Bach A mnior concerto - and baroque styling??

June 25, 2012 at 04:39 PM · This came up in a lesson. I have recently gone back to playing the Bach A minor and, after a long period working on the Mozart G - and trying to get the air and note durations 'classical' I thought I would try to also get the A minor as much Baroquian as I could - mostly trying to play the un-slurred notes short and crisp.

This did not go down well :) And indeed, when I listen to this piece on youtube it seems noone really plays it with Baroque style. But I am at a loss why. Its not that this is musically wrong - indeed I'm the first to admit it sounds better with a modern approach, I'm just not sure what the disconnect is.

For a gorgeous rendition listen to this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k1Ig8HDxg1E

which is also an excellent non-baroque performance (and what I will now aspire to).

ee

Replies (41)

June 25, 2012 at 08:31 PM · "Sounds best" to those deeply steeped in the modern idiom. Some aren't so steeped. ;-)

You can hear brief samples of the a minor in baroque style at Amazon from Rachel Podger's new CD, which will give you some ideas of what can be done with period styling.

June 25, 2012 at 08:56 PM · There is as much nonsense about the right way to play baroque music as there is in the religions. Anyway, Because baroque music *is* real, you can play it good or bad. It speaks for itself. Every player that sounds very different and unique is wrong, because all classical music since the renaissance is part of one great cultural tradition, and there are no extreme or surprising discoveries to be made. Even Mendelssohn could depend on tradition - *every* serious musical training included Bach. He was not forgotten at all, only there were no performances in public. (It's the 20st century that broke the connection and saw a lot of "musical" rubbish produced with no connection to tradition, heart, mind and soul of human music by rejecting melody, rhythm, harmony, tonality, and much more.)

But Bach? I made a recital where I demonstrated the deep connections of our miscellaneous musical styles - Bach a-minor (3rd mvmt.) compared to irish jigs compared to Brahms' Sonatensatz etc. Bach turned out to be very modern this way. Those vibrato- and portamentoladen versions of the middle 20st century were not a way to interpret Bach in the same way that we try to now - these were vain attempts to make Bach better, because "today we know how it would have been meant to be". Nonsense. The historical performance movement gave us a great gift - the respect for those who were before us. They only overdo it, but this is normal. The wise ones need no dogmas and no extremes. They just play and have a life.

June 26, 2012 at 12:29 AM · Thats what I hear too Tobias - but when's the last time you heard Mozart played 'from the individual heart'? From what I have seen up to now if you don't play it 'with air' in the expected classical style you are playing it wrong.

June 26, 2012 at 04:05 PM · Elise - when I think of playing something baroque-style, there are some more macro elements that may be helpful. Using gut strings, for example. Playing with almost no vibrato. Starting trills from the upper note. Using as much in the way of open strings and first position as possible. Either getting a baroque bow or achieving the same sort of effect by holding a regular bow at the point on the way to the tip where the silver winding ends rather than at the frog when you play. There are lots of views on how exactly baroque violinists would have played the A-minor, but what I have suggested would help you approximate what I think are some of the more widely accepted historically informed techniques. Even doing these things leaves a wide range of possible interpretive choices.

June 27, 2012 at 05:25 PM · Thanks for those suggestions - there is a lovely baroque version on youtube (sound only but with an irritating diagramatic video) by Laura St john:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tbWqPnRbq3M

I like this too - indeed, I'd like to play it both ways...

June 27, 2012 at 06:43 PM · Elise - Lyndon's response reminded me of another baroque technique: emphasis on the downbeat. Let us know what seems to work best for you.

June 27, 2012 at 07:22 PM · Bach transcends all genres/styles/periods. In many respects, his music is very "modern". He's in a category of one.

Speaking of Bach, anyone heard the brand new S&P recording by Cecylia Arzewski? scary good Bach.

June 27, 2012 at 07:57 PM · Tom - I guess thats what I was thinking of when I started this - Bach transcends his era in a way that I think few other composers do. Or perhaps having done it - that is created the core of 'classical' music as we now know it, he made it impossible for anyone else to do the same.

