September 16, 2003
Tempo, legato and the authenticists – with musical illustrations!

Like so many things involving computers, the internet, etc., I knew it could be done, and one day I would do it. I just never got around to it. But this guy knows how to do it, or has friends who do. I'm talking about putting snippets of music in a piece of blog text which you can play just by clicking, same as you can click here to get to the article I'm referring to.

What is more, these musical snippets are used in a way that make genuine sense. You can't communicate the full grandeur of the St Matthew Passion or the joyous genius of the Pastoral Symphony in a few mere seconds, but you most definitely can communicate a lot about the different tempos that different conductors adopt when conducting them:

We're seeing the Vivaldi-ization of Bach: gloom banished, minimal variety, implacably crisp, bouncy. And the slim 'n' speedy virus has infected good conductors. When the well-reviewed 1989 John Eliot Gardiner recording of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" appeared, as a Gardiner fan I ran to get it. This time the great chorus of lamentation that begins the "Passion" was indeed an occasion of mourning: I'd blown 20 bucks. Gardiner takes the chorus of lamentation at near-gigue tempo. Jesus is crucified, his performance cries. Let's dance!

To see what I mean with the piece's mournful opening movement, compare the early '70s recording by the distinguished Bachian Helmuth Rilling with Gardiner's. Gardiner's is nearly 20 percent faster – and Rilling's was faster than Herbert von Karajan's and Otto Klemperer's recordings of a few years earlier.

What it amounts to is that the influence of the early-music movement is turning everything into dance music. And the virus is spreading in the repertoire. Compare the tempos of Beethoven symphonies in the classic '60s Karajan set with a recent "authentic" set by David Zinman: Nearly every movement of every symphony is several notches faster in the newer one. In addition, the musical phrasings, the commas and colons and semicolons, are glossed over in favor of momentum.

Let's compare beginnings of Beethoven's "Sixth Symphony," the "Pastoral," whose first movement is titled "Awakening of happy feelings on arriving in the country." Here's Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic in the 1960s. Now here's the beginning from a late-'80s original-instrument set by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music. I admire that band, that conductor, and much of this set, but I don't know what planet Hogwood's "Pastoral" is on. Our traveler is jogging too fast for happy feelings – he's anaerobic. Hogwood's tempo is nearly three metronome clicks faster than Karajan's, whose tempo is on the brisk side for his time. But Karajan wouldn't even rate on today's dog track.

It cheers me up no end to find someone else on this planet besides me who prefers Helmut Rilling's Bach to John Elliot Gardiner's, and especially Rilling's wondrous seventies Matthew Passion, which I've been searching for complete for years ever since I got a highlights CD, and which I finally found in a bargain basement set a few weeks ago.

Fashion is a peculiar thing, and the seventies aren't now, fashionwise, most people's favourite decade. But when it comes to performing Bach, the nineteen seventies were definitely my favourite decade of all. Recording had got as good as it was going to get, so no worries on that front. The lugubrious speeds adopted by Klemperer and Karajan in Bach (I find Karajan's set of the Brandenbergs to be intermittently absurd) had been speeded up enough to give Bach back his bounce, in the bouncy bits. On the other hand, speeds were not yet as absurdly speedy as they later became.

My particular problem with authenticity is not so much tempo (I like those Zinman Beethoven symphonies) as with that "bounce" thing, in particular the tendency of many authenticists to land like a ton of bricks on the first beat of every bar and to treat legato as some sort of crime. Once again, I feel that they may have slightly overdone the legato in the fifties and sixties, got dead right in the seventies, and then later they went berserk with the bounciness. (See this Samizdata rant.)

Blah blah blah. My more important point here is that now you can, if you wish, touch wood, and thanks to Jan Swafford, actually hear something of the things I am – okay, and he is – talking about.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:38 PM
Category: Classical music