Baroque-ness in Bach performances

February 10, 2008 at 01:59 AM · When you work on a Bach, how true do you stay to the Baroque performance traditions? I started working on a Bach Partita and realized my teacher has quite a different spin on the piece. Her on the highly-Baroque end and me on the highly-modern end. I -did- know that I wasn't staying true to the composer's intentions, and I'm definitely willing to add in a little baroqueness, but not quite as much as she pictures it... I think her view is very similar as in Viktoria Mullova's performance, which is a bit too much for what i can enjoy. I don't know if it's just that I'm really used to (and have mostly only heard, thus far) the "modern" versions of this, Heifetz/Grumiaux/Milstein/Hahn/Perlman/etc, but I don't really feel or get much out of the highly Baroque versions.... Actually (and unfortunately) I remember getting really annoyed listening to Mullova's or others' recordings on period instrument, gahh. I think I have loved this piece for the "modern" interpretation of this piece, and I'm not sure that i feel the same way towards its "authentic" interpretations. But I've been wanting to work on it forever... So I guess now I realize that I don't like the piece for what it is. But then why do so many professionals play it differently from what I view as the "baroque" style? what do you think? (and please, don't jump on me all at once!)

Replies (98)

February 10, 2008 at 02:57 AM · You don't have to play with the "wah-wah" baroque bow stroke or anything like that. If you're using a modern violin, you can use whatever style works for you. However, I usually spare my vibrato for very singing notes, and even then I don't use as much. As for the bow stroke, I make the sound as pure as possible, with no cracks, and a light feel. At most, I do not "press" into the string, I "sink" in.

As for interpretation, back in the Baroque period, the bass was as important as the melody. Whenever you play a run like section, or chords, listen to a bass line. Then isolate the bass line and play it. If you phrase according to the mood of the bass line, you should be able to get a "baroque-ness" in the piece but still play it within your style.

February 10, 2008 at 03:39 AM · In your post, you never mentioned which partita you're doing. I think that this is a very important question. To me the E major is extraordinarily light and happy, and lends itself beautifully to a wholly baroque approach. The baroque approach is very elegant, and the bows of that time lend themselves nicely to a spicatto and virtuoso stroke. The B minor also seems to lend itself pretty nicely to the baroque approach with the way the phrases are shaped and the amount of virtuosity necessary (think of the double for the courante and the lively bouree).

The D minor has always seemed like a very special case to me. In my opinion it's the most contrapuntal, but at the same time, it also has long soaring melodies like music from later periods. It is this juxtaposition that has made me think these movements over very carefully.

Marking the bass line is a very good starting point. Based on this, you will see how long each phrase will be, and where the emphasis should finally be. This would actually be the baroque approach. The romantic approach would focus mainly on the overall line and melody, with minimal bass.

I found you're ideas about "modern approach" to be interesting, especially who you consider to be "modern". *Disclaimer: the following is just my opinion.* I don't really consider Heifetz or Perlman to be modern players. Grumiaux is a sort of middle ground to me - he brings out the melody, but almost always stays faithful to the harmonic motion. I can't really classify Milstein. He is just plain unique. He does what he wants, but it always makes sense.

The general trend for this day and age is to be as true to the score as we possibly can. We have companies like Henle and Baerenreiter that are doing quite well now, and there is more research being now than there ever was before into performance practice ideas.

Hope some of this helps you in your quest to find the perfect Bach!


February 10, 2008 at 06:22 AM · My music history class has discussed the idea of recreating period performance at depth recently. For me, it comes down to the knowledge that many composers were open to working with, and often times excited to work with, the developing abilities of instruments. We have no way to know what actually was proper during Bach's time. I play what sounds good to me, not what people think might have been going on in 1750. It's a personal choice.

February 10, 2008 at 06:56 AM · Yes I agree with M. E. Meinzer completely. There's no way to know how Bach wanted his music to sound. I think he'd probably like the way his music sounded in the hands of Casals, Heifetz, or Milstein.

February 10, 2008 at 07:39 AM · Before they beat me to it, I was going to say the same thing and be real radical :)

There's no reason to play it in some externally determined particular style. There's pleasing your teacher, or learning about period performance, but that's a different matter from what you choose to do with it personally. It's an unlimited world of possibilities really, although certain things that will turn up in this thread will help, like dealing with melodies that arise within it, which is a different thing from the stylistic problems. Everyone should listen to "Switched on Bach" from the 1960s. That's responsible in large part of the popularity of Bach today, I think. I haven't heard it in many years and I don't know if it would sound dated today, but my memory of it is it's powerfully imbued with the creative energy and excitement of that time period. In contrast, can you imagine landing people on the Moon now? Haaaa!

February 10, 2008 at 11:20 PM · Few, if any issues in music push my buttons like this one. I already ranted a good deal some time back regarding someone's query ragarding period performance of Mendelssohn. Yes, Mendelssohn!

To do justice to my thoughts requires something the length of a Master's thesis, so just a couple of points for now...

I truly believe that Bach, Mozart, Beethoven etc. were more open-minded than many of today's "authenticists". They also played their own music with a good deal of freedom - not like so much straight-jacketed playing we hear nowadays in the name of "authenticity". In fact, the very notion of trying to be hyper-authentic reflects much more of a mid-20th to early 21st century mindset - and hence is, paradoxically, IN-authentic. Bach tried out early pianos. He found them wanting because of their inherent qualities - not because that wasn't the sound he heard some years back, when composing for the harpsichord. Indeed, Bach was the first great arranger. He thought nothing of arranging Vivaldi's concerto for 4 violins in B minor, to his own version for 4 harpsichords in A minor, or his own Prelude from the E major violin Partita to a version for organ and orchestra. Does this sound like a guy who would object on general principal to a so-called "modern" set-up - a set-up that goes back to the mid-19th century? And there was no single Baroque bow. The bow was in a near constant state of flux until that hyper-modernist fellow, Tourte developed the type of bow we still play today - a "modern" invention that goes back to the late 18th century. Authentic pitch at 415 cps? Give me a break. There are extant, unrestored organs from that time whose pitch is far above our typical 440! And nobody can tell me that the inherent grandeur and pathos and nobility of something like the Bach Chaconne is best served by mosquito-like whining. When I hear that kind of playing come up on the radio, I just cringe. And, btw, vibrato of some kind on string instruments has a written record going back to the 1500's!

OK - my soapbox is getting slippery. Time to go, for now. One last thought. How odd it strikes me that only in some circles of classical music is it considered politically correct to play in the most reactionary way possible!

February 10, 2008 at 01:22 PM · You can learn a lot from coming to terms with two wildly different interpretations, if both you and your teacher are open to listening to the reasons and intentions behind each way of playing. I was in a similar situation (but the other way around) a few years ago, and a three-hour lesson on the Loure from the E major Partita convinced me that stylistic differences could be overcome - and that once we got beyond 'style', we actually did have a similar vision of the piece's architecture. It convinced me not to look for another teacher, really.

How do I approach Bach? Well, I played baroque violin seriously for several years, but always chose to play solo Bach on my modern instrument. The most important thing here is the architecture, not whether you put a down bow on every downbeat or how much vibrato you use, or even whether you trill from above or not. Those are secondary. Listening to a lot of polyphony - keyboard and choral music - will give you the tools to make stylistic decisions that come from the music, not from some 'school of playing'.

February 10, 2008 at 01:33 PM · Oh, by the way, J., have you listened to Szeryng?

February 10, 2008 at 01:28 PM · Mr. Klayman wrote: "Does this sound like a guy who would object on general principle to a so-called "modern" set-up - a set-up that goes back to the mid-19th century? And there was no single Baroque bow."

Your point is forceful and reasonable except that it does not address the actual beliefs OR the practices of the period-instrument movement, with the exception of a few stodgy pedants (who make the rest of us cringe). Many, even most, people who play the baroque violin continue to play modern violin as well, even playing baroque music on it. They certainly do not "object on principle" to the idea; they just find, as many people have, that certain aspects of the music are best served on the instruments for which they were written. That is to say that the light up-bows and articulate arpeggios characteristic of the baroque bow are particularly helpful in making sense of Bach (or Rébel, or whomever), and that the lower-tension, resonant qualities of the 18th century set-up make more sense for that music than does our modern set-up.

Which brings me to your next point, that there was no single baroque bow. Granted! That's why many baroque players own several bows-- a flatter, longer one for Italian music, a shorter and more curved on for French, etc.

