J.S. Bach's Mass in B Minor, Performed by Gundula Janowitz, Hertha Töpper, Horst R. Laubenthal, Hermann Prey, Münchener Bach Chor, Münchener Bach Orchester, Direcred by Karl Richter
To accompany The Nation's Michael O'Donnell's article rightly questioning an "unusual book" (by an author this blogger respects) "that champions recording technology as the means of survival for classical music generally, and the music of Bach in particular" — Off-Key: On Paul Elie. An excerpt:
- Making an argument for the centrality of Bach’s recordings is well and good, but its exponent should be someone who has also spent time experiencing the magic of Bach performed live. Elie is like a novice hermit who champions solitude before he has ever spent any real time alone. Thus the reader has little confidence in his final judgment that, for today’s classical music converts, music performed live “seems insubstantial and elusive.” This is a surprising conclusion, because Elie characterizes one Bach concert he did attend—a performance of the St. Matthew Passion—as “life extending.” (He fell asleep during the St. John Passion.) I love my recording of the Mass in B minor as well as anyone, but even though I can take it with me anywhere, when I listen to it I am not really there. It cannot compete with the live sound of the chorus and orchestra in full cry, or the spectacle of dozens of striving musicians attired in concert black. Nor can an iPod quite reproduce the light, running energy of a live Brandenburg concerto as the players perform standing, practically dancing, or the concentrated dedication it takes to bring off one of the partitas for solo violin—to say nothing of the fact that those who believe in the arts (especially arts that are struggling to find young new listeners) should patronize them and support hardworking musicians with their dollars, not merely with their words.
Bach recording has certainly had its extraordinary moments in the twentieth century, but so has Bach performance. One of them occurred quite recently: Elie mentions (but might have explored more closely) the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage undertaken by John Eliot Gardiner from 1999 to 2000. Gardiner and company performed 198 cantatas in fifty-nine concerts in Europe and the United States, at the points in the liturgical calendar for which they were composed. In this way, Gardiner renewed public interest in an overlooked body of Bach’s work, using the medium of live performance to remind us that, during Bach’s lifetime, many masterpieces were heard only once. Those concerts took place before Elie’s Bach journey began, so he could not have attended them. And to be fair, his enthusiasm for Bach’s music is infectious; even the greatest of composers needs champions in every generation. But Elie should make some time for the concert hall.