Thursday, February 18, 2010


Presently I am making my way through the cantatas, which I plan to
conclude towards Easter with the two surviving Passions. The last time
I did this was in a former Schule on the Lower East Side in 1980,
and it was as drafty and as cold that year as it is now. Then it was
a matter of hearing a good many of them for the first time. Now it
is to marvel at how many are familiar.
I decided to abandon my policy of ecstatic miscellaneousness, and straighten up
and be methodical, and start at the beginning instead of nipping honey at every bud.
Harnoncourt's and Leonhardt's traversal(which nearly bankrupted Telefunken)
was what I listened to then. Now I listen to the Suzuki Bach Collegeum,
whose work has won the highest praise from the Olympians of the
Penguin Guide to Classical Recordings. If they don't banish other performances
from memory, this may be because I am in a retrospective mood, but
I am happy with them, which is several rungs higher than contented.

My relationship to the music has changed perspectivally in other ways as well.
There was a time I cared about historical accuracy. Now I don't care about
historical accuracy unless I miss it.
The originalists in any case have largely won except in the case of piano versus harpsichord as a solo instrument.
Also while it is important to distinguish conductors and the differences in approach
between the various enclaves of Bach performance, I find myself caring less about this than
I do the singers. Philippe Herreweghe won me over by his choice of singers
despite his sometimes (for me) too subdued approach.So slowly,the question
has moved for me from a general view to the performances of individuals.

There is a history of great female Bach singers which doesn't coincide
with a traversal of the cantata cycle, and which includes great Wagnerians, like
Kirsten Flagstad, and great Mahler singers,like Kathleen Ferrier, and
great Mozart singers, like Elizabeth Schwartzkopf. To hear them is to
hear Bach associatively through Mozart, Mahler, even Wagner, which in
turn shows how Bach echoes through each of these great composers. The Bach
performances of each have a shining integrity which Bach seems to inspire in the great singers,
in Christa Ludwig, Elly Ameling, and more recently, the much-missed Lorraine Hunt
Lieberson. The same applies to the men, for Hans Hotter's is on par with his Wagner,
and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's with his Schubert. But there are names which I have omitted
equal to these. I heard an interview with the superb Christine Schaeffer, who said she
had to perform Bach with her Bach voice both in terms of breaths taken and
when they are taken--did I imagine it or did she say she found her breath in niches?-- and it the attack or how the note is hit.
As a visual artist I have an image of this rather than an understanding of it; for me,
because the singer of Bach becomes a herald or an angelic messenger quite often in the cantatas, this naturally has an effect on spiritual bearing
as well as physical carriage.As a painter,moreover,the singers of the Bach cantatas seem to me like the Angels found in late medieval Annunciations with scrolls unfurling besides their open, annunciatory mouths,even roses and lilies leaping from the Angel's lips, as in the case of Cimabue. As someone prone
to synasthesia, they almost appear this way to me.

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