Authenticity is beside the point for most of us. What matters is how it sounds. Resonant, low-tension sounds and highly variegated bowings point to certain organizing principles in the music. They help the player to interpret it and bring it to life. If they didn't we wouldn't have Manze and Podger on the BBC Proms.

Finally let me say that although I do play the baroque violin, for now I play solo Bach exclusively on the modern instrument. This is largely because the music is so difficult, and I would be incapable of playing it in tune on the baroque violin. However, it is much harder to get the sounds I want with the modern bow.

Basically my point is this: the claim is not that a good performance of baroque music is impossible (or undesirable) on a modern instrument. It is that knowledge and experience of the period equipment teaches us things about the music that we would be much slower to learn any other way, on our instruments that are so ideal for the music of the late 19th century. Which instrument you perform on is almost (though not quite) irrelevant, so long as you are aware of and open to the performance tradition out of which the music came.

February 10, 2008 at 02:17 PM · Raphael, it was me who asked about the Mendelssohn! :-)

February 10, 2008 at 03:00 PM · Jude wrote:

"However, it is much harder to get the sounds I want with the modern bow."

Really? I find there's a trade-off. Some things are much easier with the baroque bow, particularly in quick dance movements, but there are places where I've felt the baroque bow and instrument set-up has limited me. It's always been reciprocal for me - one approach informs the other, and vice-versa.

February 10, 2008 at 03:03 PM · Well, the baroque bows make it much easier to play chords due to their "straight" or "convex" shape. Also, due to the fact that most of them are lighter and shorter, quick dance movements can be played with a light airiness. I personally cannot see solo Bach beat when it is being played with a baroque violin-listen to John Holloway's recording, you will see what I mean.

February 10, 2008 at 06:23 PM · J.Lee,

In high school and college I agonized over the same issue as you. I wish I could say that your own interpretation of Bach becomes crystal clear one day but I'm not sure it ever does. It does however become easier to make stylistic decisions.

I applaud you for knowing what you like, and that you like a modern way of playing Bach. Personally I have a different of opinion than you but this is not about my Bach journey, it's about yours. Knowing what you like and going with it full force is very important! You will see and I'm sure everyone here agrees that your taste for Bach will change with the passing of the tides. Two years from now you might think "what was I thinking then.. THIS is the right way!"

My advice: You will have many teachers and everyone will say something different about how to play Bach. Take all of their suggestions. If one teacher says playing with lots of rubato and vibrato then do it. If the next teacher says no vibrato then do that too. You have nothing to lose by learning it different ways and everything to gain. There will be a time in the future when you will know exactly what is right for you. Don't fret.

February 11, 2008 at 01:22 PM · Jude - you sound a lot more reasonable than what I - or at least my ears - have met up with again and again. I have heard a number of times, the argument that you should use what they used simply because that's what they had and that's what they used, and we can't fruitfully speculate on what else they might have liked had they seen or heard it. That attitude is very dutiful, I suppose - and very boring, and even besides the point of being a musician, as opposed to being an archeologist. I will galdly acknowledge that I don't make a particular point of keeping up with this movement. But enough examples of it assault me on the radio that make me think that I'm in the presence of the aural equivilant to a naked emperor. The little I've heard of Mainz has not altered my opinion - though I'll acknowledge being a little more impressed with Simon Standage. At least I get a sense of some freedom there.

In my own way I've continued to research and even agonize over what I think composers may have had in mind and how this might affect my own interpretation. This for example, leads me to one of Brian's points about the Baroque bows being easier for chords in Bach. According to Joel Lester, in his "Bach's Works for Solo Violin" violinists of Bach's day were more likely to arpeggiate chords much more often than sustain them, or even play two and two. Moving ahead a bit, I understand that there is an extant letter from Mozart to his father, in which he relates how he tried one of the new Tourte bows. He thought it was interesting, but it didn't quite convert him. Funny, that was my reaction when I tried a Baroque bow. But Mozart's reasoning was NOT that it shoudn't be used simply because that's not what he had while composing his earlier violin concertos.

I'd like to leave my colleagues with a couple of 'snapshots' of Bach and Beethoven in action. Here is Forkel, Bach's early biographer. After praising the "flowing" style of the "Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue", he continues: "All his extempore fantasies were of a similar description, but frequently even more free, brilliant and expressive. In the execution of his own pieces he generally took the time very brisk, but contrived, besides this briskness, to introduce so much variety in his performance that...every piece a discourse. - quoted from "The New Bach Reader" p. 416

In "The Great Pianists" Harold Schonberg quotes contemporaries of Beethoven, who go into great detail about how he would perform his own music. They speak of freedom, flexibility, unwritten ritards, generous use of pedal, and varying the tempo according to how his feelings changed. "There's only one thing wrong with playing his sontatas that way in 1963 [when he wrote the book] " continues Schonberg. "The pianist who tried it would be laughed off the stage as an incompetent, a stylistic idiot who knew nothing of Beethoven's style, and as a bungler who was incapable of adhering to a basic tempo." With rare exeptions, I haven't been hearing much improvement in this regard in 2008. Let's indeed begin with urtexts. And let's try to find out much about composers and their mileu. But then let's enter into a partnership with the composer, and reasonably bring ourselves into the equation. Otherwise, as Rosand likes to say, we might as well just have one person record a "definitive" performance, and that would be it. Beethoven didn't seem to feel this way. After hearing another pianist play one of his sonatas he said "that's not exactly the reading I should have given, but go on. If it is not exactly myself, it is something better."

February 14, 2008 at 04:35 AM · I suppose it's a consolation that period performance cannot be belittled without being misrepresented. Still the transparent territoriality and music-cultural bias that sometimes arises when this subject comes up is a little troubling.

Raphael appears to think that loose expressive performances are specifically avoided by period performers, but this simply is not true and does not at all address the actual musical values pursued by period performers. For exuberant interpretation, period performers Elizabeth Wallfisch or Monica Huggett can surely match anyone on the modern side. Indeed emotional 'affect' was highly valued during the baroque, and the explorations of current period players have led to a range of personal playing styles at least as wide as can be found among the violinists of the last century.

So far the naysayers fail to address that which most essentially differentiates baroque style from modern: the ways in which phrasing, articulation, and the use of dynamics and ornamentation were different in the baroque. Of course to address the actual differences would reveal the critics' presumption of superiority as a mere prejudice.

The innocuous truth is that baroque and modern styles are just different musical 'accents', they are like different manners of speech. They are both valid choices and neither restricts the level of musicality or musical expression available to the performer, even though the means of expression are not always the same.

As to what Bach or Mozart 'would have done': It doesn't take much candor to realize that a composer would in fact be taken aback at first to hear their music played in a style to which they are not accustomed. It is most likely that Bach would have been at first put off by the modern style of execution. He would probably have had extensive advice for those who play his music in the modern manner. This is not the same issue at all as whether he would have made use of the modern piano, or had fun with a modern orchestra, or found ways to use the modern idiom given a chance to get used to it.

Should that dictate how we play today? That depends on your personal preferences with regard to musical idiom. More power to you whatever your choice!

But if your personal preference for the performance of baroque music in a modern style requires you to attack the period performance movement, or claim that nothing is really known about baroque practice, or that 'musicality' has improved since the baroque, then you have allowed something unsavory to get between you and the simple humanity of loving different kinds of music, being fascinated with discovery and exploration, and making allowances for differences of taste.

February 14, 2008 at 07:38 AM · I think you have to expect a bit of territoriality on this subject. Everyone has their bias. It comes down to what you believe in and hold dear. You're going to want to stand up with strong arguments for what you believe. As long as we don't deal in misrepresentation, since its the truth we're trying to get at here.

I think there are good points to both sides of the argument - there doesn't really seem to be too much middle ground - you're either a modern player or you're a period player. Some players to me almost fit into both camps, such as Milstein (my favorite violinist), but I suppose there are some who would laugh at that and say no way.

I like modern best. I think it is the more authentic. It is the tradition we actually were left with. Here as we stand today, the tradition that we know about is very close to the one we play today in modern performance. When I say 'modern' I mean Oistrakh playing Bach or Mozart. We can hear from the earliest recordings that the sound has changed a bit from between Ysaye up to late 20th C, but if anything we have become more classicist (less romantic) for want of a better word now than many of the recordings of the very early 20th C. There is a strong suggestion from the aural evidence that the style has changed from Bach's time. But to me it is more authentic to work with an existing tradition, as we have it passed on to us, than one that does (or did originally) have a strong element of revolution about it. Is that not a fair comment to make?

