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Bacchanale

“I still don’t know much about early music, Monteverdi, or even Bach,” said Esa-Pekka Salonen in May 1996, in an interview in these pages. Apparently he‘s a fast learner; his all-Bach program at the Hollywood Bowl last week was a fascinating essay in the variety of approaches to the music, and in the sociology of these approaches as well. No composer’s legacy has undergone so vast an assortment of performance styles, from the mellifluous padding of the Victorian orchestrators to the enchanting scat of the Swingle Singers and the “switched-on” electronic escapades of WendyWalter Carlos in later times. No composer‘s legacy has better demonstrated such sublime and indomitable powers of survival under crushing odds.

As it happened, Salonen’s program included none of the aforementioned ventures in Bachian perversion. We got others instead: two of Leopold Stokowski‘s garish reworkings of famous organ works, and a footloose venture by Gustav Mahler drawn from two of Bach’s orchestral suites with a heavy wash of Mahlerian counterpoint stirred in to subvert the texture into last week‘s kartoffel-kugel. Earlier there had come a couple of brave attempts on Salonen’s part to deliver the First “Brandenburg” and the two-violin concertos in something like pristine proportions. I have to confess that the transcriptions were a lot more fun than the “straight” performances, in which the overriding impact of this glorious music -- most of all the tense, hair-raising dissonances in the slow movement of the First “Brandenburg” -- were concealed under an overlay of excessive carefulness. But that was no fault of Bach‘s.

Such considerations lead us inevitably to that pervasive and familiar bugaboo, the business of “authentic” performance, of the right sounds produced by the right number of players in the right venue and at the right tempos, dynamic shadings and the like. Common sense would seem to dictate that Bach’s well-worn D-minor Toccata and Fugue, our old pal from Disney‘s Fantasia, fits better into the spaces of Cahuenga Pass in Stokowski’s mammoth orchestral setting than in the paler resonances of an 18th-century organ loft. Yet there have been Bach-size Bach performances at the Bowl that have fit the surroundings far better than Salonen‘s the other night; I can’t easily forget a St. Matthew Passion under Christopher Hogwood in 1985, done with forces of “authentic” size and thrillingly audible -- at least until a car alarm broke in exactly at the moment of Jesus‘ crucifixion.

Stokowski was himself an organist, and there’s no reason to doubt his word that his dozens of Bach orchestrations were sincerely motivated by a desire to expand the public for this music -- or even his theory that Bach, if alive, would surely be composing for similar orchestral forces. His D-minor Toccata is, indeed, a keen psychoanalysis-through-sound of Bach‘s design, the sheer bravado in the capricious mood shifts in the Toccata and the clear separation of lines of counterpoint in the Fugue achieved by handing them off to contrasting groups of instruments. Salonen’s performance went further than Stokowski‘s own recordings in a broad panorama of tempo changes, but this, too, seemed right for the music. Some of that same flexibility, in fact, would have helped the two concertos earlier in the program.

The Mahler “Suite” was by some distance the greater perversion of Bach’s design: a gathering of movements from the second and third orchestral suites, the scoring considerably thickened with added instruments and an organ, Bach‘s clean counterpoints tangled up with new lines, the ethereal “Air on the G-String” turned into audible molasses. The work dates from 1910. Much of the public notion of Bach at that time was based on the Romantic rescorings of the orchestral works -- by, among others, the proper Brit Joseph Barnby, who also enriched the world’s musical treasury with the lullaby “Sweet and Low” -- and the Mahler transcription was hardly the greatest sin of the time. Beside the falsities in this work, however, Stokowski‘s version was the soul of purity.

The dealers’ shelves groan under the weight of recorded keyboard Bach, on 9-foot concert grand piano, laptop clavichord, tabletop synthesizer and harpsichords of all sizes. Tucked into Philips‘ mountainous “Great Pianists of the 20th Century” series there is, inevitably, Rosalyn Tureck’s “Goldberg” Variations, recorded in 1957 and thus the earliest (and least insufferable) of her three recorded performances. Tureck has been, by her own proclamation (and that of a few others as well), the high priestess of Bach on piano, and it is just that affectation of priestliness -- the mock solemnity right at the start that turns the basic theme from the Sarabande to a funereal threnody, the childlike clatter in some of the faster variations -- that I find offensive in her playing and always have. Bach on the piano does not offend me, nor do I require the iconoclasm of a Glenn Gould, however convincing, to make the music work on this “anachronistic” instrument. (Andras Schiff‘s London recordings are all superb, and I suspect -- after hearing his recital at UCLA last spring -- that Murray Perahia is the world’s next great Bach pianist.)

Annoyed by what I was hearing (and not hearing) in the recently acquired Tureck recording, I sought solace in print, and found it in a passage by Henry David Thoreau. Hang it on your wall:

“The living fact commemorates itself. Why look in the dark for light? Critical acumen is exerted in vain to recover the past; the past cannot be presented; we cannot know what we are not. But one veil hangs over past, present and future; and it is the province of the historian to find out not what was, but what is. Where a battle has been fought, you will find nothing but the bones of men and beasts; where a battle is being fought, there are hearts beating.”


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