What did Bach sound like? The answer, of course, is that we can never know. It has been 333 years since the birth of Johann Sebastian, and we realise that we cannot recapture the sound of most performances of his music: they are irretrievably lost to us. There are some lively anecdotal accounts of Bach himself performing, as a commanding improviser on the organ, and also as a somewhat challenged conductor of his forces. As the rector of the Thomasschule in Leipzig recalled in 1738, ‘He keeps 30 or 40 musicians in order, one by a nod, another by stamping time with his foot, and a third with a warning finger, and joins in with his own voice … at once notices when and where something is wrong … and if there is any hesitation restores certainty.’ But that doesn’t tell us how the music sounded.
We may feel we know what Bach should sound like, but how far does that depend on the sonorities and traditions with which we grew up? We have come far enough in the continuing and sometimes acrimonious debate about period-performance styles to know that there is no single original to which a performer must aspire. There is a complicated interaction between the practices of the time, radical changes in performance and listening habits, and our desire to communicate today. What remains is our informed taste, shaped by involvement with the materials that Bach and his colleagues left behind, our understanding of the cultural and musical context that produced the music, and our own interpretative instincts and stylistic training. Or, as one of the pioneers of the Bach revival, the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, put it rather more concisely, ‘I study, I scrutinise, I love, and I recreate’: quite a manifesto.
However, the most recent century of Bach performance has been different from others in one crucial respect: this has been the century of recording and broadcasting. Bach recordings provide a detailed guide to the seismic changes in Baroque performance in general, and of Bach in particular, that have taken place across these hundred and more years. But they should be used with caution: like any surviving historical documents, these recordings have to be interpreted and understood in relation to their time. How typical were they? Or do they represent a reaction against the norms of the period? Importantly, this has not been a one-way process of performances simply being captured for posterity: recordings have themselves shaped and informed developments in performing techniques, redefining our taste.
The earliest Bach recordings are musical straws in the wind: we cannot tell whether Jules Conus’s account of the first Minuet from Violin Partita No 3 recorded on October 4, 1892 (issued on ‘The Dawn of Recording’, from Ward Marston), represents a tradition, any more than Joseph Joachim’s isolated and surprisingly purist accounts of two movements from the solo violin works, made in 1903, not long before his death. The start of the 20th century was the time when acute dissatisfaction began to be expressed with the way in which the large-scale choral society traditions of the previous century had dominated Bach performance. George Bernard Shaw inveighed against ‘our plan of compensating for the absence of some 10 or 11 skilful and sympathetic singers by substituting 10 or 11 hundred stolid and maladroit ones, however strong-lunged the 10 or 11 hundred may be’.
One has to listen to recordings from after the First World War – so from the last century – for real evidence of performance style. The rumble of the old traditions can still be heard in the massive choral extracts from Bach’s B minor Mass recorded under Dr Edward Bairstow at the Royal Albert Hall, London, in 1926, in cantatas recorded under Sir Hugh Allen at the 1928 Leeds Triennial Festival, and in motets recorded by the Bach Cantata Club with Charles Kennedy Scott: feeling is strong, the sound is impressive, but precision is not of the essence (the same spirit of communal music-making can be glimpsed as late as 1958 in Vaughan Williams’s guidance of the Leith Hill Music Festival in the St Matthew Passion, reissued on Pearl). But this was also the period when Arnold Dolmetsch began to argue for historical performance styles that ensured the music was ‘clothed in its own fur and feathers’.
