A Singer's Notes by Keith Kibler / Music

A Singer’s Notes 44: New Year’s Day in the Hall with Johann Sebastian Bach

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Johann Sebastian Bach by or after Elias Gottlob Haussmann. Coll. William H. Scheide, Princeton, NJ.
Johann Sebastian Bach by or after Elias Gottlob Haussmann. Coll. William H. Scheide, Princeton, NJ.

Something is happening with increasing frequency in Baroque performance practice these days. A kind of third way has emerged. It would be wrong to call it a half-way house; it’s something more like a suite of rooms each with its own individual slant. The poles are a die-hard kind of historical accuracy, rigid in its orthodoxy, and now pretty much a retro activity, or large opulent orchestras playing Baroque music, if they play it at all, with a 19th-century approach. What seems to be nascent these days is a kind of third way: modern orchestras, even large ones, performing with a much greater sense of tonal and rhetorical knowledge of 18th century style. Nikolaus Harnoncourt started this when he recorded the Beethoven symphonies with a modern orchestra, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, but used brass instruments which were tricked out in the 18th century way. It has continued, nay flourished, in the 21st century, especially in the symphonies of Beethoven again, where its main defenders have been Osmo Vänskä with the Minnesota Orchestra and Paavo Järvi with the Chamber Orchestra of Bremen. These are players using the modern style but with a believable, not-manufactured Baroque sound. Most recently Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra have released a full set of Beethoven symphonies where something of this third way may be heard. These forces have also recorded the Bach Passions and the Brandenburg concertos with modern instruments, but sounding stylistically informed.

This is interesting to me because in its earlier days, historical performance practice seemed to me a polarizing endeavor. On the one side were the purists; on the other side were polemicists like Richard Taruskin who claimed that what was called late-18th century Baroque performance practice was actually late-20th century performance practice. I partly agree with him. The rigidity of the style was too passionately maintained to convince me its practitioners really believed in it. There is no question though that the plethora of information recent research has given us has revolutionized how we hear.

A good laboratory for these issues has been for several years now, the New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day Bach performances by the Berkshire Bach Society in the Mahaiwe in Great Barrington and in the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. The members of the Society’s ensemble are superb modern players, some of the best in the country. Their exuberant leader, Kenneth Cooper, has consistently approached these concerts with imagination, even daring. Over the more than ten years that I have attended this annual event, it has seemed, at least to my ears, as if the playing has grown more and more stylistic. The group now seems to combine virtuoso playing with a kind of lightness. what I might call stylistic joy. Add to that hearing them in the warmest of places, the Troy Music Hall, and you have one terrific afternoon. The Viennese have Johann Strauss—we have Johann Sebastian Bach. The concerti themselves are an encyclopedia of affect, ranging from darkest and deepest sadness in some of the oboe solos, to the Falstaffian exuberance in the first pages of Concerto no. 1, to the deep, dulcet thinking aloud of the slow movement of the 6th. It seems in a good performance like all of life can be heard in these pieces. What struck me this year especially was their comprehensiveness, the sense that one gets from any large-scale group of fecund inventions, that one is in the presence of a mind which can continuously create, often using the smallest building blocks, the greatest examples of this being the Goldberg and the Diabelli Variations. Though the six concertos of the Brandenburgs are not related, they find a way to touch almost every human feeling, and that deeply. That said, they are also somehow light music, which is pleasant in the best sense of that word. Mr. Cooper and his players found this joy and this lightness, never neglecting the depth that sometimes begins to sing out. And enthralled audience listened to two and a half hours of sublime music, rose to their feet, and walked out of the place blessed.

…also, if you want to check up on the latest juicy piece of Bach hagiography, listen to a new recording of the Bach cello suites by Gavriel Lipkind, Lipkind Productions 0016132.  By all accounts these are excellent performances, and in Mr. Lipkind’s voluminous notes, he suggests that Suites 1 and 2 depict God the Father; Suites 3 and 4, the Son; and Suites 5 and 6, the Holy Spirit.

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