Magazine article Gramophone

Bach by All and Sundry: A Cornucopian Collection from Interpreters of All Kinds

Magazine article Gramophone

Bach by All and Sundry: A Cornucopian Collection from Interpreters of All Kinds

Article excerpt

Any critique emanating from the general direction of John Eliot Gardiner stings more than most because his words, clearly, are not those of some partisan critic or aloof academic. When Gardiner makes the startling assertion--just a few pages into his recently published biography of JS Bach, Music in the Castle of Heaven (Allen Lane: 2013; 11/13)--that hearing Karl Richter conduct the Bach motets live in 1967 was an experience marred by 'oppressive volume and sheer aggression', you take note. Especially when he adds the rider that the following day the old-school German conductor/ harpsichordist did precisely nothing to redeem himself with a Goldberg Variations played on a 'souped-up' harpsichord: the performance, declares Gardiner, was 'thunderous'.

And so I suppressed a snigger when, a few weeks after I'd finished Gardiner's book, this 50-CD box-set showed up in the post, and--paradox waltzing with irony--I found Richter's 1961 recording of the B minor Mass sandwiched between Gardiner's 1980s St John Passion and Christmas Oratorio, and that a selection of cantatas again juxtaposed performances by Richter and Gardiner--a generational divide to be mapped and savoured, the wayback certainties of Richter, Hanns-Martin Schneidt and Helmut Walcha versus the avant-Baroque of Gardiner, Trevor Pinnock, Christopher Hogwood and Reinhard Goebel.

For visceral sonic might, no one could fail to be exhilarated by Richter's B minor Mass. Brucknerian excesses of brass and thunderous (that word again) timpani belong, of course, to another era, as does Richter's predilection for detached, slightly robotic phrasing. But tempi, generally, are not as monumental and stately as you might be anticipating --the mammoth opening Kyrie (12'15" to Gardiner's 9'28") being the major exception. No, the interpretative dividing line between Richter and Gardiner fractures over issues of tone and weight. Gardiner looks back to move forwards, his base orchestral/choral sound--streamlined, agile, skipping--removing Bach from being recalibrated as a stylistic stablemate of, say, Mozart's Requiem or Beethoven's Missa solemnis.

Claudio Abbado's complete Brandenburg Concertos with Orchestra Mozart, a live recording from 2007, again raises points of order about appropriateness of ensemble. …

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