The American guru of Bach recordings Teri Noel Towe has wisely warned against generalising about performance style from a few recordings by great distinctive interpreters (for the full discussion, visit bach-cantatas.com/teritowe). The famous account of the St Matthew Passion recorded in the Concertgebouw in 1939 under Willem Mengelberg has wild tempo fluctuations, massive ritardandos and passionate climaxes. But does this reflect the style of the time, or an individual insight? Towe points instead to recordings by Siegfried Ochs in the 1920s (very rapid and forward-moving in the opening of the St Matthew Passion) and the classic style of Hans Weisbach in the 1930s, both of which represent a much more restrained Leipzig-based tradition. That is also reflected in the radio recordings from the Thomanerchor of the 1930s under Karl Straube, which can be sampled on the ‘Bach 333’ edition. Then there is Eugene Goossens, directing the Third Brandenburg Concerto at the Royal Albert Hall back in 1923 – a vigorously fast, rhythmic account. Towe believes that these versions point back to a 19th-century Bach style more faithfully than does Mengelberg, an intriguing hypothesis which must remain unproven, but is a valuable corrective to the notion that all old Bach performances were thick and slow.
The other huge influence on performing style is the individual virtuoso, who sets her or his own terms. Wanda Landowska recorded as early as 1908 (the first movement of the Italian Concerto), and her tremendous 1935 account of the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue set a benchmark for the time. But equally musical, with a different elegance, is the Bach of the remarkable English harpsichordist Violet Gordon Woodhouse, who recorded Bach in the 1920s (Pearl). There were pianists too, including Harold Samuel, whose pristine performances from 1923 to 1927 (also Pearl) still carry real conviction. Edwin Fischer’s legendary recordings of the complete ‘48’ in the 1930s (Naxos) are still venerated by musicians. Dinu Lipatti recorded an isolated First Partita in 1950 (EMI) before his untimely death. But it was the appearance of the brilliant virtuoso Glenn Gould’s first recording of the Goldberg Variations in 1955 for CBS that really set the world alight. Quite why this individual, quirky, penetrating account should have made the huge impact it did is a subject of its own, but its clarity, transparency and forward impetus captured the spirit of the times to an uncanny degree. This marked the moment when Bach entered the mainstream, and for a time in the 1960s it seemed as if Bach would infiltrate every corner of the pop repertory, with the reinventions of Jacques Loussier, the Swingle Singers and the Moog synthesiser, or the passion of Nina Simone, who said, ‘Bach made me dedicate my life to music’.
Popular transcriptions, adapting Bach to the taste and genres of the time, actually reflected a rather different recorded tradition. Many mid-20th-century listeners knew Bach through the refashioning of his works on record by conductors and composers – Stokowski, Respighi, Schoenberg and Elgar – making them attractive in the age of orchestral technicolour. But slowly that development was implicitly criticised and overtaken by the growth of the neoclassical style and the flourishing of small-scale chamber orchestras and ensembles which claimed a purer approach. Adolf Busch made a pioneering recording of the Brandenburg Concertos in 1935 with Rudolf Serkin as the piano soloist on No 5 and the early-music pioneer August Wenzinger on the viola da gamba. ‘An artistic sensation,’ said Gramophone. This was a decisive new direction.
The scholarly approach found a voice in Deutsche Grammophon’s Archiv Produktion, founded in 1947 by Dr Fred Hamel under the general policy of national heritage conservation. Strongly musicological in tone with its sober yellow covers and strictly organised recording periods, it was spearheaded by the conductor Fritz Lehmann until his premature death in 1956 and Hamel’s the following year. The young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau memorably recorded solo cantatas under Lehmann and Karl Ristenpart, and one of the most influential of all Bach recording projects began in 1947: the organ works under Helmut Walcha, recorded on appropriate instruments starting in the Jacobikirche in Lübeck. Blind from the age of 16, Walcha played from memory, and went on to record a magisterial complete cycle in stereo.
After Lehmann, the Archiv mantle passed to one of the most important Bach interpreters of the century, the conductor (and organist) Karl Richter. His Bach had clarity, forcefulness and deep understanding. He worked with modern instruments and accomplished soloists such as Edith Mathis, Anna Reynolds and Ernst Haefliger; it was the discipline and attack of his Munich Bach Choir and Orchestra that made such a powerful impression, especially in his classic St Matthew Passion of 1958 with Haefliger, Keith Engen, Irmgard Seefried, Hertha Töpper and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – an interpretation whose monumentality has been challenged in our time only by Otto Klemperer’s granite-like account of 1961 for EMI (with Peter Pears, Fischer-Dieskau, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Christa Ludwig).