So you can do 'switched on Bach' but I don't think you could do the same to Beethove, Brahms, Mozart etc etc They all seem to demand a style to define their music whereas Bach's is just about music, whichever way you serve it....

June 27, 2012 at 08:12 PM · Elise - I agree with you that Bach probably transcends particular styles in some ways, and this is true of any of the great classical composers. Nevertheless, it is worth trying to play/hear a piece as they would have, to the extent we can really know. I am not one who slavishly believes in period performance, but it is worth incorporating those aspects which feel right to/work for you. I don't think there are real right or wrong answers except subjective ones. Have fun with the A-minor and discover how you can best interpret it.

June 27, 2012 at 09:30 PM · I think we have some idea from Leopold Mozart's book and others (I've done a bit of reading) but I see it more as a way to explore interpretation than trying to hear what it sounded like. Its fascinating to think what Bach was expecting when he wrote it - but for all we know he was frustrated with the instruments of his time and LONGED for something like an electric violin :D

June 27, 2012 at 09:48 PM · Perhaps in his heart of hearts he really just wanted a louder clavichord. ;-)

June 27, 2012 at 10:16 PM · Bach did try one of the early pianos and made suggestions for improving it. Beethoven essentially forced piano manufacturers to make bigger and better pianos by writing music that could not be played on existing pianos.

June 28, 2012 at 04:23 PM · I think the short answer is that baroque is big enough to rock.

June 28, 2012 at 08:53 PM · Its interesting I'm experiencing my playing changing as I get better at the first movement. Its a case of becoming relaxed with it - and then it becomes more baroque like with a greater lilt, shorter notes and stronger first beat. Its as if the music draws that out of you - as if its actually a dance and not just a formal 'performance' piece. Or is that heresy?

I read also that in baroque times four equal notes on the page (say 4 quarter notes) were not played equally as they were in the classical and later eras, but were timed according to the whim of hte player. I wonder if that will happen next :D

June 30, 2012 at 12:20 PM · I'm not sure we'll ever know what Bach expected. What is "baroque style"? Fashions change in performance - current tendencies seem to be towards how fast somebody can play the piece or (especially with the 4 Seasons), how much can I pull it around to be "different". Totally not in the "baroque style" but just unbeatable musicianship look at

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OK4umBDWczE&feature=relmfu

July 9, 2012 at 07:17 AM · Elise, Mozart "from the heart"? Menuhin (1930-something) conducted by Enescu!

July 9, 2012 at 08:46 AM · Another point.

Early recordings (up to the 1940s) do not catch the "bloom" of the tone: players had to make a big sound, with plenty of vibrato to replace the natural resonance of their violins.

From LPs onwards, a quieter disc surface plus close microphone placement mean we hear everything.

A taste of Baroque?

Try lowering all 4 strings by a whole tone: the instrument "wakes up", simple detaché sparkles, and vibrato actually kills the looser resonance by confusing it. Expression comes from a more varied and flexible bow stroke.

July 9, 2012 at 09:18 AM · The Spivakov was a good performance with taste and it was also very polite. Listen to Heifetz in the two Bach concertos for a more urgent and dynamic approach, as well as sheer beauty of line in the slow movements.

July 9, 2012 at 09:29 AM · Malcolm

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OK4umBDWczE&feature=relmfu

David Oistrakh in the R festival Hall in the 1960's I think. Another great master! Fast vib and tight bow!

Manny Hurwitz leading (the ECO? or Mozart Players?)and Cecil Aronowitz leading the violas. Wonderful sound even in that then dry accoustic. Wonderful playing rarely heard these days ...

July 9, 2012 at 03:07 PM · just popping in - currently in italy at my violin thing (more later). Bach was going well - but we've moved onto Mozart so I'll have to keep working on it at home.

July 9, 2012 at 03:18 PM · Adrian

"Early recordings (up to the 1940s) do not catch the "bloom" of the tone: players had to make a big sound, with plenty of vibrato to replace the natural resonance of their violins."

