Thursday playlist: Bach, Bach

This week’s playlist forces me to write about something I know very little about. That’s not entirely unusual, of course, since this is after all a blog, but I want to be clear that I’m not even remotely an expert on this subject.

The subject is how different musicians interpret Bach in performance. OMG, you say. Let me quickly click over to Yahoo! news or Kottke to escape this horror.

Fair enough. There is no particular reason you should read a few paragraphs about Bach interpretation, or listen to different recordings of the same pieces. Except that Bach is more awesome even than Iron Maiden, and you probably haven’t been listening to enough Bach lately. And how’s that daily multivitamin working out for you, by the way?

I jest. Bach’s music, of course, is nothing like a multivitamin. Bach’s music is more like, well, it’s something like the light from a thousand suns diffracted into intricate arrays of rainbows by ten thousand prisms. That is, there’s something mathematically vast about Bach, which I suppose accounts for that Douglas Hofstadter book that I haven’t read. You sense, even if you can’t comprehend it all at once, that there’s some serious structure going on — not just an overall structure, like theme, development, restatement, etc., but structure within structure, many tiny, surprising bits of counterpoint and harmony that come together in larger pieces and eventually whole works of overpowering beauty.

That’s the other thing about Bach — you can hear the complexity, even if you can’t parse it musicologically, but you can also just let it wash over you like some crazy romantic symphony. The beauty of Bach’s music comes from the structure, but that beauty also contains something wild that’s all the more powerful for being restrained in Baroque counterpoint.

At least that’s my take on it. And that’s what this playlist is about. The first piece is a prélude and fugue in F major for organ, and the first version of it is by Anthony Newmann, a big-time American organist. I’ve owned this recording since high school, and it’s had a big influence on what I think Bach organ music should sound like. Newmann takes things fast and exciting. This prélude is great for the pedal-point (the low F that sounds under the development of the first part of the piece); when it’s played this fast, the pedal-point is like a drum roll, building up the excitement.

The second version is by Helmut Walcha, the Ray Charles of Bach organ interpretation. (Well, he’s blind, anyway. And really great.) I got a great bargain on Amazon a couple of years ago on a set of the complete Bach organ works recorded by Walcha. You can tell immediately he takes a different approach, slower, less ecstatic, but also, I think, willing in subtle ways to bend his performance a bit to make the structure more apparent. It’s more subtle playing, more dignified, which in the case of this particular piece makes it less exciting at the beginning but brings out some unexpected fireworks about halfway in to the prélude. Both Newmann and Walcha avoid the dry, mechanical Bach that just gets boring, but they breathe life into the music in different ways.

The second piece in the playlist is part of the Cello Suites, the Prélude to Suite 6 in D major. There’s an interesting story behind the Cello Suites: Bach wrote them as technical exercises for cellists, and it’s possible that they were never performed in public until the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals dusted them off in the early 20th century. Now, of course, they’re huge favorites, and justly so. With the limitation of having just a single instrument that can usually play just one note at a time, Bach had to be even more inventive with counterpoint than usual. There are times when you’ll swear there are at least three cellos playing, and this complexity creates some of the most ecstatic moments in Bach’s oeuvre. This prélude in particular is one of the strongest arguments I know for classifying Bach as a late romantic composer.

The first version here is a recording made by Casals himself in the late 1930s. He takes some liberties, like he wants to be really sure you get what’s going on, but there’s still a lot of subtlety in the phrasing. The playing also strikes me as intensely physical, maybe a style that was adopted to be heard by the microphones of the time.

The next version is by Janos Starker, recorded in the early 1990s. The word that comes to mind for me with this recording is “perfect,” though for this piece in particular that’s not necessarily the highest praise. There’s a balance between clarity and expressiveness that might err a just bit on the side of technical clarity. If you like your Bach crystalline, this is the recording of this piece for you.

The final version is by Mstislav Rostropovich, also recorded in the early 1990s. Rostropovich was passionate about the Cello Suites, and his recording of this prélude is a rough charge toward transcendence. The way he turns the repeated phrases into the call-and-response of church bells and the nonchalance with which he lets the dissonant bits ring still take my breath away after years of listening to this recording. I can see why it’s not to everyone’s tastes, but I come back to it again and again.

My knowledge of Bach performance is about on the level of my knowledge of wine, which is to say I have a few prejudices and a few myths rattling around in my head, and I can notice some differences and explain them in my limited vocabulary but probably miss a lot, too. But I hope this was a useful exercise in listening, and maybe one of our readers will point out some of my errors.

The playlist:

1. Toccata & Fugue In F Major – Anthony Newman
2. Toccata F BWV 540 – Helmut Walcha
3. Fugue F BWV 540 – Helmut Walcha
4. Cello Suite No. 6 in D Major, BWV 1012: I. Prélude (Allegro Moderato) – Pablo Casals
5. Suite No. 6 in D, BWV 1012/Prelude – Janos Starker
6. Suite No. 6 D I. Prélude – Mstislav Rostropovich

8 responses to “Thursday playlist: Bach, Bach”

  1. lane says:

    as radar would say “ah, bach . . .”

  2. Funny coincidence — a couple of months back I wrote a post about Suite #6, which was featured in a book I was reading then, and included Rostropovich’s performance of it. Cello suites are beautiful.

  3. Jane says:

    I love Bach. I agree with TMK about cello suites, which is why, as far as interpretations are concerned, I recommend Yo-Yo Ma as often as I can. His Bach pieces are particularly fantastic. Try “Air on a G String” or “Bach Suite in G Major.”

    And thanks for the playlist. I can’t wait to listen to it.

  4. Jane says:

    P.S. Lane, that’s one of the best M*A*S*H moments ever.

  5. j-man says:

    I think that Bach and the Beatles are similar in that while their songs sound so simple, when you actually analyze them they’re quite intricate and complicated. Can’t wait to listen – perfect for working!

  6. Ivy says:

    My favourite Bach moment was back in the dark ages when I was at school. I went to an Anglican school, so four times a week we went to chapel. Our chapel wasn’t large but we had a medium-sized organ, big for the venue, and a gifted if slightly crazed organist. (For some reason he reminded me of the irritating frog Jeremy Fisher in the Beatrix Potter books. He thought we were all complete philistines and on the whole he was right. British, one can only begin to imagine how he ended up in a girls’ school in NZ.) As we processed out of chapel one day he cranked up Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, the ‘dracula’ music, as a recessional. I’d been listening to it at home and was delighted to hear it live. I ducked back into the chapel once I’d gone out (as a choir nerd I was one of the first out) into the back, to be joined by my chemistry teacher. To my endless delight Mr Jackson was playing for his own pleasure and played right through. I can’t imagine how I excused my subsequent lateness to class, but I’m glad I made the choice I did. It was sublime and grand and one of the few positive things I remember from what was an unusually trying year. So hoorah for Bach and strange old passionate men.

  7. Natasha says:

    I love Bach. I spend a year of my life listening to nothing, but Bach and Vivaldi. Loving the analysis and the playlist.

  8. swells says:

    I must confess that, like multivitamins, i have not listened to the bach yet, but I have to come back to this post to share with all the complete delight I felt (and still feel) at the prose. Totally tickled by your tone. Early 09 whatsie nominee for my favorite voice and language on a subject that I’m not even that interested in. With a setup like this, you might just culcha me yet.