Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Baroque Takes a Beating from Harnoy and Herriott

from the Amazon.com Web page for the album being discussed

At the beginning of this month, the Canadian Analekta label released a “comeback” album of Canadian (born in Israel) cellist Ofra Harnoy entitled Back to Bach. The “comeback” was from reconstructive surgery performed in 2015, followed by successful physical therapy, which allowed Harnoy to return to performing last year. Back to Bach marked the return of her recording career.

The album was created in partnership with versatile brass player Mike Herriott (who also plays bass). However, the alert reader should note the verb in that last sentence. None of the selections are performed in the usual sense of that verb. Each is a product of Herriott’s multi-track recording techniques through which both performers create “ensemble results.” The results consist primarily of solo cello accompanied by brass choir. However, Harnoy also creates an interpretation of the first (in G major) of Georg Philipp Telemann’s six canonical sonatas (TWV 40:118) and Herriott’s cello ensemble arrangement of Gregorio Allegri’s “Miserere mei, Deus.”

Those who attended the Bach to Bluegrass & Beyond program presented this past August as part of the annual summer Festival & Academy organized by American Bach Soloists know that the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and his contemporaries (including at least one of his sons) can hold up to performances based on rhetorical stances that did not exist during the transition from the seventeenth to the eighteenth century. Nevertheless, the operative word in that last sentence is “performances.” As I have previously observed, there was very likely an element of “jamming” that took place when Bach and his Collegium Musicum colleagues gathered at Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffee house; and I have even suggested that a latter-day continuation of such sessions could be found at the Monday night concerts at the Village Vanguard prepared by The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra.

Such approaches to performance simply do not signify in Herriott’s production technique. Thus, Back to Bach has little (if anything) to do with performance practices that have been around for centuries. A more appropriate model would be the sorts of studio techniques required to make recordings of the earliest generations of electronic synthesizers. In other words, Back to Bach may best be described as Switched-On Bach without the electronics. As Miss Jean Brodie put it in Muriel Spark’s novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie:
For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.
By now readers should appreciate that, where recordings are concerned, I do not “like that sort of thing.” I listen to a lot of recordings. I can usually tell the difference between actual performances and the results of scrupulous editing and post-processing. I almost always come down in favor of the former. Nothing on this album has persuaded me to change my point of view.

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