A lot of Baroque music was organ or harpsichord music. Imagine Bach's violin music as played on a small church organ. Any interpretation you come up with that bears that in mind is probably a valuable one (excepting of course that violins can do a better job of it by far, and do dynamic change and so on). The talk of Baroque bows is I think less important. I've read that some Baroque bows were as long or longer (and heavier) than modern bows, and that Baroque strings were heavier than many modern ones, which mightn't mean much but it is some indication that at least modern players may be more authentic than many think.

If anyone loves Period style I respect that. Play (and listen to) the music that really does something for you and for others.

I just realised I wasn't clear about something. I realise that Bach was a violinist, as well as organist. My point about the organ is that I think we violinists get a bit too concerned with violin set-up, type of bow, strings, and things like that. The general oeuvre - to pinch a word that Buri used recently - of Bach is more important. Bach's stock-in-trade was organ, and composing music of that nature. The qualities of the bows of string players of that time, which I bet varied a lot anyway, with some of them possibly even handling and sounding somewhat like modern bows, is maybe not such an important issue. My bias, 'tis true.

February 14, 2008 at 12:12 PM · Careful-- that's a French practice, appropriate only in French-style music. You could make a case for it in one or two places in solo Bach (Garrett Fishbach uses inégalité to great effect in the minuets of the E major), but a wide application would be inappropriatel

February 14, 2008 at 02:20 PM · I've lost some friends over this very issue believe it or not. I truly respect period practice simply because it requires so much research and immersion to do well. I think modern players are put off by that attributing it to snootiness and elitism.

Perhaps we cannot truly know what Bach wanted his music to sound like but a period performer will research the style and history to try to hypothesize as accurately as possible. Period performers spend time and money on getting the right materials, instruments, and editions, as modern day performers spend on their craft. The real misconception is that early music believers are lofty and grasping for something that is not longer relevant and can no longer be understood.

As someone who is following suit in period performance I can say that I am fascinated by the history, the culture, and I LOVE DOING RESEARCH (which is half the job). We should all respect each other's musical preferences whether it be Heifetz, Nigel Kennedy, or the self taught fiddler down the street!

February 14, 2008 at 02:33 PM · Oh and how LUCKY are we that we have a composer of such magnitude to debate over? 400 yrs later and Bach's music is still fresh, and ripe for us all to fight over it. Would Bach's music be so revered if there was only one interpretation?

February 14, 2008 at 03:38 PM · Andres - I am assaulted on the radio more often than I can say by performances of 18th cent. music that sound like they were all ground out of the same factory. It's whiny, buzzy, almost always dutifully half a tone flat, despite the fact the tuning during the Baroque period had as much variety as the bows did, and four-square in its expressiveness. If this kind of pre-packaged and formulistic music making does not typify "period" performance, than the more creative proponents of same seem to be keeping themselves well-hidden from the airwaives.

your last paragraph was:

"But if your personal preference for the performance of baroque music in a modern style requires you to attack the period performance movement, or claim that nothing is really known about baroque practice, or that 'musicality' has improved since the baroque, then you have allowed something unsavory to get between you and the simple humanity of loving different kinds of music, being fascinated with discovery and exploration, and making allowances for differences of taste."

I never said that nothing is really known about Baroque practice, nor that musicality has improved since the Baroque. But, while I don't claim to be a scholar, the little I do know flies in the face of typical "period" renditions, as I've heard them again and again. And with all the scholarship in the world, unless we miraculously discover recordings from that time, we'll never know for sure exactly how they played, let alone whether they considered the media they had to work with to be ideal for all time. Bach's willingnes to try out the early piano, Mozart's willingnes to try out the Tourte bow, and Beethoven's desire for ever more powerful pianos would seem to indicate otherwise. How far should we take the idea of sticking with the media of what the composer would have heard? Should we play Prokoffieff or Shotakovitch with the most modern strings? Better watch out - that's not exactly what they heard!

I love lots of different kinds of music, ranging from classical Indian music to a lot of popular music. And I'm all for discovery and exploration - and of course there should be room for differences of taste. But as both a professional and a fan, I am passionately devoted to music. And if I feel something has gone terribly wrong I bloody well AM going to attack it.

And something HAS gone very wrong. There's something wrong that in many classical circles, modern approaches are portrayed as conservative, and "authentic, perod" practices as politically correct, when by definition, they are reactionary. There is something wrong that "period" performances now all but monopolize the airwaves when radio stations present late Baroque music. Again, I call atention to the paradox of making a fetish of trying to replicate certain aspects of previous era's practices when in those very times they, themselves were not concerned with that. Mozart re-scored Handel's Messiah, adding clarinets, etc. This mania for absolute replication actually is a mid 2oth to early 21st century zeitgeist. I actually do feel that there is limited room for this sort of thing. By all means present it once in a while as an experiment or an alternative. On American public tv there have been a few shows in which groups of people agreed to live for a time in isolated communities of by-gone eras as exactly as they could. But no matter what we try to do we can't forget the rest of our lives, and we can't forget all the music that we've heard and played of periods since the Baroque. We can't forget all sorts of aspects of modern life, good, bad or indifferent. And so, we can never completely get into their skin. But if we're going to try to go "period" and try to experience what they did, why limit ourselves? Let's wear powdered wigs, let's encourage the audiences to act as the old ones did, let's not go near modern medicine, let's not record or broadcast these performances - and let's stop arguing about this over the internet! Or, on the other hand, let's admit that we're being very selective about how and where we want to be "authentic". There is something wrong when professional performers get intimidated about playing say Bach on the piano. There is something wrong when symphony orchestras are sometimes inimidated about playing even Haydn sometimes, or cut down their size when they do - even though there is documented evidence that on the rare occasions that they could, the early composers were thrilled to have orchestras that included 40 - yes, 40! - violins. There is something really wrong when this "period" approach is extended as far as Schumann. I heard a performance of the 2nd by, I believe Roger Norrington (or possibly Chrstopher Hogwood) in which the 3rd mvt. whined as much as any "period" Bach I've ever heard.

I could go on and on, but the breakfast waiting for me is beginning to attain period relic status!

February 14, 2008 at 09:08 PM · While all you talented people are discussing how to play Bach may I make a small request? Whatever you do, please don't make me read a thesis before I go to the concert in order to appreciate it. If it's great, it's great. Do your homework, make your choices and don't forget to love it and give me a performance that is loose and full of love. (Happy Valentine's Day)

Oh, and if you can play the notes in tune while you're at it, that's a bonus.

February 14, 2008 at 08:07 PM · Raphael, I'm shocked by the anger in your post. Why do you think so many musicians like yourself have so much hostility towards period performers? I once met a well-known cellist who when I told him that I'm studying baroque practices said to me "That's for people who can't cut it as good musicians." I thought that was rather rude.

Who cares why different musicians like different styles? There is an audience for every one!

So you say you're bombarded with "whiny" sounding period performances on the radio. What if I say I really enjoy some of those performances and that they reach me on a deep level. Am I right, or are you more right? Who's opinion really counts here? People pay to see the performances they want and buy the recordings they want. How about musicians start being a little more democratic and accepting? Elitism is not very becoming for professional musicians who once upon a time were considered nothing more than servants (like Haydn).

February 14, 2008 at 09:45 PM · :-) oops.

February 15, 2008 at 03:50 AM · Marina - I admitted in my first post here that this issue pushes my buttons like just about no other in music. I will also admit to ocassional touches of sarcasm when my polemical juices start flowing. (Yet somehow, over the past couple of years I've gotten any number of private e-mails from folks who didn't care to enter this sometimes bare-knuckle arena, expressing admiration for my posts on many subjects. So I guess I must be doing something right - as well as, no doubt, ocassionally wrong.) In any case, if you will carefully re-read my 3 posts above, I think you will find a lot of serious food for thought.

I do usually try to be respectful of different views, believe it or not. But at the same time, I don't adhere to the politcally correct approach of "I'm OK; you're OK". There comes a point where if I think something is really wrong-headed, I'm going to say so loud and clear. Let's take an extreme example from modern music. Let's say a fellow rents out Carnegie Hall, and gives a concert in which for 2 hours he does nothing but break glass on the stage. How long would you sit for it? Let's say for some unimaginable reason this sort of thing caught on and was played a lot on the radio. Is it still "I'm OK; you're OK"? Yes that was an extreme example - but it hopefully makes a point. A less extreme and real life example: I was once rumaging in the violin section of a record store. I was looking through some of the ususal suspects - Mutter, Hahn, etc. A lady near me noticed and pulled out an Andre Ryue CD, and said "You ought to buy this one. He's so good." I politely said "No thanks". I didn't argue with her. I doubt that most folks here would gainsay that he's not much more than a mediocre violinist, who has very cleverly carved out a lucrative niche for himself. I actually admire him for it. But should the "who's to say" approach apply here, too? I mean "who's to say?" I may like Nadien or Mutter for the Meditation from Thais. But if Ryue's rendition moves you more, who's to say who's right or wrong? There's a Latin expression "De gustabus non disputatum est" (There is no arguing about taste.) But you know what? If the issue is strong and pervasive enough, and affects what we've dedicated a central portion of our lives to, I am to say - and you too, are to say, and everyone else, as well. So I'm afraid this disputatum will go on.

