The amazing variety of approaches to Bach

Martin CullingfordMon 8th October 2018

Why the composer deserves the in-depth treatment of a major new box-set

In my time as Editor there have been several occasions when, month after month, one composer has reliably featured in the Editor’s Choice selection, sometimes more than once. That composer is JS Bach. It could be personal bias on my part, of course, but I think it’s more than that. There are perhaps few composers whose music lends itself so well to so many varieties of interpretation, and few who inspire performers to such profound levels of music-making. 

On the first point, it’s remarkable that so much of Bach’s instrumental music can work equally well on piano, strings, wind, accordion, symphony orchestra, jazz trio ... and remarkable, too, that the music is not only able to bear the transcription, but even offer up unexpected and hidden depths in that new guise. On the second, I am rarely as moved by music as I am by moments of Bach, be it the great Chaconne from the Second Partita for solo violin or the profound spirituality and humanity in the unfolding of the Passion story in one or other of Bach’s settings. 

Words like ‘Everest’ are regularly used about Bach’s masterpieces, a reflection of the status they hold in the development of an artist’s life and career. Could a career as extraordinary as Glenn Gould’s have been more fittingly bookended than by the Goldberg Variations, offering two completely different but equally moving interpretations which respectively reflect the bravado and optimism of youth, and the reflectiveness and wisdom of maturity? The compulsion and desire by artists to perform Bach’s music, and the resulting diversity: is it any wonder that his music has formed such a constant thread through the history of recording? For if the music of few composers has generated such an array of recordings, in the music of fewer still can we see reflected and chronicled the changes in both performance practice and recording techniques across the remarkable century or so of the studio.

Bach’s music is therefore the perfect subject for the sort of treatment DG has lavished on it in its latest bumper box-set, ‘Bach 333’ (the number of years since his birth, in case you were wondering!). At 222 CDs, it’s apparently the biggest composer box-set ever, and will certainly take some beating; though with Beethoven’s 250th anniversary lying just around the corner in 2020, there’s certainly a gauntlet there to be picked up …

Gould’s Goldbergs didn’t make the box-set, but few classical music recordings better fulfil the definition of an album. Complete, perfectly shaped (though to be fair, Bach had done that bit), their release, and subsequent playing, felt and feels like an event. That’s what a recording at its best should do – something everyone here felt when our newly crowned Recording of the Year, Berlioz’s Les Troyens, arrived. On October 13, the UK record industry is celebrating the inaugural National Album Day by inviting listeners, artists, radio stations and the public to play their favourite album at, appropriately enough, 3.33pm. It’s a genre-wide initiative, but it would be lovely to think that among the pop and rock filling the air and the airwaves, there might also be some Berlioz – or, indeed, some Bach.

martin.cullingford@markallengroup.com

Gramophone’s October 2018 issue  - which explores the history of Bach’s music on record - is available now.  

Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.

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