You say this but I'm not sure that it is correct. Close micing was often used then as well. I don't think players adjusted to recordings as you say. Heifetz, Milstein and Menuhin all had the same vibrato pre 1940 as did many others. There was no great change of playing style to suit post 1940 recordings. Where is the proof?

"From LPs onwards, a quieter disc surface plus close microphone placement mean we hear everything."

Even with the surface noise reduction by about 10-15 dB did not really make such a huge difference. It was only in the digital era that this became true.

"A taste of Baroque?

Try lowering all 4 strings by a whole tone: the instrument "wakes up", simple detaché sparkles, and vibrato actually kills the looser resonance by confusing it. Expression comes from a more varied and flexible bow stroke."

I don't se this as being true at all. Just makes for a horrible muddy sound.

July 9, 2012 at 09:18 PM · O.K. I simplified a bit: the last 78rpm "ffrr" had excellent quality - if you like listening through a shower of ball-bearings! The first LPs (of which I heard many!) were not a lot better, but the surface noise was much less loud , and less "spiky".

The violinists?

Heifetz, Milstein and Menuhin were the "new wave" and one of the many reasons for their enduring succes was that their playing sounded even better with the new recording techniques. Others fared less well e.g. the magnificent Elman whose 1950ish LPs sound very outdated, however great the musician. Kreisler stopped recording when he found the electric microphone too analytical.(He only died in 1963.)

Barockery?

The experiment I describe works very well on my violin and viola, but one needs a very light bow stroke, where dynamics come from varying the speed of the bow more than its weight. I admit that despite my very delicate constitution I prefer a "meatier" approach.

Which brings me back to Elise's thread:

I prefer Bach's semiquavers cantabile (like a virtuoso singer) but I also enjoy a springy baroque rendering - if it's in tune! With Mozart, I am less convinced by "period" style playing, which make his melodies mee-ow rather. Here, I prefer modern instruments, either light and airy, or sugary-sweet..

July 10, 2012 at 06:20 AM · "O.K. I simplified a bit: the last 78rpm "ffrr" had excellent quality - if you like listening through a shower of ball-bearings! The first LPs (of which I heard many!) were not a lot better, but the surface noise was much less loud , and less "spiky"."

Adrian - yes I'm not totally disagreeing with you. I too got LP's in the mid 1950's and was pretty amazed at the improvements in surface noise when an LP was brand new. I also compared the playing of Jascha and others with their many 78 rpm shellacs of whch I had quite a few. The playing sounded just the same to me (apart from Elman!!) It was just a bit clearer and less fuzzy especially in the orchestra.

"The violinists?

Heifetz, Milstein and Menuhin were the "new wave" and one of the many reasons for their enduring succes was that their playing sounded even better with the new recording techniques. Others fared less well e.g. the magnificent Elman whose 1950ish LPs sound very outdated, however great the musician. Kreisler stopped recording when he found the electric microphone too analytical.(He only died in 1963.)"

Kreisler's wonderful sound would have I'm sure come accross just as well with more modern mics, but don't forget that we have some of those old mics reborn - for example the modern ribbon mics - of which I have two. They are wonderful for strings and I bet I could record Kreisler today were he around and he would sound superb.

"Barockery?

The experiment I describe works very well on my violin and viola, but one needs a very light bow stroke, where dynamics come from varying the speed of the bow more than its weight. I admit that despite my very delicate constitution I prefer a "meatier" approach."

On the odd occasions when I have had to tune down even by a small amount (say a quarter tone) both my viola in the old days and my fiddle in the good old new days sounds much worse. Down by a tone and I'm sure it would sound like a wet flannel, and in any case I can't cope with the pitch being different.

July 10, 2012 at 07:08 AM · Some of the first baroque specialists sounded very soggy because they were playing period instruments and bows in a modern way; the player must toally adapt his/her stroke ("stroke" in the sense of caress!)

July 10, 2012 at 02:45 PM · Spurred on by Elise going on about this Bach concerto in A minor, I was in the old musicke shoppe today in old London Town and I saw it going cheap so I bought it along with the Haydn G major. Both are for nostalgia reasons - I haven't played them since about 1964 or earlier. (When I was about 4 years old ...)

