and those who choose to perform and record on such instruments face many of the same problems (even if on a smaller scale) that organists face. Thus, there is much to be gained from having multiple recordings. Piano making technology, on the other hand, has pretty much converged on a uniformity of the sound quality of the instrument; but this is where the performance of counterpoint again becomes an issue. The interesting pianists are the ones well-skilled in differentiating contrapuntal voices through dynamics, articulation, that mysterious quality of "touch," and other tricks of the trade. Thus, a pianist can experiment with different strategies for dealing with the complex relationships among the voices and apply each experiment on the same instrument. As a result, while my personal preferences do not, as a rule, run to recordings of Bach on piano (even by Glenn Gould), I have no problem with going to "live" piano recitals that include works of Bach (although I would probably still shy away from being obliged to hear the entire Goldberg Variations in a single shot).

From this point of view, perhaps I really do find myself in agreement with Hans von Bülow: Bach really is "the Father" of it all. It is from Bach that "all blessings flow" (perhaps I should not be writing this after deep-ending on so many of those chorales), not only in the discipline of composition but also in the discipline of performance, which had been the primary criterion for my "alternative Trinity." Of course all the music we hear can refine our "good listening" skills; but it remains surprising how many of the foundations of those skills can be found in what Bach has done for composition and the impact of those achievements on how we approach performance.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It was through Bach's organ music that I made my wonderful introduction to Classical Music. My favorite organist is Peter Hurfords majestical set. No it is not authentic in that it is not a pipe organ but it has wonderful registrations and a very delicate touch and Mr. Hurford plumbs the depths of this spiritual music! I have many Bach Cantatas CDs as well including Herreweghe, Koopman, Harnoncourt, Gardiner, Kuijken, and Suzuki. I haven't managed to get even through one complete cycle yet so I congratulate you on your successful completion of this mountain!