Everybody has their threshold of tolerance and intolerance. For reasons I've cited, and for so many others that a post the size of a book would fill, I have very serious issues with the period music movement. But when all is said and done, it's the sounds thenselves that drive me bonkers. I know that I'm far from alone. Most musicians and knowledgeable lay listeners I've spoken with feel absolutely the same way. I see that you've worked with Nadien. I wonder what he'd say? That doesn't mean that you can't have your own opinion. Only that I'm hardly an oddball here. So many people who love Bach, Vivaldi and Handel, don't like the way they sound in period performances. I've yet to hear any non-period specialist say "man, that Concenticus Musicus - so much more on target than The English Chamber Orchestra or Ill Musici" And yet it is this period approach that has so proliferated the airwaives. A specialized reactionary approach has developed from An approach to THE approach. And I truly feel that it is rather the period movement that is the elitist and self-righteous one. And that is very off-putting.

February 15, 2008 at 12:46 AM · The period instrument movement's biggest argument for their validity is the research into phrasing, bow use, such as light upbows etc, and ornamentation (I hope I'm not misrepresenting here - correct me if I'm wrong).

Those are very important contributions that all players can learn from. But they do remain academic contributions, and should be seen in that light. They derive from reading words. Period performance has an air of academia to its approach - this affects the sound. There is nothing wrong with that, and if that is what people like that is great.

I once had about 10 violin lessons with a teacher who was very fond of period string performance. What struck me about her playing, and about what she constantly strove for, was (to me) a rather materialistic approach to music. She wanted to hear a violin, with string and hair. That's all she was after, and nothing more - in her own playing, too. I also love the sound of a bow on a violin, but I was interested also in something that went beyond the instrument, that was just a little bit bigger in spirit.

It often seems to me that players like Francescatti and Milstein and Szigeti (to use the example of solo violinists) are trying to create something that is bigger than just themselves - dare I say something spiritual. I, and perhaps I'm missing something, hear only violin and bow when I listen to period instrument soloists like .... I won't mention names because I'm being critical. Something of human or divine spirit in the music seems to be a bit absent.

I do occasionally enjoy period recordings. Some of them are good. I've been to only 2 or 3 actual period performances and didn't enjoy them. To put it in terms of food, modern performance is like nice rich fruit that you can get your teeth into. Period performance often comes across to me like dry unsalted ship's biscuit. Bach, with all his life and spirit, surely would have made of his music something more fulfilling.

This all seems to me to indicate a self-consciousness in period performance that gets in the way of free expression. The striving for spirit in music is probably a paradox because you get it by just being natural and relaxed. The minute you try to be expressive and 'spiritual' you tend to lose it.

February 15, 2008 at 02:15 AM · Well, Jon, I love eating dry unsalted ship's biscuit. Take that! :-)

February 15, 2008 at 02:20 AM · That's great Brian! We are communicating, and reaching an understanding. I see nothing wrong with liking ship's biscuit. I would probably like it better with some vegemite and butter on it (don't try vegemite if you were not raised in Australia).

February 15, 2008 at 03:09 AM · we are all marmite babies here.

February 15, 2008 at 03:55 AM · "Hmmmm...all you can eat ship's biscuits...aaaggghhhhh...."

H.J. Simpson, noted gourmand

February 15, 2008 at 08:28 AM · Elizabeth Field gave a very interesting lecture/demonstration at a national music convention some years back in which she performed the same couple movements from about 15 different editions of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas. Despite the variety of bowings, fingerings, added dynamics, etc. she came to the conclusion that each performer's edition was primarily focused on the shaping of the phrase to bring out the logic and beauty of Bach's melodic and harmonic genius. She made a strong case for the idea that with integrity and intelligence one could perform these pieces in a convincing way with a number of different approaches. Perhaps Bach's music is much greater than the limitations we sometimes inadvertently place on it by aligning ourselves in one camp or the other.

February 15, 2008 at 08:58 AM · That's a very fair thing to say, Ronald, and probably wraps this thread up.

btw, I tried marmite once. It's OK!

February 15, 2008 at 01:27 PM · I begin by saying that I respect your conviction and your personal opinion. Also, I may be trying to learn and make a cross to early music performance but I am fully engrossed in a mainstream music community... orchestras, chamber performances, etc.

I also do not consider myself in one camp over the other. Obviously my teacher didn't teach me Bach in the neo-baroque style! I cherish his interpretation and it has evolved into my playing. But as you know, Bach keeps evolving and I do play it differently now than back then, as I will surely play it differently 10 years from now and so on.

I never meant to get you to "like" baroque practices. That's like trying to get me to like R. Strauss and I know in my blood that it will never happen, no matter how many times I have to perform or hear him on the radio.

I just wish that mainstream musicians had a little more tolerance for those of us who undertake this scholarly pursuit. We are not festering maggots conspiring to take over your airwaves haha. Jeez, you'd think we were communists by the way you describe us! There is a place for us. I live in NY and have seen all kinds of things akin to "glass-breaking in Carnegie Hall" sometimes I've enjoyed, and sometimes I've hated.

My husband is an artist and often convenes with fellow artists to share their paintings, etc. From time to time somebody might say to him "what were you thinking? It's AWFUL, what IS it???" In a strange way he really appreciates that kind of a reaction. True artists want to make an impact, regardless of good or bad. As long as it gets people talking then you know you've got something. If someone just walks by your painting with no response then... you're not being heard. Nothing has artistic value unless it is both loved and disliked.

That being said I'm sorry to report that I have not been sent any private emails congratulating me on voicing my opinion like you have. It should be further proof that we "baroque loving people" are not out to take over the music world.

February 15, 2008 at 07:39 PM · The whole debate has been running for more than 50 years...have a look at Pablo Casals' masterclass recorded in the late 60ies in Berkeley (it's on Youtube)..he has a few words to say about "purists"!!

February 15, 2008 at 07:49 PM · Marina - I think that "mianstream" musicians would have more tolerance for period performance were it not so increasingly ubiquitous, to the point that the erstwhile mainstrweam actually starts to feel marginalized when it comes to playing late Baroque music. Some years ago I visited Colonial Williamsberg. For those not familiar with it, it is a replication of an entire town in Virginia, more or less as close as they can get it. The many exhibits included a little drawing room musicale. It was a period performance, and in that context it fit perfectly.

I agree with you about Bach - and particularly (though not exclusively) Bach - continually evolving. He is so huge, so unfathomable, that we will never completely exhaust his depths. Yes, as someone else cited, even the synthesizer treatment didn't do him in. To me, he is to music what Shakepeare is to literature. But 'aye, there's the rub'. People think nothing of staging Shakepeare in the most modern, and even avant garde guises, and nobody thinks it "in-authentic". But let's face it: every period has its Zeigeist (the spirit of the time). And unlike with Shakepeare, the musical Zeitgeist of the post-modern era has - especially in critical and musicoligical circles - leaned increasingly toward, sobriety, textual fidelity, anti-romanticism, and period "authenticity", with pressure to follow suit. To some extent, this has had a salutary effect on cleaning up some aspects of overly Romantic, and fast and loose excesses of previous periods. But I feel that the pendulum has swung way to far in many instances. There really is nothing so strong as an idea whose time has come. I know that I'm much more of a Romantic than a lot of people of my generation - especially, the academics. And so, I may be fighting a bit of a losing battle, as far as the general trend. But the pendulum will swing again...

I'm willing to leave it at that if you are. And btw, I don't think you've been on as long as I. I'm sure you'll eventually get fan mail, too!

February 15, 2008 at 07:49 PM · In complete honesty, I don't like period performances(such an unpopular opinion in today's world). I's a valuable study to create context for baroque music but I would never listen to it or perform in a period way. Some period performances ARE interesting and tasteful (I enjoyed the Ibragimova recording of Bach), but the vast majority of period performers I have heard were horrible.