Smaller-scale performances had become common in the UK, such as Paul Steinitz’s pioneering work with his London Bach Society, too little of which was recorded, for Unicorn. Expert chamber-sized ensembles like the English Chamber Orchestra under Raymond Leppard for Philips and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields under Neville Marriner for Argo honed their 18th-century style within the prevailing traditions, and created Bach recordings which enjoyed huge success, as did those of Karl Münchinger’s Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra.
But revolution was in the air. Already in the 1950s Nikolaus and Alice Harnoncourt had formed their Concentus Musicus Wien, exploring performance on period instruments; and in 1954, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, with Gustav Leonhardt and colleagues, recorded Bach cantatas with the English countertenor Alfred Deller for Vanguard – a decisive moment. Working out of the limelight, Harnoncourt developed his ensemble until, in 1968, they recorded Bach’s B minor Mass for Telefunken’s Das Alte Werk, a performance which caused huge controversy and inaugurated a new style for the following decades. Boys’ voices in the choir with female soloists; period instruments with rasping horn and trumpets, skating strings, quirky oboes and burbling bassoons, all with light, transparent, dancing textures – this was a revelation, though it was one to which some critics and scholars found it difficult to adapt, and by which conventional performers on modern instruments justifiably felt threatened. The public had fewer problems, and lapped up this revitalised sound world.
The success of that project, and of the Passions and the Brandenburgs, led to the proposal to record all Bach’s cantatas with Harnoncourt and Leonhardt through the 1970s for Telefunken Das Alte Werk. The appearance of this series year by year, in LP sets containing full orchestral scores, unlocked a new understanding of Bach for many of us. It was a thrilling time, full of the winds of change. The mid-1970s was the period when we heard radical sounds from Holland and Vienna; it was also the time of the formation of the first British period-instrument groups, of which the leader in Bach recorded performance was Trevor Pinnock’s English Concert, again under the Archiv banner, with Brandenburgs and orchestral suites that quickly became the standard versions. Christopher Hogwood’s Academy of Ancient Music on Decca L’Oiseau-Lyre and, later, John Eliot Gardiner’s English Baroque Soloists on Philips followed, further expanding the Bach period-instrument discography.
Reinhard Goebel and Musica Antiqua Köln pushed things to the limit in their set of Brandenburgs for Archiv (which in ‘Bach 333’ is released on one disc for the first time), also recording The Art of Fugue and Bach’s chamber music, adding fine accounts of music by Bach’s family and contemporaries to reveal the context from which Bach grew. Ton Koopman and Philippe Herreweghe originally performed together and then went their own separate ways, each producing fine Bach cantata series – Koopman for Erato then Challenge, and Herreweghe for Harmonia Mundi then Collegium Vocale Gent’s own label, PHI. Period instrumentalists gained in skill and confidence, and their versions began to dominate the record catalogues and BBC Radio 3’s ‘Building a Library’ recommendations. Of course, modern instrument groups continued to record this repertory successfully, but somehow the impetus had shifted inexorably towards the bright, clean sound of period instruments, which in the 1980s seemed (not entirely coincidentally) ideally suited to the new CD.
It was the American scholar, pianist and conductor Joshua Rifkin who launched the next startling revolution in Bach performance with his contention in 1981 that Bach’s expectation would have been for his ‘choral’ parts to be sung by one singer to a part. Launched with a recording of the B minor Mass for Nonesuch which claimed to be ‘in the original version’, his theories remain today the subject of considerable debate. But they produced some deeply musical results, and stimulated a reappraisal of the forces needed for all of Bach’s vocal works. Rifkin recorded cantatas on Decca L’Oiseau-Lyre, and other leading examples included Andrew Parrott’s outstanding B minor Mass for EMI and Paul McCreesh’s St Matthew Passion for DG.
