A New (Old) Approach to Bach

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Related Class
Life and Works of Bach
Begins September 19
Downtown Chicago

The last time I taught a Bach class there were raised eyebrows when I used recordings of the major choral works conducted by Furtwangler (Matthew Passion), Klemperer (Matthew Passion as well) and Karajan (b minor mass).  There may even have been a few smirks. Why did I use these recordings? Am I so out of touch?

I used them because they are better than the recordings by Harnoncourt and Gardiner.  

I’m not saying that the original instruments and an informed scholarly attitude toward this repertory hasn’t done a great deal for Bach, if it has done less for Berlioz or Brahms.  I keep a library of both old and new Bach recordings, and I carefully read the books and essays written by Harnoncourt and Norrington, for instance, and have profitted a great deal from their ideas.  And although there is some truth to the notion that the period instrument boom was a gimmick to sell new cds of old works for commercial purposes, on the whole it was a sincere and possibly necessary attempt at a corrective of old performance modes. But the romantic and subjective interpretations mentioned above do greater justice to Bach’s intent, which was to make spiritually sublime music.    

Like an obedient little boy I used recordings of these works by Harnoncourt and Jon Eliot Gardiner in all my previous Bach classes. This fall I’ll probably use a mixture of different recordings (both big romantic approaches as well as period instrument versions)  for the orchestral and choral works (the keyboard works I’ll attempt to play myself, for the most part).

I refuse to be intimidated by the early music crowd.  Harnoncourt, et al. reveal more about the late twentieth century than they do about the eighteenth century.  And old instruments don’t need to be used…they are simply not as good as modern instruments. And play Bach’s keyboard music on the piano, for heaven’s sake, where the player can control articulation and dynamics, and by all means use the pedal!