For example, I heard this British woman (who shall remain unnamed of course) play the Bach chaccone as a "dance"....which I can see since it's within a partita (even if a chaccone is a form built on a chord progression more than it is a dance like a gigue). She played it very fast, with the chords all arpeggiated (which is the fashion now), her projection was very irritating in the context of the large hall she was playing in, the opening rhythem was not even recognizable (she played it like..triple dotted half note followed by a sixteenth note), and ironically the tempo fluctuated wildly...for starters. Probably the most important thing that bugged me about it was I never got the emotions I got from the Szerying or Grumiaux recordings of the same piece. Their recordings start out heartwrenching and then when the opening progression is repeated in major was a deeply spiritual moment for me. Instead I got the exact same sort of bouncy texture throughout. It's just clear to me that the piece starts out tragically (I much dissonance do you expect in the first phrase from a Baroque composer?)

The other thing I don't get about period performances is how they choose a standard. I mean...reading Leopold Mozart's book it's clear that there was that not much standardization of violin technique (he describes three different ways of holding the violin with the violin slanted at drastically different angles) and looking at baroque bows they are not that similar to each other besides than the fact that they are all bent out the opposite way (they actually look like a bow)

February 15, 2008 at 08:56 PM · I certainly will not defend a bad performance of any nature. Having lived in VA I'm familiar with Colonial Williamsburg and the fact that you found a baroque performance "fitting" there only means that you believe that early music performance is as cheezy as one might find at an amusement park and belongs in a museum. Yikes!

I could go on about this but it's very disheartening to hear how much people hate something I feel passionately about. Again, I respect your dislike for certain interpretations.

February 15, 2008 at 09:29 PM · I think part of the problem with the A-415 crowd is that they are imbued with the academic view that their way is right and other ways are wrong. There is a certain arrogance to that view, and it may be said that this reflects the reality that the A-415 movement essentially originated in the academy. With all due respect to the memory of my relative, Wanda Landowska -- essentially the grandmother of this movement and responded to criticism of her Bach interpretation by Roslyn Tureck with the remark, "that's fine dear. You play Bach your way, and I'll play Bach his way" -- the bottom line is whether an interpretation moves you. If it does not, then IMHO, it really matters little whether it is technically "authentic" or not, to the extent that can be determined (see the previous post on Leopold Mozart).

February 16, 2008 at 01:15 AM · Arrogance and closed-mindedness have no place in art or in life, but they are qualities of individuals. To associate either with a whole artistic movement is simply not fair.

February 16, 2008 at 03:50 AM · Thank you Tom. So well said. This music has survived the rise and fall of nations, epidemics, natural disasters, religion and politics. I'm convinced it can't be rocket science to keep people interested enough they'll keep him around a little longer. I heard Matt Haimovitz give a master class a month ago. He takes a somewhat period style in his bow technique, but I'd probably enjoy Bach any way he decided to play it, because he's an amazing cellist, and he knows how to make music. AND, it's BACH for goodness sakes.

February 16, 2008 at 05:12 AM · You wouldn't go out and play a Mozart Concerto with a huge, heavy Brahms sound, so why would you play Bach like that? It's a matter of having taste or not having taste. You don't have to be obsessive about period performance, but a little attention paid to playing in the appropriate style is a prerequisite to every other piece, so why not Bach too?

February 16, 2008 at 05:25 AM · I agree with Amy R. F.

I don't see why with Bach it's perfectly acceptable to not do any due dilligence and play the Chaconne like you would the Bartok solo sonata. That kind of playing comes from a time period when violin playing was the priority, not necessarily serving the composer.

I don't play Bach at 415 and I don't do all those little mannerisms, but I don't think it's asking too much to refrain from playing everything in like 4th position with all the elegance and verve of a Dont etude.

February 16, 2008 at 05:56 AM · Well, of course there is truth to that. Bach has a certain nobleness and smoothness of line...or at least that's what I expect in a performance. Even his secular music has a sacred sounding quality so I would never play his music with wild worldly passion (eek!)

That being said, when I approach Bach I think "this is a highly contrapuntal piece with clear lines and straightforward rhythms. The subject is probably sacred and joyful on some level". I don't think "this is baroque and therefore A, B, and C". The knowledge that it's from the Baroque era is there, but that knowledge is how I decide what the composer's intentions might have been not how I decide how to play or tune my violin.

On a side note, I've heard Bartok was a great fan of Menuhin for his highly personal and natural interpretations of the music. That is, for Bartok this style of interpretations was closest to his intentions.

February 16, 2008 at 08:10 AM · I have to disagree with Amy.

You might as well say "You wouldn't play Bach's Cello Suites on a Baritone Saxophone, it's a matter of taste or no taste." Yet, Henk Van Twillert did just that. Authentic it is most certainly not, but nevertheless an outstanding performance and interpretation.

February 16, 2008 at 08:30 AM · benjamin... she isn't saying that the instrument matters, it's about interpretation and the ideas you bring to the table. Every instrument would bring its own challenges, but it would be up to the performer not to play something that Bach didn't even write, or to change everything around to make it more convenient for the instrument, or to fit the prevailing style of how the instrument is played. It's simple, you play Bach to play Bach. You don't USE Bach to demonstrate how X instrument is played. Go straight from the manufacturer to the customer. Cut out the middleman. I think you totally misunderstood what Amy said. The point is to not totally impose the mechanics of the playing onto the music. It probably makes things harder, but that's what good performance is about. Sometimes it's avoiding that slide or all the other stuff that makes playing Romantic repertoire so much easier than classical and baroque.

For me, that's what these old recordings are, and especially the Galamian edition and the people who follow it. Violinists are mortified of making string crossings or not maintaing the same shade of rich amber throughout an entire Allemande. I'm not going to lose any friends over it like Ms. Fragoulis did (I think she needs to hang out with different people), it really isn't that big of a deal for me, but since someone asked the question, that's what I think about the subject.

February 16, 2008 at 01:27 PM · If I understood her, I agree with Amy F. in this sense. If say, Bach, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky somehow all lived at the same time but still wrote the way they did, the intrinsic style and texture of their respective music would suggest different respective approaches. This to me is far more significant than making a fetish out of exactly what implements they may have had around.

I hope that some of what I've written in all the posts above suggests that I'm hardly adverse to doing some reading and research, myself. Research that sugests that in a whole range of aspects, ranging from pitch standardization to orchestra size, the 415 club has made arbitrary choices, long since ossified into their own tradition, that are at odds with the very fluid authenticity that they supposedly revere.

While they're not mutually exclusive, let's be musicians first, rather than archeologists. Far more important than period Bach is Bach, period.

And with that, I need to make a fond farewell for a while. Work, life, more personal typing projects. Happy fiddling, all!

February 16, 2008 at 02:42 PM · Pieter, I know she didn't talk about instrumentation, but I did. And I mentioned Henk Van Twillert's sax arrangment of Bach's cello suites for a reason.

First, the saxophone is about as un-baroque as it gets. It's sound is rather "noisy" and rebellious from a 17th century perspective. It was after all designed for military bands.

And no surprise, Twillert's sax rendering of Bach's cello suites is anything but authentic, although it isn't jazzy either, it is rather more jazzy than it is baroque.

Thus, whilst at first sight it might seem that this is just another instrumentation, the sound characteristics of the instrument chosen in this particular case contribute to the arrangement becoming unauthentic, un-baroque. It is a different, a more modern style. Yet, as I said, it is an outstanding interpretation.

Before this background I say, if it is permissible to play Bach in this way on a sax, unauthentic, un-baroque, modern, then it should also be permissible to play Bach on a violin, unauthentic, un-baroque, modern.

This is not to say that only a modern interpretation is valid and good, but I strongly disagree with a notion that one shouldn't play Bach in this way or that way, that there can only be one true way. At the end of the day, what matters is whether the interpretation/performance can move an audience.

February 16, 2008 at 03:34 PM · Wow. What a moving post. I believe that you have concluded this discussion, Mr. K. Thank you very much for putting us in our place.

February 16, 2008 at 04:12 PM · This discussion has turned more into an agreement that early music performers are crazy. I love the baroque movement but I don't disagree with playing Bach a different way like on a marimba or a saxophone. And how about Bach on piano - can anything beat Bach on a modern piano? NOT! In fact I'll take Bach any way it comes because as long as it is played well it will be good.

No no, what's at hand here is that some people are "annoyed" with the "obnoxious" "whiny" sounds of early music performance. I don't believe any posters that are early performers have made any negative comments and generalizations towards a modern intermpretation. But here are some demeaning and condescending comments made in above posts in regard to the baroque movement. But who's judging right?




"415 club."