Among the conductors who have produced the most recent complete cycles of Bach cantatas, Gardiner (on DG and then his own label SDG) and Masaaki Suzuki (for BIS) do not agree with Rifkin’s theory of one-to-a-part choral performance, preferring ensembles of 12 or 16 – but they do follow the principle that the sounds and textures of solo arias should complement rather than contradict those of the ensemble movements. Most recently, pointing forward to a new stylistic integration, John Butt’s Dunedin Consort on Linn has mixed deep scholarship with exuberant performance.
One of the most unfortunate myths established by the early years of the period-instrument revival was that the harpsichord was the only suitable instrument for Bach’s keyboard music, and as a result, the piano was cast into (fortunately temporary) outer darkness. The excitements of the heavyweight, quasi-orchestral harpsichords cultivated by the likes of Ralph Kirkpatrick, Rafael Puyana, the supremely musical Zuzana Růžičková and the brilliantly extrovert George Malcolm gave way to the leaner, more ascetic approach of Leonhardt and Kenneth Gilbert, and the younger generation of Pinnock (Archiv) and Christophe Rousset (L’Oiseau-Lyre). The variety of national approaches to the harpsichord is now endlessly stimulating, with Pierre Hantaï and Jean Rondeau from France, Rinaldo Alessandrini from Italy, and the Iranian Mahan Esfahani (now on DG) opening new horizons.
Freed from the needless stigma of inauthenticity, pianists led by András Schiff have reclaimed this repertory. For Schiff’s first piano recording of the Goldbergs on Decca, the harpsichordist Malcolm wrote a touching recommendation; Schiff’s Partitas and second recording of the Goldbergs for ECM represent a peak of the Bach revival on the piano. Other pianists have since made wide-ranging contributions to the Bach discography: Murray Perahia on CBS (with a fine Goldbergs) and now DG (the French Suites), Angela Hewitt on Hyperion in all Bach’s major keyboard works, and Maurizio Pollini and Pierre-Laurent Aimard on DG (the ‘48’ and the Art of Fugue). Occasional individual forays, too, have been made by Martha Argerich, Ivo Pogorelich, Richard Goode, Alfred Brendel and Nelson Freire. Among the youngest generation, Benjamin Grosvenor on Decca has recorded the Bach-Busoni Chaconne, and continuing interest in the art of transcription and reinvention has led to an endlessly fascinating Hyperion series. My own favourite, very chaste, example remains György and Márta Kurtág’s piano-duet version of the Sinfonia to Bach’s Cantata No 106 (ECM), which they played at Ligeti’s funeral.
A similar evolutionary impulse in Bach performance can be observed in the change in violin style from the unforgettably intense accounts of the Concerto for Two Violins by David and Igor Oistrakh (in several versions from the late 1950s and early 1960s) to the conversion of Viktoria Mullova from that solidly Russian style on her Philips recordings of 1992 to a lighter, flexible period-approach on her Onyx recording of the Sonatas and Partitas made from 2007 to 2008. On the cello, meanwhile, after Pablo Casals’s almost sacral approach to the Suites, which he did so much to popularise, the supple, dancing style of the period cello pioneered by Anner Bylsma has inspired a range of lively players from Pieter Wispelwey to Steven Isserlis and David Watkin.
