Sunday, September 7, 2008

Ah, Bach!

As I was driving around running errands yesterday, I had the Bach Brandenburg Concertos from the 1950 Prades Bach Festival in the CD player. These are some of the first LP recordings of Bach, conducted by the great Pablo Casals in the little town in which he was living at the time. By today's standards, these versions of the Brandenburgs are all wrong. The orchestra, although not that large, sounds heavy; Casals' approach is far too romantic; the tempos are not right (the first movement of the second concerto is as fast as I've ever heard it, while the opening of the third is slower than I've heard); the instrumentation has no regard for historical accuracy. Not only are modern instruments used, but the trumpet player at the festival was under contract to a different record company, so Marcel Mule's soprano (or sopranino) sax was substituted in the second concerto.

With the hindsight of fifty-plus years of music research and refinement of performance practice, we know that Casals' approach was all wrong. But I've got to say that Casals' Bach still sounds pretty good. Bach's music not only can survive a wide range of interpretation, it seems to thrive in all sorts of wayward renderings. I love Casals' Bach, as I love Joshua Rifkin's historically accurate readings of the cantatas, Glenn Gould's brilliant and eccentric versions of the keyboard music, and even Walter/Wendy Carlos' accurate, but strange-sounding electronic realizations. Bach shines through it all. I'm not really qualified to say why this is, but maybe it's because Bach's music has a certain objectivity to it - he wasn't trying to express himself as much as trying to produce works of beauty to glorify God. Whether or not that's what his music actually did, or what Bach's interpreters are trying to do, is beside the point. Paradoxically, Bach is all over and through his music at the same time he leaves himself out of it.

I don't know if that makes any sense, but in any case, Bach's music is as immediate to listeners today as it was 250 years ago. Maybe more so - Bach was admired at the time, but at his greatest fame was considered kind of old-fashioned. He's like King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, which achieved the ultimate in perfection in the New Orleans jazz style just as that style was falling out of favor.

Here are my three favorite Bach recordings; two are rather eccentric, while the third is inevitable.

1. Chorale Prelude and Fugue from motet "Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied," BWV 225 by the Rascher Saxophone Quartet, from the album Music for Saxophones on the Cala label. I know, I know. This instrument wasn't even invented until a hundred years after Bach's death. But this version has a purity and beauty which is really touching. And the Music for Saxophones album is certainly in the running as the greatest classical saxophone recording of all time.

2. Choral-Prelude: "Allein Gott in der Hӧh, sei Ehr," BWV 622, 1952 and 1962 versions by Samuil Feinberg, from the album Russian Piano School: The Great Pianists (now out of print). Feinberg transcribed lots of Bach's organ music for piano, including this lovely Prelude. His first recording of the piece is beautiful, but the version he recorded two and a half weeks before his death in 1962 is heartbreaking. It's almost a full three minutes longer than the 1952 version, as Feinberg savors every harmony and every cadence; it's obvious to the listener that he knew his time wasn't long.

3. The Six Cello Suites by Pablo Casals, recorded for EMI between 1936 and 1939 and never out of print since. These readings are on many lists of the greatest classical recordings of all time. I fell in love with them on first hearing, but later decided that they weren't right - that they were too romantic and not "Baroque" enough. I've come full circle, and now pass up more "correct" versions for Casals, who gives these mysterious pieces a depth, nobility, and spiritual dimension which is hard to resist. These may be my favorite recordings in the western classical tradition.

As for the title of this post, who can sum up this great composer better than Radar O'Reilly?

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