Nicholas McGegan: Bach Without Fear

Written by: Nicholas McGegan

Who is entitled to play Bach? The music director of a period-instrument orchestra reclaims baroque music for modern players…

More than 250 years after Johann Sebastian Bach’s death, amid all the belated tributes and the new discoveries, the great master can still arouse a controversy or two. For this we can all be profoundly grateful, since it gives us cause to stop and think about his music and the manner in which we perform it.

The use of original instruments, or something approaching them, has been around for a good deal of the last century. Wanda Landowska and Arnold Dolmetsch played Bach on the harpsichord and clavichord at the dawn of the 20th century; and gradually over the decades more and more period instruments came to be used. By the 1970s, original-instrument St. Matthew Passions became possible, both on recordings and in the concert hall. This trend went hand-in-hand with a more general interest in the music of the past, including the Renaissance and medieval repertoire.

Along the way, the growing trend toward historically-informed performance encountered a fair amount of criticism, even ridicule, of the supposed gray musicologists and scruffy viola da gambists who were thought to have led this movement. But it must be remembered that many of the early pioneers were composers who drew inspiration from their researches into the past. It was Brahms who edited François Couperin, Webern who studied Heinrich Isaac, and Hindemith who founded the Collegium Musicum at Yale.

In the last 30 years, period-instrument orchestras have become ubiquitous, first in Europe and then in North America and Australia. Before these orchestras came on the scene, as I can personally testify, Baroque music was often not very well played. Many conductors never gave much thought to stylistic matters: Style, for them, was much the same for music of all periods, rather as with cheap gloves where one size supposedly fit all. If something on the page appeared too peculiar, the normal answer was to adapt the music’s performance to a more modern taste. One can see the same process at work in movies of fifty years ago: Gene Kelly seems a very modern musketeer as he “swashbuckles” his way though 17th-century France unable to pronounce Richelieu!

This non-historical approach provoked a strong reaction among the original-instrument brigade. As a result, they became almost obsessed with style, obsessed with the quest for the Holy Grail of Correctness that would purify Bach performance from the sins of the negligent. Some of their writings seem rather priggish today, and most of us who work with period instruments have long ago stopped tilting at these windmills because now there are so many more interesting and important things to do. Period-instrument players have become much more concerned with giving emotional performances of great technical excellence. Gone, I trust, are the days when a recording carried a Cordon Bleu across its cover saying “played on original instruments” like some kind of USDA stamp of musical wholesomeness, i.e., “This Performance Will be Good for You and Contains Only Marginal Traces of Romanticism.”

Happily, too, modern orchestras and conductors have been influenced by the “Baroque-niks.” Today’s string players use a subtler vibrato for Bach or Mozart than they might for Elgar. (I was astonished a few years ago to have to ask the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra to use more vibrato in a Beethoven Symphony; apparently their then-music director, Sir Simon Rattle, preferred to have his Viennese classics virtually vibrato-free.) Modern orchestras are also beginning to experiment with historical seating arrangements, and are finding that a classical symphony takes on a whole new flavor when the first and second violins sit in stereo. Such period-instrument effects as bow-vibrato are no longer routinely erased and replaced with something more “convenient.” Not all these experiments are equally successful with all orchestras, but it is a fine thing to re-think constantly how one performs, and not to be smugly satisfied with routine.
Unfortunately, there are still a few unrepentant purists around who would seem to prefer that music not be performed at all, unless on the original instruments – just the right number of them, mind you, at exactly the original pitch in use in that region at that time, etc., etc. To me this is like searching for the end of the rainbow. Can we really only do justice to a Handel opera by having it sung by castrati? Are any of the Puritans willing to volunteer themselves or their children to be made into “authentic” instruments for the purpose?

On the other side, there are a few curmudgeons who think that the period-instrument movement has contributed nothing to musical performance, except of course to make them foam at the mouth. These neo-Luddites, unlike the purists starving in their garrets, are sometimes internationally famous in the profession and therefore have greater opportunities to make themselves heard. Here it is important to distinguish between reasoned argument and plain distaste. To me, calling period performance “disgusting” and “complete rubbish”, as Pinchas Zukerman did in an interview in Toronto’s “Globe and Mail”, falls into the latter category. We are only human, and we are perhaps bound to dislike certain things: Personally, I detest the songs of Bob Dylan, and klezmer music makes me dive for the radio’s “off” switch almost as fast as the immortal songs of ABBA. However, I would not try to ennoble my prejudice by calling it an argument. Let’s leave that to the televangelists!

On a totally different plane are the doubts and serious questions about period performance raised by the ever-inspiring Charles Rosen in a chapter of his book, “Critical Entertainments” [Harvard University Press, April 2000]. While too lengthy to summarize here, his ruminations seem to enhance and elevate the whole nature of the debate.

For the rest, let them try to convince us by their playing. About twenty years ago, music critic Harold Schonberg reviewed a performance of the Bach concerto for four harpsichords played on four Steinway pianos. Acknowledging that Bach had written the piece for quite different instruments, and that it had originally been played in a completely different style, Schonberg admitted that the passion and commitment of the performance held him in delightful thrall from the first bar to the last. His review was a paean of praise for the eloquence of live performances, and the ability of compelling performances to transcend scholarly concerns.

This last point is, for me, much more important that whether a work is played on period instruments or not. I am lucky enough to live in the San Francisco Bay area where we have several symphony orchestras, modern chamber orchestras and a couple of period-instrument ensembles. In the 1980s, the San Francisco Symphony used to have a Bach Festival, but that withered. Now, Bach is mostly the preserve of the period-instrument groups. This is a pity, especially because Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra happily plays Beethoven and Mendelssohn. In most cities, such creative competition is not an option: perhaps the local symphony orchestra has been inhibited by the purists, and so no longer plays Bach or Corelli, but there is no period-instrument group to plug the repertoire gap. The sad result is that the music that is most often heard on the radio on the way to work is precisely that which is least performed in the concert hall.

There is a logistical problem here, too. Most concert halls today are designed for music on a grander scale than one generally finds in the Baroque repertoire. I can well remember feeling a bit silly conducting a performance of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, which requires eight players, in a hall that held more than 2,500 people. Thank heavens it was played on modern instruments so that the public could at least hear something! Nevertheless, modern vs. period instruments was not the real issue. What was amiss was that the hall, which was perfect for Mahler, could not do much for chamber music.

This, to me, is a key concern: So much of the early repertoire is really for chamber forces and needs to be played in a space that bears some resemblance to a chamber. Some Baroque pieces, such as Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, sound splendid in a big hall, but they are the exception. I strongly advocate that a symphony orchestra looks for a smaller alternative space to play the glorious music of Bach and his contemporaries. Symphony musicians love performing it, and audiences deserve to hear it live, not just on their car radios. Of course, there may be some mutterings from a Puritan or two, but no one is stopping them from mounting their own period-instrument concert series. As for the curmudgeons, let them be invited as guest artists, let them give the pre-concert talk and let the public hear them perform afterwards.

They had better be as captivating as the four Steinway pianists, though.

  • Article © 2005 by Nicholas McGegan. Adapted from an article that first appeared in the September/October 2000 issue of SYMPHONY, the magazine of the American Symphony Orchestra League. It is published on Classical Source with permission
  • Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra

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