"wah-wah sounds"

"straight-jacketed playing from today's authenticists"

"mosquito-like whining"

"very boring, and even besides the point of being a musician, as opposed to being an archeologist"

"enough examples of it assault me on the radio that make me think that I'm in the presence of the aural equivilant to a naked emperor"

"I am assaulted on the radio more often than I can say "

"whiny, buzzy"

"four-square in its expressiveness"

"pre-packaged and formulistic"

"This mania for absolute replication actually is a mid 2oth to early 21st century zeitgeist"

"By all means present it once in a while as an experiment or an alternative"

"There is something really wrong when this "period" approach is extended as far as Schumann"

"the sounds me bonkers"

"a rather materialistic approach to music"

"Something of human or divine spirit in the music seems to be a bit absent"

"dry unsalted ship's biscuit"

"self-consciousness in period performance that gets in the way of free expression"

"increasingly ubiquitous"


"very irritating"

"same sort of bouncy texture throughout"


"the 415 club has made arbitrary choices"

"let's be musicians first, rather than archeologists" "

February 16, 2008 at 06:11 PM · Benjamin,

I haven't heard this piece, so I don't know if I'd like it. In any case, I'm talking about the violin. I simply advocate playing what it is on the page, that's all. If you like Kazoo arrangements of Bach, all the power to you. I am not the only one who thinks that his music is literally the only thing that sounds good as a cell phone ring tone. I don't use something that dorky, but for some reason, even the shrill, annoying sound of a cellphone is listenable when the music is a Bach fugue. There is quite some genius in his music that it doesn't even matter what or whom is playing it as long as it's in time and in tune, it's listenable.

I'm also not saying that modern violinists who are always using modern technique and sensibilities (who are as unbaroque as it gets, like your saxophone friends), play ugly Bach. That's not at all what I'm saying. I'm just of the opinion that there is a different, better way than that.

February 16, 2008 at 06:20 PM · You're probably right that there is some agression toward period performers and it IS wrong to generalize.

The problem is that many people have told me my Bruno walter recording of Mozart's 38th, 39th, 40th and 41st symphonies and the Heifetz/Primrose recording of the Sinfonia Concertante and my Szerying and Rostropovitch recordings of Bach are "tasteless", "oldfashioned", and otherwise worthless to listen to. Since these recordings profoundly move me it makes me angry toward the way of thinking that these people subscribe to. I know that I personally am too afraid to play music with lots of vibrato, tempo changes, and even in romantic music glissando and I hate that I can't do what I feel is appropriate.

February 16, 2008 at 10:07 PM ·

February 16, 2008 at 11:45 PM · You know Pieter, I've also noticed that about Bach and cell phones, and I think this has something to do with the organ/harpsichord's influence on that time period. When dynamic phrasing is not so much an option, the composition itself needs to provide it, which is what Bach's music did. Therefore, it sounds fine when played digitally with no dynamic nuances.

Back then, they were all so ecstatic when a keyboard instrument came out with touch sensitive volume, they named it the fortepiano.

February 17, 2008 at 12:27 AM · Yes exactly. It's so much better when people stop trying to make it "interesting". Bach is more interesting than you. Get over it.

February 17, 2008 at 12:50 AM · One way to start losing quality in a creative field is to try to enforce it with overly rigid laws and rigid ways of thinking, and to suppress experimentation. Both sides, modern and period, have done this to classical and baroque music. I can understand why: maintaining standards. But in maintaining standards I think we have erred toward rigidity. Things will eventually lighten up or become less stifling.

Examples: 1) period performance saying (with a lot of successful influence and power) that you can't play Bach on piano, or with tasteful vibrato. 2) modern performance saying (with a lot of successful influence and power) that you must play with a shoulder rest to be considered a legitimate violinist.

I think that earlier times were more flexible, and that is why I like recordings from the early to mid 20thC best.

February 17, 2008 at 12:51 AM · Something that I love dearly about Bach: the raw notes themselves have such a structural relationship with each other, the composition they create makes me feel as though I am taking it in the same way I would a breathtaking scene on a hike. I pass through it and experience it with great feeling. We commune. But the less impact I have on Bach, the happier I am.

February 17, 2008 at 02:06 AM · Jon;

Typical 50s to 70s Bach recordings impose as many laws on Bach as performance practice does. The period performers apply laws based on treatises and other primary source materials. Galamian and Russian trained violinists apply the laws of modern virtuosity (sound production and left hand technique), often with little regard to what Bach wrote on the page.

To me, both can be pretty boring. I used to like Szeryng but then I grew out of liking that. I still respect it as great violin playing and a highly commited and personally invested interpretation. I just don't agree with it. I like Rachel Podger, but I'm really eager for Leonidas Kavakos to release a Bach recording. I lost my Kremer recording after only hearing it once, and I really want to get another one.

February 17, 2008 at 03:05 AM · To be honest I don't enjoy any of the S&P as much as the accompanied sonatas. An exception might be a couple of movements of the E major. The S&P is impressive to hear because you know it's so difficult, but they're really not as enjoyable to me as a lot of his stuff. Go to youtube and look of Menuhin and Gould doing some of the accompanied movements. But I think they're neglected because they don't present the same kind of technical difficulties. For me Bach works fall into two broad categories, a technical kind of composition and a second, less austere, more enjoyable kind. I think the S&P falls into the first category. The Musical Offering and some of the organ works I know are category one, and the Brandenburgs and orchestral suites and cantatas are category two.

February 17, 2008 at 03:37 AM · Pieter, yes, that is fair enough. Every age makes its mistakes, and makes its victories.

I can see I'll have to check out Leonidas Kavakos - his name is mentioned a lot.

Emily, what you wrote is what I was trying to say when I mentioned Bach played on an organ.

February 17, 2008 at 04:15 AM · Pieter,

I don't take any issue with your views. I also don't take any issue with somebody who prefers historically informed performances, nor do I take issue with somebody who prefers modern performances.

What I do take issue with is Amy's statement that her personal preference equates to having taste and any other preference equates to not having taste, that there is only one true way, her way.

Personally, I enjoy a well played baroque performance as much as I enjoy a well played modern interpretation. I don't like to dismiss a performance simply because it is played in a certain style. If somebody else finds that they consistently prefer a certain style, that's fine with me, I simply don't like it when folks try to impose their own preferences on others.

February 17, 2008 at 06:17 AM · "You wouldn't go out and play a Mozart Concerto with a huge, heavy Brahms sound, so why would you play Bach like that? It's a matter of having taste or not having taste. "

You were asking about the Dm Toccata and Fugue for violin. The original on organ makes a "huge heavy, Brahms sound" sound like a mosquito. I hate the word "taste" - it's an excuse for not thinking, but thinking is all you've got. Taste isn't serious.

February 17, 2008 at 06:45 AM · I've read a lot of translations of historical texts on performance practice - such as Leopold Mozart, Quantz (this is a brilliant book, written for wind players but with a big section on string playing and lots of general advice), and 20th C works of historical research on violin playing. Also research on Paganini and other romantic players. I put what I read into a modern context though. I'm still not tempted to go true 'Historically Informed Practice', even though I'm a modern performance radical to some extent. I'd like to hear some HIP players who play more 'modern'. We already have a few modern players who sound more like HIP - for example Tognetti when he's playing Bach. I've heard Huggett and Wallfisch play romantic works but I thought they could go even further toward modern than what they did in their recordings. All in good time maybe. I look forward to it.

P.S. I once was in the audience in a masterclass for solo Bach, with Elizabeth Wallfisch presiding. Suddenly she announced that she wanted to hear the student to play while she sat in the middle of the auditorium, and she leapt off the stage and came and sat right next to me. I thought, wow, I'm sitting right next to Elizabeth Wallfisch. I didn't know if she was single or not. I could have asked for her number.

February 17, 2008 at 06:27 AM · Benjamin,

Within the realm of playing something tastefully there are many possibilities. I don't have a problem saying that you can play Bach with poor taste. For me, it's playing it with too much consideration for violinistic convenience and standard modern practices.

I've seen Amy perform Bach (like a sonata with harsichord) for her final CIM recital and she definately didn't channel Andrew Manze and make a big spiel about being historically correct.

Having good taste is completely about thinking and making choices. It's about what you hear in your head when you see that score. Bad taste is simply playing a passage in the most convenient way, or in a way that follows the rules of modern tone production, which forces you to use fingerings and bowings which totally destroy the line.

February 17, 2008 at 06:49 AM · Taste to me means "just because." Like when your mom said do something and you asked why, and she said "because." At least mine did.