Had a play through. Nice concertos.

P S I bought the non Baroque version ... (No quarter tones ...) In fact I might have bought the wrong one as it's not in A mnior ... maybe that's the Baroque one ...

July 10, 2012 at 05:20 PM · I'll probably ruffle some feathers with my response, but here goes: The Bach violin concertos are, IMO lighter works. They lack the depth and profound wisdom found in most of Bach. There is little or no counterpoint, not much room for varied interpretation. Yes, its melodic and entertaining, a fun piece to play for both students and professionals but there is not much meaning in them. Sometimes I listen to these works and have my doubts that JS Bach even wrote them. Now my disclaimer: I consider JS Bach to be one of the greatest composers of all time and across all genres. His partitas and sonatas are pure magic, orchestral and choral compositions achieve perfection, keyboard works are masterpieces, etc. I am certainly not critical of Bach, nor can I do better-- after all, he is the MASTER of all things baroque! With regard to the original post, perhaps the concerto does not lend itself to period re-interpreation as well as some other works. That being said, I would love to hear any and all authentic performances to experience what's possible.

July 10, 2012 at 07:16 PM · Evan, I should think Bach's feathers are certainly ruffled! Baroque concertos are very "public" works, and Bach's are as well-written as anything else. There are certainly more sequential reptitions in the outer movements, but the slow movements are sublime.

July 10, 2012 at 07:52 PM · FWIW about bow speed and tone: as far as I have seen, bow pressure is the only means of changing dynamics mentioned in Baroque violin tutors up until Leopold Mozart, and then he only mentions speed as a necessary adjustment for pressure.

There is a fair amount of evidence that baroque players were not using low string tensions. Also L. Mozart advocates a strong tone and thick strings, i.e. not to play in a whispery wheedly-deedly sort of way.

The defining aspect of baroque violin style is the rhetorical approach to note-shaping and articulation, not (necessarily) a thin sound and fast bow speeds on low-tension strings.

--Lyndon you make an interesting point, but it’s not just that there haven’t been ‘top performers’ on the period performance side–who would recognize them? The default position of most violinists and listeners of violin music is that the modern violinistic ‘accent’ is a prerequisite to being ‘musical’. IMO you can play like an angel but if your style is rooted in the Leopold Mozart book you will not get widespread recognition from the modern ‘ear’ because you don’t sound ‘right’ i.e. ‘musical’.

July 10, 2012 at 08:01 PM · I'm staying out of this - Heifetz is more than good enough for me.

July 10, 2012 at 09:25 PM · I get the distinct feeling that someone asked JS..."Why do you always have to be so serious, why can't you just write a pretty melody like everyone else?" To which Papa Bach replied "Because then I'd sound like Vivaldi, but alright, I'll try it just this once. I'll compose a violin concerto."

But all kidding aside, early music performance has largely saved classical music from oblivion. Not many historic revivals can claim that. With Sergio Luca's extraordinary recording of partitas and sonatas in the 1970s, a new (old?) approach had begun. Prior to that, the great modern interpretations were all we had. And indeed, they were GREAT, many to choose from, Szeryng, Milstein, Enesco, early Menuhin, etc, but on a modern fiddle, it was a transcription more than an interpretation. Once our ears adjust, the baroque performance just sounds right, or at least not glaringly wrong. Wanda Landowska understood this with keyboard music, as did Dolmetch with the recorder, and a handful of Lute players. Thank goodness the fringe outsiders persevered!

Maybe there is hope for the Bach concertos after all.

July 10, 2012 at 09:32 PM · Andreas, I think the instructions you mention are relative to the violin at that time, with lower tension in the strings and in the wood, and fewer extremes of tension in the bow.

Try my little "simulation" of a baroque setup: I suggest a whole tone lower to simulate the lower (average!) A, plus the shorter neck with a lower bridge. Proportionally to the present setup, you will use much less pressure; a straight detaché will have an almost martelé attack. After a few minutes, you will find a transparent tone which is anything but "wispy".

I am only relating my experience!

July 10, 2012 at 09:33 PM · "But all kidding aside, early music performance has largely saved classical music from oblivion. Not many historic revivals can claim that. With Sergio Luca's extraordinary recording of partitas and sonatas in the 1970s, a new (old?) approach had begun. Prior to that, the great modern interpretations were all we had. And indeed, they were GREAT, many to choose from, Szeryng, Milstein, Enesco, early Menuhin, etc, but on a modern fiddle, it was a transcription more than an interpretation. Once our ears adjust, the baroque performance just sounds right, or at least not glaringly wrong. Wanda Landowska understood this with keyboard music, as did Dolmetch with the recorder, and a handful of Lute players. Thank goodness the fringe outsiders persevered!

Maybe there is hope for the Bach concertos after all."

I know I said I would stay out of this but with a statement like that it is not possible.

This is just rubbish. In fact the early brigade are probably responsible for turning more people off classical music, not the modern players. The classical music support started tailing off gradually as the HIPsters got going, from about the late 70's.

And it's the early lot who are doing the transcribing in my opinion.

July 10, 2012 at 10:10 PM · Peter,

The early music/period instrument movement included such greats as Trevor Pinnock, Monica Huggett, Jaap Schroder, Igor Kipnis, and many others. Nowadays, a very large percentage of classical music is performed on the instrument it was written for and music schools have many students enrolling. Early music festivals are commonplace. Interpretations have improved over the past few decades too. Just listen to Lucy van Dael's Bach, or Jory Vinikour's harpsichord, Manze, Biondi, etc. Thankfully, I can now enjoy baroque and classical music like never before. For the record, I am a HUGE fan of Heifetz, Kreisler, Elman, Thibaud, Morini, Toscanini, Lipatti, and many modern instrumentalists, but selecting the correct instrument for the job and avoiding not-yet-discovered technics such as modern vibrato will help the listener understand the music on a much deeper level. After all, shouldn't we at least honor the great composers intentions and use the instruments as they were intended? Must we "upgrade" to steel strings, silver flutes, and modern pianos because "everyone now knows they are better"?

July 10, 2012 at 11:10 PM · Sigh. Again with the negativity toward the early music crowd?

For me, learning about period performance made this music come alive. Thankful that in our studio our instructor knows how to make Baroque playing really special with a deep knowledge of period style. And it's just beautiful played that way.

July 11, 2012 at 10:56 AM · Hi Elise,

I did not read all the comments, so what I am about to say may have come up, but...

I have done multiple projects using various period setups from baroque to late romantic. The difficulty is that although we can do certain things to keep the spirit of the music on a modern instrument, things will not sound the same as on an instrument set up with specific strings or using period bows because of the equipment. So this is where the choices come in. Some people like to try to do a baroque sound with a modern instrument. I find this less than successful. Trying to do the opposite (i.e. playing with a modern sound on a baroque instrument) probably would be equally unsuccessful.

So, where does this leave us. I think that using a period instrument, we can find many things about the music such as pacing, certain phrasing characteristics, things about articulation that are natural to that "equipment" for lack of a better word. It gives us clues to the spirit of the music. Now, many of these things are not always possible or the best sounding choice on a modern instrument. However, in my very humble personal opinion, it is important to keep the essence and spirit of the music when using modern gear while at the same time doing what will sound best. We then also have to make responsible choices if we make changes so that they don't affect the spirit of the composition. I think that finding the best compromise is then the game at hand.

My humble opinion on the matter on this early morning...

Cheers!

July 11, 2012 at 11:48 AM · Christian - I think you put it well though I feel that cross-over playing has more going for it than you imply. You can make the choice of precise rhythmic (baroque-like) or detache expressive modern-like styling and get lovely versions both ways even if you are using a modern violin. I just find that the more precise timing 'work's better for the music. However, its not that extreme because Bach is very generous with slurs (as indicated in my urtext which I suppose is accurate) so one really can go either way.

