The speed freaks who are ruining Bach.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Sept. 5 2003 1:37 PM

Speed Freaks Do Bach

Please, stop turning sublime classical works into dance music.

(Continued from Page 1)

To see what I mean with the piece's mournful opening movement, compare the early '70s recording by the distinguished Bachian Helmuth Rilling with Gardiner's. Gardiner's is nearly 20 percent faster—and Rilling's was faster than Herbert von Karajan's and Otto Klemperer's recordings of a few years earlier.

What it amounts to is that the influence of the early-music movement is turning everything into dance music. And the virus is spreading in the repertoire. Compare the tempos of Beethoven symphonies in the classic '60s Karajan set with a recent "authentic" set by David Zinman: Nearly every movement of every symphony is several notches faster in the newer one. In addition, the musical phrasings, the commas and colons and semicolons, are glossed over in favor of momentum.

Let's compare beginnings of Beethoven's "Sixth Symphony," the "Pastoral," whose first movement is titled "Awakening of happy feelings on arriving in the country." Here's Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic in the 1960s. Now here's the beginning from a late-'80s original-instrument set by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music. I admire that band, that conductor, and much of this set, but I don't know what planet Hogwood's "Pastoral" is on. Our traveler is jogging too fast for happy feelings—he's anaerobic. Hogwood's tempo is nearly three metronome clicks faster than Karajan's, whose tempo is on the brisk side for his time. But Karajan wouldn't even rate on today's dog track.

There's something more troubling going on here, beyond tempos in classical music. I think people don't want any music to be serious anymore. It's all rock 'n' roll now. Many people know mainly dance music, and that's all they want to know—even in classical pieces. There's an increasing disconnect between music and meaning. I saw that in the big New York rock concert in memorial of 9/11. In a way I understand it: When tragedies happen, creative people respond by doing what they do. But in a larger sense that concert disturbed me. What it said was, Three thousand people have died. Therefore, let us shake our booties.

The old saw comes to mind that for everything there is a season. There's a time to shake that thing and a time to refrain from shaking it. Maybe one of the times to refrain is right after a catastrophe. Rocking in response to disaster mixes up the purposes of mourning and getting down, which belong to different seasons. Some kinds of music are there for serious moments, others to party with, and to erase the difference is to erase the purpose and integrity of any music.

The moral here is that in the absence of solid evidence, and sometimes in the presence of it, scholars are apt to believe what they want to believe, as whispered to them by fashion. The lecturer on my old Handel recording probably believed in progress, so it suited him that old instruments sounded lousy. When Wanda Landowska started playing harpsichord many years ago, some believers in progress were outraged that she'd resurrected an "obsolete," "inferior" instrument. These days, literally and figuratively, scholars like to dance; fast and lean is the answer to everything. Perhaps some performers are just bored with the repertoire, so they inject it with speed. Maybe those performers should give the music a rest, because a lot of listeners aren't bored with the music. We'd like strong, engaged, passionate performances rather than the Bach and Beethoven Lite we're getting.

I hope someday our greyhoundish conductors will stop and smell the flowers: rediscover that tempo has something to do with meaning and expression and that a scrawny sound isn't always the right sound. I hope they'll let music be tragic and intense and sumptuous again, when it needs to be. For myself, I'm swearing off live performances of Bach for a while, until conductors have worn themselves out chasing that rabbit.

Jan Swafford is a composer and writer. His books include Johannes Brahms: A Biography and Charles Ives: A Life With Music.