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.

I'm pleased to possess, in a dusty sleeve from the cheapo-but-interesting days of Vox records, what appears to be the world's first recording of a major Baroque work on original instruments. It's Handel's "Royal Fireworks Music," recorded in 1961 with masses of keyless oboes and bassoons, serpent horns, valveless trumpets, hunting horns. I put it on for musician friends and watch them slide off the sofa laughing. It's a howling mob of splattering horns and blatting oboes, everything gloriously out of tune. Oh, the pleasures of the really, really bad.

Nearly as great is the scholarly lecture on the flip side, in which we are informed that, believe it or not, this is exactly how Handel sounded in his time. Since brass instruments could not be played in tune, they simply carried on out of tune while everybody else was in.

Of course, our lecturer got it wrong. The game but incompetent pioneers on that recording simply didn't know how to play their horns. Listen to any decent original-instrument group of the last 30-odd years and you'll hear lucid, in-tune, elegant playing—as in this version of the Royal Fireworks by Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert. And the original-instrument folks have been creeping forward in history. We've seen more releases of Mozart, Beethoven, and beyond with original instruments.

In the process we hear scholarship go right and we hear it go wrong. Sometimes, we hear it go nuts. After all, research can take us only so far. We can't really know what music sounded like before recordings arrived, and the historical data is vague and contradictory. The older the music, the more uncertainty. As the early-music movement matured from its first burgeoning in the '70s, the exponents 'fessed up: Their original claims of "authentic performance" gave way to the more modest "historically informed performance" (aka HIP). Musicians make guesses informed by the evidence, further informed by their sense of musicality. It's musicality that makes the thing work or not. Our Handel performers guessed wrong, and they lacked the chops to do even the wrong thing right.

The first really good original-instrument orchestra I heard was the Academy of Ancient Music, in the late '70s. The recording was Mozart's "G Minor Symphony," and my jaw dropped in the first bars. The familiar opening theme sounded nervous and muscular rather than logy and saxophonish, as it does with big modern orchestras. Wow! I thought as the piece went on, You can actually hear every note in the score. It was as if that long-familiar piece had been restored and renewed. I was instantly an enthusiast.

After conceding much of the Bach-and-backward repertoire to original instruments, mainstream orchestras began to get hip to HIP. In the '80s at symphony performances in Boston and elsewhere, you started to see much of the string section disappear for Mozart and Beethoven. As Glenn Gould played Bach aspiring to make his piano sound like a harpsichord, modern orchestras began to aim for a leaner and cleaner sound in the Classical-period repertoire.

Ah, the '70s and early '80s. That was the good time, when performers often beautifully balanced the scholarly and the expressive. This is the period of some treasured HIP recordings, like Nicholas Harnoncourt's Monteverdi "Vespers." Then, in the '90s, in the midst of its triumph, for a lot of us early music and its influences went sour. Lean and clean turned mean.

Sometimes textures got so slimmed down they became anorexic, as with the conductors who started doing big Bach choral works with one singer on each part. The more obvious extremes, though, have to do with tempo. Clock the last 40 years and you'll find the beat getting relentlessly faster. The scholarly rationalizations are more sophisticated now, but somehow what they invariably add up to is: You can't be skinny enough or fast enough.

There's a speed sweepstakes going on. Six years ago in Boston I heard a Bach "B Minor Mass" from which slow tempos had been essentially banished. No more grandeur, no more sublimity, no more sweetness, no more tragedy—all qualities in which the "B Minor" is incomparably rich. Or used to be. In this performance the speeds were brisk, brisker, breakneck. In the "Crucifixus" movement, Christ trotted all the way to Golgotha, pumping his cross.

I thought that was the last freaking straw, everything fast as possible, until two years ago I heard a conductor take movements of the "B Minor" faster than possible, chorus and orchestra scrambling desperately to catch up. In the crowd after the performance I heard one guy exclaim, "I didn't know Bach was so bouncy!"; another, an organist no less, wondered, "I don't get it. What's the big deal about that piece?" The most trenchant comment was from an older composer, who sighed as I passed, "Too bad. It really is the greatest music in the world."

There's incompetent bad, which as in my old Handel recording can be highly entertaining. And there's sophisticated bad, which is just depressing. There's no way to say to what degree those Bach tempos were "authentic." The main basis for those tempos is fashion, not hard evidence. What can be confidently said is that a two-hour religious work of often tragic import containing little or no slow music is inexpressive, unmusical, and silly.

We're seeing the Vivaldi-ization of Bach: gloom banished, minimal variety, implacably crisp, bouncy.  And the slim 'n' speedy virus has infected good conductors. When the well-reviewed 1989 John Eliot Gardiner recording of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" appeared, as a Gardiner fan I ran to get it. This time the great chorus of lamentation that begins the "Passion" was indeed an occasion of mourning: I'd blown 20 bucks. Gardiner takes the chorus of lamentation at near-gigue tempo. Jesus is crucified, his performance cries. Let's dance!

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