If by "taste" you mean thinking, it's better to say "discretion" instead, which implies thinking. "Taste" means "protocol" with snobby insinuations to 99% of English speakers.

I have nothing against snobby myself, except that it obliterates thinking. That would apply even if you were, say, a Secretary of State who must follow every protocol in the book. This is why our most effective Secretaries of State have been born in log cabins :)

February 17, 2008 at 06:11 PM · .

February 17, 2008 at 08:21 AM · Wow, two actual professional violinists leaving the website in one thread. That's impressive, even for

I have to agree, not every interpretation is as valid to me. We're now in this warm and fuzzy stage where every parent believes their child is "gifted" and everyone deserves their say, which they do, in a very legal and constitutional sense. At the end of the day, art and surpassing creative wisdom is rare, it is the exception. Bad Bach is the norm, I don't care how much you're feeling and crying on the inside when you play it. There is such a thing as a good interpretation and a bad one.

February 17, 2008 at 08:40 AM · Of course there are good and bad interpretations...

But the thing that differentiates the two is thought, not protocol, in my non-professional opinion... If classical music is just protocol, then just ignore what I said about thought :)

February 17, 2008 at 08:58 AM · Who said every performance/interpretation was good? I must have missed that. I certainly didn't.

The point is this: We ought to listen to a given performance and judge it on its own merits, not based on whether or not it is following the categorically-ruled-to-be-valid style.

February 17, 2008 at 11:36 AM · Suggest playing chess with the rules, and it gets read as parrrtay anything goes.

We're amateurs. If you want to factually learn what something is, read closely what the professionals say it is. We amateurs can't say how a performance ought to be judged. We really can't. Just read and learn how it is judged. It really is just for the elite. If you do not understand this, it pisses them off and they leave here one at a time. When they're gone they have nothing to do except spend your tax money, so you don't want that.

February 17, 2008 at 01:44 PM · Jim, I disagree with that notion, if professional musicians are the only ones allowed to judge a performance, then I suggest they play exclusively for themselves ;-)

February 17, 2008 at 03:24 PM · In that case you've got three choices. Judge it, but keep it to yourself. Or judge it after thinking up some reason Bach shouldn't sound like Brahms. Or develop taste, so your judgement goes with the flow. I'm not saying the last is a bad thing. In fact it would be very professional of you I think.

February 17, 2008 at 03:05 PM · Benjamin, I think he was being sarcastic. But he is right in a sense... classical musicians are elitist snobs. Can't you tell? Going to a stiff performance where the people on stage don't even look at the audience or acknowledge them in any way? Where you can't clap between movements if you really feel like it, and you can't even cough??? We keep offering them the same things over and over again (Beethoven cycles, Mozart cycles, blah blah blah) and keep expecting them to fill our concert halls? These performances are like museums, only we pin the audience to their seats, read them the dos and don'ts, and then ignore them.

February 17, 2008 at 04:05 PM · Maybe all musicians are elitist snobs. Mention Mozart in a blues bar and somebody will break a bottle on your head. I only have love for folk singers, who are usually just too humble to breathe your air, and adult beginners. beginners. Love 'em. So innocent.

P.S. I was kidding sort of, but sometimes I will encounter a classical musician, a major international competition winner when they were a teenager type person, and they may be elitist, but not snobbish, and I am mightily impressed! Not saying anybody should change to be that way. Really not. Do your own thing.

February 17, 2008 at 04:29 PM · Well, it's all Edison's fault. He invented the phonograph and the general population lost the ability to make their own music as ordinary folks became consumers.

There was a time when chamber music was equal to house music, amateur music, friends & family music, DIY music. I think it is about time that we rediscover this and reclaim the music from the professionals, go back to making music, not just consume it passively.

February 17, 2008 at 05:27 PM · It's like High School all over again!

February 17, 2008 at 05:55 PM · Benjamin, professionals aren't stopping you from having music nights at your house. There's nothing to reclaim. The only difference is that you sound terrible and they sound good. Sure you might have fun rolling in the mud with your friends but at the end of the day, when people want to hear a string quartet, especially the more difficult stuff that WAS written for good players, then it's going to be played by professionals (and the few really good amateurs, of which there are a decent amount). The sooner you get over that fact, the happier you'll be, and the sooner you'll realize why you won't have much of an audience for your music making extravaganzas.

In every other field, academia, sports, you name it, there's a professional realm and an amateur realm. One doesn't prevent the other from doing what it wants to do, but in the end, of course regular people are going to take what professionals say more seriously than what some weekender does. I don't understand why suddenly music has this egalitarian, we are the world utopian view where somehow all performance and thought is public domain. A lot of people simply were not meant to play music very well, it's like anything else. Imagine how frustrating it must be for a top sprinter to hear criticism of his form from some guy on the internet sitting at his house, covered in cheezies, who could MAYBE run 100m in under 20 seconds. It happens far too often, and that's why there's almost no pro violinists who come here and contribute regularly.

February 17, 2008 at 05:58 PM · Pieter you are mistaken, it is the professionals (well, not all of them) who have these fights what is "valid" and what isn't *amongst themselves*. You will find that most amateurs are more relaxed about this. They love the music on its own merits regardless of style and they don't care if an interpretation might or might not be in line with the composer's vision or with the zeitgeist of the era in which it was composed.

February 17, 2008 at 06:06 PM · Yet it's amateurs chasing away every last good violinist here. I agree, in most parts of society, it is professionals doing the arguing, and amateurs listen and talk amongst themselves. This is the internet though, and people get the nerve to say whatever they wouldn't say face to face.

February 17, 2008 at 06:10 PM · Pieter, I think you will find that I wasn't the one doing the arguing, it was professionals who were arguing about period versus modern performance amongst themselves. I was only listening in for I find both views interesting and inspiring, and I don't pass any judgement on either side.

What pisses me off is when someone enters an otherwise civil and interesting discussion with "my way or the highway" strongarm comments. So I chimed in at that point to disagree with this *style of discussion*, not anyone's views on the subject matter itself.

Rest assured I would have done so face to face as well.

Let me ask you this ... Suppose you are listening to a (professional) Jazz ensemble playing Bach in a jazzy way, culminating in a free-jazz improvisation. Suppose this performance is well done and you like it. Would you not consider it offensive if some other (professional) musician was to categorically dismiss it on the grounds that Bach didn't intend the piece to be played this way and it was therefore bad taste? Would he not have inconsiderately offended both the performers and yourself as well as any other listeners who liked it?

There is a difference between saying "I prefer this music to be played in a traditional way, I didn't like this interpretation" and saying "anyone who likes this interpretation has no taste because only I know how this music should be performed".

February 17, 2008 at 06:56 PM · I'd find a jazzy performance of Bach as a nice novelty. I'd probably like the arrangement and the virtuosity (and I've seen some great sax quartets by the way), however I wouldn't evaluate it as good bach.

Here's where your constant referal to this jazz sax arrangement of Bach has nothing to do with the discussion; Amy was talking about Bach on the violin. Your jazz example is the same thing as that whole Gilles Appap Mozart cadenza. Amy is talking about overly romantic and violinist interpretations. I know her and she definately wouldn't be offended or get mad at a jazz ensemble doing Bach, because they're presenting it in a totally new light. Romantic bach is long and well documented, and is in fact, a serious take on the music, one which is misguided. Amy listens to pop music and is pretty normal so no, she isn't this snob like you're painting her to be. Do you not see that your comparison is a question of apples and oranges?

February 17, 2008 at 07:07 PM · What you say there "Romantic Bach is misguided" is the sort of statement that aggravates people much more so than any actual period performance.

Have you read Szerying's writing on Bach? He clearly has giving it a tremendous amount of thought. In the introduction to his edition of the S&P he talks about what his research has revealed about the type of detache stroke used in the baroque as opposed to the detache stroke used in modern times (he says modern detache is heavier, lower in the bow, and less detached that what he thinks of as baroque), he splits up one of the partitas into four lines to demonstrate the counterpoint that is hidden within the one line that is written, he explains why he arpeggiates chords downwards (to emphasize the primary subject) and why he has weird fingerings that put you in positions that a baroque musician probably would never go into (to avoid using the same finger when crossing strings, to create a particular tone color when the mode changes or when a particular subject returns, etc.). In the actual music all of his own markings are made with dotted lines or unique symbols while Bach's are made with solid lines and more standard symbols.

In my mind it is clear that he thought long and hard about what a baroque performance might be like and what Bach might have intended and then interpreted in a way that was in line with how he envisioned the music as fitting Bach's message, intelligible to the romantic ear, appropriate with modern violins and technique, fitting for a large concert hall as opposed to a church, etc. etc. etc. I can't think of how he plays as misguided, and I won't be so quick to think so of any other romantic violinist.