The range of Bach interpretations now available to us, as the new ‘Bach 333’ set demonstrates, is vast and varied. Great singers, for example, from every era of recording have engaged with Bach, and the results are not always predictable. Strong contrasts are present in each generation: Schwarzkopf’s expressive solos for Herbert von Karajan are totally unlike the purist style of Agnes Giebel or Elly Ameling, and while some of us still cherish the technically challenged but eloquent boy treble soloists of the 1970s, sopranos such as Emma Kirkby and now Dorothee Mields have created a new style. In the alto repertory, Kathleen Ferrier recorded a very moving Agnus Dei from the B minor Mass just before her early death, while the tradition of Helen Watts, Janet Baker and Anna Reynolds has led to the sharper-edged Anne Sofie von Otter and Magdalena Koená, balanced by Bernarda Fink and the unforgettable Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Whether or not the countertenor voice can be reliably associated with this repertory, René Jacobs, Paul Esswood, Andreas Scholl and now Iestyn Davies have decisively claimed the solo alto cantatas.
Performing traditions will continue to evolve in response to changing taste, new research, the development of instruments, the building of concert spaces, the means of distribution (live and recorded) and the behaviour of audiences. It would be very surprising if these elements did not have a major impact on our way of making music, but, given the availability of so many different idioms, we do not need to reject anything in the search for performances that speak to us today. As Landowska is (more unreliably) supposed to have said: ‘You play Bach in your way, I will play him in his.’ Now, with the treasure trove of varied performances in the ‘Bach 333’ collection at our disposal, we can listen to him in our way, whatever that may be. Somewhere, we can be sure, he will be listening in his.
Pablo Casals vc
The historic recording which, alongside Wanda Landowska’s harpsichord recordings and the Busch Chamber Players’ Brandenburgs with Rudolf Serkin, inaugurated the popular Bach revival on disc.
Helmut Walcha org
The beginning of the scholarly revival by Archiv of Bach’s music performed on appropriate instruments: the blind organist made his first recording from Lübeck in 1947 and went on to record the complete organ works.
Alfred Deller counterten Various Ensembles / Gustav Leonhardt, Nikolaus Harnoncourt
The first recording on period instruments of Bach cantatas, by Leonhardt and Harnoncourt who would go on to record a historic complete cantata cycle in the ’70s.
Glenn Gould pf
This burst into the world as a revelation and became an iconic recording of our time. Gould’s individual, penetrating take on Bach’s great variations is performed in one compelling sweep – not surpassed by his later version.
Sols; Munich Bach Choir and Orchestra / Karl Richter
This early Passion recording with Evangelist Ernst Haefliger shows Richter’s superbly disciplined forces at their most expressive, with an intensity matched only by Otto Klemperer’s recording.
Soloists; Concentus Musicus Wien / Nikolas Harnoncourt
The Bach performance that prompted a revolution: period instruments, boys’ voices in the choir, transparent textures and dancelike clarity in Harnoncourt’s new-minted vision.
Soloists; The Bach Ensemble / Joshua Rifkin
The start of a massive Bach argument: Rifkin’s one-to-a-part performance of the Mass and cantatas split critics and scholars, but has become increasingly influential with performers.
Musica Antiqua Köln / R Goebel
Following on from the success of old-instrument Bach from Pinnock, Parrott and Hogwood, the second wave of historic Bach discs brought this extraordinarily racy take on the Brandenburgs.
András Schiff pf
(ECM New Series)
Schiff’s most recent recordings, such as the Six Partitas and the Goldberg Variations, together with his live performances of the ‘48’ including at this year’s BBC Proms (where he performed Book 2), have reasserted the central place of the piano in Bach performance.
Soloists; Dunedin Consort / John Butt
The latest development in historic performance style: John Butt’s revealing interpretation reconstructs the Leipzig liturgy within which Bach’s Passion would have been first heard.
Nicholas Kenyon is Managing Director of the Barbican Centre and author of the Faber Pocket Guide to Bach. He was a consultant to ‘Bach 333: The New Complete Edition’, a collection of 222 CDs and 1 DVD presented by DG in collaboration with Decca Classics, 30 other labels and the Leipzig Bach Archive
This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Gramophone. To explore our latest subscription offers, please visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe