Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Back to Bach

When it comes to learning to be a better listener to musical performances, August tends to be a pretty quiet month in San Francisco. Last year the high point of the month was a special "Bon Voyage" concert by the San Francisco Symphony, which provided a representative sample of the music they would be playing on their European tour. This year their travels do not appear to be taking them further than opening night at Carnegie Hall, which will take place after the opening night gala at Davies Symphony Hall. For my part this means that this is a time when I can work on honing my listening skills through some of the more interesting recordings I have in my collection. Having addressed this issue with respect to the jazz compositions of John Coltrane and Miles Davis, I have recently turned my attention to the more "classical" side of music experiences.

I used scare quotes in the preceding sentence because the current focus of my listening is Johann Sebastian Bach. However, while I now have the advantage of the Brilliant Classics Bach Edition and the Teldec Bach 2000 collection, both of which have made serious efforts to honor "authenticity" in the performance of this music, I have to confess that I have great interest in the recordings that Jascha Heifetz made in October of 1952 of the solo sonatas and partitas (BWV 1001 through 1006). This was a time when "authenticity" was not in the working vocabulary of very many (any?) working musicians, which means it was not on the radar of the emerging crop of students. When we think of Heifetz, we think of the nineteenth-century traditions of virtuosity; and we tend to listen to him as the pioneer who used recording technology to preserve those traditions for posterity. We also tend to think of the nineteenth-century as a time when the pure abstractions of Bach were trumped by the flamboyance of such virtuosity.

This is, at least, a partial distortion; and the best counterexample was Johannes Brahms. Brahms was an avid subscriber to the first serious effort to publish Bach's complete works, avid enough that he would eagerly devour each volume as it appeared and them anxiously await the next one. It would be unfair to say that Brahms was the first to recognize that there was more to Bach than abstraction; but he remains a prime example, since most (if not all) of his compositions deal with the need to strike the optimal balance between the intricate structures of form and the rhetorical impact of virtuosity. The same may be said of the Heifetz performances of the solo violin works. As I previously wrote, "Heifetz was a master of that refined stillness from which the most dynamic musical gestures could ensue;" and it was the dynamism of his virtuosity that draw so many to hear (if not listen to) him with anything along the gamut between satisfaction and awe. Yet through "that refined stillness" he also had the ability to let Bach be Bach, particularly when it came to sorting all those notes out into a simultaneity of two or more contrapuntal voices. In other words Bach was not a platform for showing off his talents. Rather the "Bach text" was of a voice that deserved serious listening; and Heifetz recognized that his role, as a performer, was to assist us in that often challenging transition from hearing to listening. Thus, in terms of what deserved to be preserved for posterity, those 1952 Bach sessions are just as important as the recorded documents we now have of performances from the flashier nineteenth-century traditions.

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