February 17, 2008 at 07:01 PM · FYI, Henk Van Twillert's sax arrangements of Bach's cello suites are not Jazz, it's a transcription mostly, but its not authentic, if only because there was no such instrument in Bach's time.

I brought up the jazzy Bach example rather arbitrary, I could have chosen something else, say Bach's Musical Offering played in rococo style, in fact this might have worked much better because there you have Bach's intent for the composition to please King Frederick II of Prussia who was a rococo musician and composer, so the performers playing this in rococo style could actually claim that they are following the composer's intent for their performance would likely have pleased Frederick II. You might say this is a bit of a stretch, and I'd agree, but it should suffice to illustrate how unsuitable dogma is to pass judgement on what is good taste. It can only lead to prejudice and prejudice clouds one's ability to judge.

If I happen to like a well performed rendering of Bach in [insert your most unfavourite style here] then that doesn't mean I have no taste, it means I have a different taste.

On the other hand, if a piece is played badly, out of tune, mechanically etc etc etc, then it doesn't matter which style it is, it's bad and if I like it nevertheless, then I don't have taste.

February 17, 2008 at 07:39 PM · Joseph,

I liked Szeryng's Bach for a long time, and he's definately the standard for most violinists. Despite all his research, you have to remember that he recorded that at a time when his thinking was still fairly cutting edge. I don't agree with that sound and I don't think it helps the counterpoint and the continuity of the line. I don't like his tempos and I don't like violinistic approach to the sound. That being said, he's Szeryng and I'm nobody. I think his is the best recording of that era.

To get an idea of what I like, search out Kavakos on youtube and hear his Bach. Ilya Gringolts has a great CD. His A- is really special, although he's apparently embarassed by his immaturity and boldness. I am excited for his recordings of the g minor, d minor and C major. I like violinists who play Bach and somewhat get out of the way. I like the modern sound, and I have a problem with this puff, fluffly sound used by many authentic performers. I know they're going for authenticity, and maybe I just don't like authenticity. With Szeryng, I find that there was still too much input, he tried to "help" Bach far too much when it didn't need any help. For his time, yes, groundbreaking. Take a wider of it, and you'll see that it's not so forward thinking. I've always said that I'd prefer the Sonatas and Partitas on a keyboard instrument so you can eliminate all the problems of modern violin playing and our obsession with uniform colors and tone.

February 17, 2008 at 07:45 PM · I think what I was trying to say is that Szerying was not ignorant or misguided. He thought hard and made his interpretation which probably was influenced by his times. The same is true for any performer.

So, I guess what I am saying is that if a performer thinks hard, is respectful, has good technique, and his (or her!) performance is moving it's wrong to put their performance down as tasteless or backwards even if it's romantic. Szerying was a specific example because I've seen what he wrote and know he had thought of all this stuff, but it applies to any serious modern performance of Bach. Kavakos has clearly decided to try to stay a little closer to the Baroque but also plays in a romantic way, Szerying is closer to modern sensibilities but thought about Baroque. Since I prefer Szerying's recordings to Kavkos's interpretation am I wrong or are you? I don't really like to think in those terms, I'd rather let performers interpret their own way.

February 17, 2008 at 07:44 PM · @Joseph

>So, I guess what I am saying is that if a performer thinks hard,

> is respectful, has good technique, and his (or her!) performance

> is moving it's wrong to put their performance down as tasteless

> or backwards even if it's romantic.

thank you, I couldn't agree more

February 17, 2008 at 07:56 PM · Joseph, I agree with that as well, and I'm sure Amy does too. I don't think she's refering to a great performer giving a lot of thought to their Bach and then performing it a certain way. Look at how Frank Peter Zimmerman plays Bach. It's fairly romantic, but I find it more tasteful than how some other people would play it.

Great thought doesn't mean that I have to like something. Some authors or politicians put a great deal of thought into their ideas and philosophies, and I still vehemently disagree with them, despite their humility (moreso with authors) in presenting these ideas, and their great skill in illustrating them for us. Frankly I like it when someone quite capable has a passionate opinion rather than these boring, overly diplomatic, PC statements.

February 17, 2008 at 11:13 PM · Pieter,

Have you heard the Zehetmair recordings? That's another interesting angle. Don't think he's as 'perfect' as a Kavakos, for instance, but definitely worth hearing.

February 17, 2008 at 11:47 PM · I just listened/watched Kavakos playing Bach on youtube and I loved it. That is great Bach in my opinion. To me he would also make an ideal period instrument performer if he wanted to also do that as well as modern. All he would have to do is use period set-up, and a few other small adjustments. The true period people would say no way probably but that is what I ideally imagine when I think of Baroque violin. I still like Milstein and other older players though. I currently use Szeryng's edition. Does anyone know of an edition that would as closely as possible follow Milstein's general approach to playing Bach? Or Kavakos'?

February 18, 2008 at 01:32 AM · Greetings,

Jon, not so convinced by the small adjustment thing. The differnec ein bow arm use is substantial. I also recall an interview with Lucy Van Dial-a - baroque in which she talks about the whole approach requireing the abilty to make a 180 degre eswitch in thinking and approach to the insturment. I have no idea what she meant by this, unless it involves lying on your back, but I think the same strictures would apply to Kavakos. Not to say he couldn`t do it standing on his hea d of course. Or maybe not...



February 18, 2008 at 01:53 AM · Jon, just get the urtext and make your own fingerings.

February 18, 2008 at 03:05 AM · Pieter, I've never seen a Cheetos-covered amateur do anything that would drive a reasonable pro off (using the reasonable man test). I saw a pro drive a more interesting pro off. And I saw a pro create a broad uprising against himself.

But your amateur/pro dichotomy doesn't work with music. One reason is the pro must please the amateur. Otherwise, to use the food analogy, you've got the chef demanding you like his food. That will run everybody out of the crazy restaurant :D

February 18, 2008 at 01:21 PM · I bet the pros eat Cheetos too. Milstein used to watch westerns in his hotel room.

Buri, LOL, about Dial-a-baroque. There's something about those HIP women violinists.

February 18, 2008 at 03:09 AM · You know what? I do not understand this discussion at all. Jon and Pieter, I can't tell if you are joking with each other or fighting. I guess I need to work harder in my English class.

February 18, 2008 at 03:22 AM · this is the stuff not covered in class...

February 18, 2008 at 03:42 AM · Brian, in all honesty I didn't know I came across as fighting anyone at all. I thought I was being agreeable and inquisitive. In my mind Pieter and I are not fighting. We are agreeing. Pieter may see it differently. Let's all relax and have a beer. Or a pack of Cheetos.

You should have seen some of the big scraps on of the past. Phew! Strips of carpet were swirling around in the air as people clawed at each other.

February 18, 2008 at 03:43 AM · Really, all pros' first requirement is to please their customers. That doesn't mean he changes the design of the bridge to be wrong and dangerous - it means he sticks to the design and deals with the customer. That demands true professionalism. An ultra-pro.

February 18, 2008 at 03:48 AM · Jim, I'm speaking specifically about this website, and I've had more conversations than I can remember with violinists who stopped posting here because of people asserting opinions in ways which aren't really an actual discussion but more like an argument, and one side of the argument being quite deficient in knowledge and experience.

If you think the people who left weren't reasonable, then you'd be calling a lot of fairly even tempered, generous people unreasonable. There wasn't a big fanfare or storming off, they just stopped comming.

I'm also not fighting with Jon, I thought we were talking civilly.

February 18, 2008 at 04:15 AM · Pieter, some of the uninformed opinions seem to come from pros. What if I like an interpretation a pro calls "invalid" :) Chances are some pros would too, really....

Personally, I immediately defer to somebody who's supposed to have more knowledge, when it's not impossible. I think most do.

February 18, 2008 at 03:45 AM · Well, in retrospect I've said enough. I'm not a pro (sniff). Pieter and Buri are.

This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Yamaha Silent Violin
Yamaha Silent Violin

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

Find a Summer Music Program
Find a Summer Music Program

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases Business Directory Business Directory Guide to Online Learning Guide to Online Learning

Dominant Pro Strings

Antonio Strad Violin

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop

Bobelock Cases


Los Angeles Violin Shop

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Metzler Violin Shop

Leatherwood Bespoke Rosin



Johnson String Instrument and Carriage House Violins

Potter Violins

String Masters

Bein & Company

Annapolis Bows & Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine