Tuesday, 14 June 2011

What we have lost: Bach's St Matthew Passion rendered unperformable?

A recent, very costly, mishap was to leave my iPod on an aeroplane. Sad to say, it was never found. Since it has become an essential working tool, quite apart from being a comfort upon otherwise unbearably crowded railway carriages, I had to bite the bullet and buy another. Memory constraints meant that I had very little music stored on my computer - I shall have to find a way of rectifying that - so I have slowly but surely been selecting recordings and importing them. In most but not all cases, I have tried to stick to one recording per work, which has involved making interesting but difficult choices. Which versions of the Mahler symphonies? I actually managed to stick to one each: for the moment... Which versions of the Beethoven symphonies? In certain cases, I did not manage to stick to one each... As for the greatest musical work of all, and I tend to think the greatest work of art bar none, Bach's St Matthew Passion, I simply could not choose between various performances, all of which, tellingly, were of a certain vintage or older. Below are the opening choruses, which I have found available on Youtube. How can we have allowed this monumental, shattering chorus to be reduced to an out-of-tune, meaningless dance? Do present-day performers never even read the words? And it is not simply a matter of period instruments. Riccardo Chailly, when I heard him conduct the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, took this very chorus at an unyielding, breakneck tempo I should have found obscene, had I not been near-anaesthetised by my astonishment. Listen, by contrast, to the tempo variations introduced by Willem Mengelberg in his Palm Sunday performance from 1939 (there are a date and place to conjure with...), not at all arbitrary, but responding to the text in what remains perhaps the most vividly dramatic reading of all:

Or to Otto Klemperer, whose magisterial, terrifying, yet plain-spoken pageant does not rely upon such adjustments, but which proves every bit as responsive to words and music:

Or to Wilhelm Furtwängler's seething, searing, metaphysical drama, not only presaging but perhaps going beyond Tristan und Isolde:

Or, finally, to Karl Richter, whose conception is so clearly, overwhelmingly founded in a profound theological understanding of the work:

And then think of what we must endure today. As Theodor Adorno, writing in the aftermath of the Bach anniversary year 1950, unforgettably put it, 'Bach's devotees' might 'say Bach,' but they 'mean Telemann'. The situation is if anything even worse today, for the devotees no longer seem even to mean Telemann, preferring a bizarre freak-show to would-be restoration of the merely generic German Baroque. Now, more than ever, we need to recognise, in Adorno's words again, that 'the difference between what is past and what is present … is not absolute. One can only understand Schoenberg if one understands Bach; one can only understand Bach if one understands Schoenberg.' And, indeed, to say the same of subsequent composers. Thank goodness, then, for recordings...

For more on Adorno, Furtwängler, and Bach, and some of the unsavoury roots of the 'authentic' movement, click here.


zumaro said...

The plodding gait of the Klemperer performance is one of my earliest musical memories, but I can't say it is a good memory. Definitely overwhelming, but not in any positive way - this is more a fantasia on Bach's ideas than a proper execution of the music. No loss at all as far as I am concerned for this kind of slow motion 'profundity'. Give me the music as Bach intended, at the dance like pace it should proceed - the drama and spirituality is quite evident without the applique religiosity.

Mark Berry said...

Thank you for your comment, zumaro. I was wondering: what evidence do you have for Bach's 'intention', if indeed he had one?

As for the speed of Klemperer's performance, it seems to me that that is something of a red herring. The greatness of his musical vision is not dependent upon how long it takes: a fine performance might be quicker; it might even be slower. Musically, though, there is as keen a grasp of Bach's harmonic rhythm - something which seems to pass by most contemporary conductors of his music - as of Beethoven's or Mahler's. When it comes to religiosity, though, I think that is not something one associates with Klemperer either as man or musician, his outlook owing a great deal to earlier-twentieth-century 'Neue Sachlichkeit'.

'Execution', moreover, is an interesting word to use. This may or may not have been your intention, but to me it implies a contrast with 'performance', still more with 'interpretation'. It is what Stravinsky often insisted upon in his broadsides against interpretation. For me, those performing Bach's music should be far more than executants, 'proper' or otherwise. (I should say the same for Stravinsky's music too, by the way.)

Anonymous said...

Interesting article. I'm in my mid-twenties and I've grown up hearing and singing in oratorio performances conducted by people like Robert King, Christopher Hogwood and Edward Higginbottom, only recently discovering earlier traditions (I started with Munchinger's wonderful Christmas Oratorio).

I think it's a shame to write off the current trends in Bach performance entirely, just as it is to discard the interpretations that these great musicians produced. There is a great deal of first rate HIP music-making, the best of which can make you feel that you now understand the music for the first time (Ivan Fischer is always worth a listen, for example); however there do seem to be too many sloppy and/or insipid baroque concerts, conducted by people who are employed on the basis of having written a thesis on trills or bowing.