Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Bach cantata cycles

There's a new compilation of Bach cantata choruses out from John Eliot Gardiner on his Soli Deo Gloria label, which got me thinking about the comparison of completed cycles that I did a couple of years ago. It's still visible on eMusic, but I thought I'd stick it here as well. The thread contained an interesting discussion, mostly between ChrisW and JFLL, as to whether Masaaki Suzuki was to be preferred in Bach because he was "temperamentally and intellectually closer to Bach" - these were ChrisW's words, which JFLL disputed. My full post on the cycle comparison follows:

So this debate intrigued me sufficiently that I had to explore further. Time for a blindfold listening test to determine which of the Bach conductors I prefer. I chose 4 pieces I hadn't heard before and that were available from eMusic in performances by not only Suzuki and Gardiner but also Rilling and Koopman. For each of the pieces, my glamorous assistant (Mrs Nereffid) played the 4 performances in an order unknown to me.

The 4 pieces, chosen for variety as well as for being at different points in the recording projects, were

The soprano aria "Erfullet, ihr himmlischen gottlichen Flammen" from BWV1
The chorus "Die Elenden sollen essen" from BWV75
The bass aria "Schweig, aufgeturmtes Meer!" from BWV81
The alto aria "Man nehme sich in acht" from BWV166

And the results?
Well, Rilling came fourth, and by a long way, too. This old-fashioned Romantic view of the music just doesn't work for me.
Gardiner was my 3rd choice for 3 pieces, and my 2nd choice for one, but actually he wasn't far behind the others in every case.
And Koopman and Suzuki basically fought it out for the rest; it was close, but I went with Suzuki 3 times and Koopman the other.

What makes it more complicated is that I generally found Gardiner's recordings the most "interesting". He seems to play with the dynamics a lot, and the orchestral readings seem to have more individual character than the others. I certainly didn't find them superficial. But this was why I tended to prefer Koopman and Suzuki, I think - they seemed to match my notion of how the music should sound. Ironically, Gardiner's Bach performances show me what a good conductor of Handel he is.

Why did Suzuki win out over Koopman? As I said, it was close. Aside from "Die Elenden sollen essen", in which Koopman was in too much of a hurry, I didn't detect major interpretative differences. I'd be inclined to attribute my preference for Suzuki to recording clarity and preferable soloists. Interestingly, the one place I rated Koopman over Suzuki was in the soprano aria. I actually enjoyed the Suzuki more, but I was nagged by the feeling that Carolyn Sampson's performance was just a smidgin too erotic for the context.

It's worth noting that my wife, who has quite different tastes in music, came to more or less the same conclusions.

So... "Suzuki is temperamentally and intellectually closer to Bach"? I don't know. All I can say is "The musical results produced by Suzuki are temperamentally and intellectually closer to my idea of what the music is supposed to sound like", which I suspect is the most any of us can say about any conductor. I have to say - call this ignorance or atheism - I couldn't detect anything specifically Lutheran or Anglican about any of the performances.

This was a very entertaining and enlightening listening experience - I'd recommend it to anyone with a few downloads to spare.
JFLL then followed up:
Nereffid, I'm a bit puzzled at your saying that you found Gardiner more 'interesting' (unless the quotes are signalling a veiled criticism!) and more individual orchestrally, but then go on to say that that is why you preferred the others. Do these qualities make the performance somehow less 'Bach-like'?
To which I replied:
My point about calling Gardiner "more 'interesting'" relates to the dramatic qualities that he brings to the music. It's not a criticism. I'm reluctant to say that it's "less 'Bach-like'" but it was my (subjective) impression that this theatricality wasn't inherent in the music - that Gardiner was adding a layer on top of what was there already. Although this extra layer was enjoyable, there was a slight sense that I was listening to a performance of the music, rather than just listening to the music. As we agree, it's just a case of my idea of what the music "should" sound like. If I had all the time in the world I'd get to know all Suzuki's performances first and then go to Gardiner to see what he did with the music.
To clarify the statement "my idea of what the music "should" sound like": that's not a prejudice I had going in, but something that I concluded having listened to the various versions. The comparison did reveal a preference for Suzuki but in practical terms it's unlikely I'll be buying all the cantatas en masse. When I'm in the mood for a new cantatas disc any evaluation is on a case-by-case basis, rather than an automatic "Suzuki first". Gardiner, Koopman, and of course others not engaging in complete series, notably Herreweghe, all offer something, and I don't expect to spend my time listening to any of these conductors saying "I wonder what Suzuki would have done?" They're all fine in their own right, and it's only when they're directly compared that the differences become clear.

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