[And I think we also have a friend in common ;) ]

July 11, 2012 at 12:38 PM · Hi Elise,

I did very recently find out that we do indeed have a friend in common!!! :)

I do not mean that one should not endeavor to carry over articulations and other aspects from period instruments to a modern one; not at all, in fact it is quite the opposite. It is just that some work well, and some don't, so one has to make selections. However, if one wants to preserve the spirit and essence of the music then you have to come as close as possible in all regards, while never sacrificing good sound and taste and doing what is possible. Some violinists make a compromise by using a baroque bow on a modern instrument and that is one avenue to take. The options are numerous and one has to choose. However, changing the spirit and essence of a composition is not the path that is advisable I think.

Hope that makes my thoughts a little clearer...

Cheers!

July 11, 2012 at 01:59 PM · I think Susanne Lautehbacher helped bridge the gap between baroque and modern. Her 1962 recording of the Biber Rosary sonatas was the first to consider how to play these works in an historically appropriate manner. Hard to believe before this recording, Biber was all but ignored. In 1964, she recorded the Bach A minor, now on youtube here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jsSaENewyCY

Her limited use of vibrato and strong tone pleases both early music and modern performance fans. A modern orchestra was probably all that was available to her at that time. Vox did only a fair job at the recording controls, which hardens the sound, but listen past the electronics on this one.

July 11, 2012 at 05:37 PM · "violinist.com provides way to much space for some posters comments, the topic was learning about baroque performance practise not what do you hate about baroque music, perhaps mr charles and company should start their own thread "how everything sounds better when you do it my way" or something.... "

Lyndon - you really are brilliant!! What a clever boy!!

Yes - we should start (you and I that is) a website especially for extremists. You with your "only OLD fiddles are any good" and me with "only MODERN players are any good!!"

That way we could tap into this vast area of interest people have in decrepid old fiddles and also in the vast interest there is in modern playing.

You really are a clever boy!! I'll leave it up to you set the site up and do all the programming (you can even use pre 1800 code - I'm not at all fussy!!)

July 12, 2012 at 09:39 AM · To actually answer Elise's question (!):

Bach's music seems to depend less on medium and manner than that of, say Vivaldi, Haendel or Couperin. We hear Bach (and Scarlatti,) in piano recitals, but more rarely the others.

Although he enjoys "playing" with tone and texture, usually in the middle of a piece, his very dense writing can be as effective on a saxophone quintet as on a string orchestra. His writing is timeless.

In the same vein, I notice that the Barockers have brought to the concert platform much little known music which would be unconvicing on modern instruments.

A few paradoxes?

I find Heifetz sounds bored in much classical repertoire, but I really enjoy his Sonatas & Partitas. On the oter hand, my favorite discing of the 'cello suites is that of Yo-Yo Ma, a "modern" player who has absorbed the vigour and expressive phrasing of the best Barockers (e.g. Jordi Savall).

July 12, 2012 at 10:05 AM · Adrian - have you heard Heifetz playing the two Bach violin concertos? You might well love them. (Thanks for standing up for these two wonderful concertos recently too!)

I agree that a lot of hitherto rarely performed early music gets an airing now - which can't be bad. On the other hand - some of it might be described by *some* as not that good. But I'm not necessarily saying that myself, as I try to judge each work on its merits. (I do even find *some* Bach a little dull, for example. Only *some* - so don't all start screaming ...) (wink)

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

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email

Violinist.com 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

Violinist.com Business Directory
Violinist.com Business Directory

Violinist.com Guide to Online Learning
Violinist.com Guide to Online Learning

Dominant Pro Strings

Antonio Strad Violin

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop

Bobelock Cases

Fiddlerman.com

Fiddlershop

Los Angeles Violin Shop

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Violin-Strings.com

Metzler Violin Shop

Leatherwood Bespoke Rosin

Warchal

Barenreiter

Johnson String Instrument and Carriage House Violins

Potter Violins

String Masters

Bein & Company

Annapolis Bows & Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine

Subscribe