Highest and least revered Bach interpreter (S & P)

October 7, 2012 at 01:37 AM · These are pieces we are all in awe of - continually inspired, always learning, growing, etc. To all of you: who conveys the music best and worst to you on the most personal of levels. No right and wrong answers blah blah blah, just curious. (at most two per category if you couldn't imagine one without the other, or if two push you away equally as far away...)

Best: Kremer and Tetzlaff

Worst: Menuhin and Heifetz

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts, I know I feel strongly about my choices.

Replies (74)

October 7, 2012 at 03:42 AM · I've got all the revered recordings, several of them on vinyl, but a new recording of the S&P by Cecylia Arzewski is a total home run. Incredible on both the interpretation and the technical side of the recording. Check out some of the previews on Amazon or get the CD.

October 7, 2012 at 09:37 AM · Tom - I am embarassed to admit that I've never heard of Cecylia Arzewski - I'm just listening to her equisite performances of the frank, brahms (2) and beethoven (1) sonatas on Utube. Is this a case of the non-photogenic, and hence relatively low profile, woman performer? Or I have I just been out of the loop! She is fantastic. Thanks for the heads up - here's the link:


October 7, 2012 at 11:29 AM · Overall, Grumiuax and Szerying have long set the standard for me.

I like Heifetz' Chaconne very much, but much as I revere him, other movements of various other works in the set strike me oddly.

Speaking of odd, I have a great deal of respect for Gidon Kremer, but I recall hearing him do the E major on the radio. In the Gavotte, each time at the end of the main theme (which repeats several times) he would ritard as though it were the the end of the movement. It sounded very mannered to me, though he must have his reasons.

PS As I recall Arzewski was a student of Silverstein, and had a high position in the BSO for some time, eventually getting a consertmastership elsewhere - Bufalo?

October 7, 2012 at 12:49 PM · I think it's great to share ideas on 'best,' particularly when it's not a blanket statement, but supported with reasons--that offers an understanding of the poster's taste, which helps explain the choices.

'Worst?' maybe not such a good idea; there's a huge difference between disliking a player's choices of interpretation for whatever reason and calling the result 'bad,' or 'worst.' Often it says more about taste (or lack of it) in the poster than about the player.

In any case, a 'why' is always good. There are elements in almost every performance that have real validity; I learn from most performers I hear.

October 7, 2012 at 01:32 PM · I can't really think of any performances I've heard that I truly "dislike," although I've heard some odd ones.

The Heifetz performances never did much for me until recent years (maybe it's just age). I now find that I like Heifetz more and more. I think it's that he seems to hold back on the usual violinistic mannerisms, the kinds of things we always seem to look for in a violinist (the unique sound and technique and interpretation). Heifetz doesn't seem to want to get in the way of the music. Say what you will about Heifetz, but his respect for the composer is admirable.

On the other hand, the ones I keep coming back to have mannerisms galore. But more than that, each has a distinct voice, and I really like a lot of the traditionally lauded performances: Szeryng, Grumiaux, for example. But I also like some that few pay attention to, such as Johanna Martzy, whose recordings are sensational.

But I keep coming back to Nathan Milstein. And the very best performance of the Partita #2 I've ever heard was a live performance by Milstein at his very last performance in Chicago. He was 80 years old, and there were moments in the Bach (especially the Chaconne) that were so riveting that it was wasn't like listening to a great performance of a great work; it was more like listening to the genuine voice of the composer speaking to us directly through the eternal veil of time. As a listener and lover of the violin and of Bach in particular, it was an unforgettable and almost spiritual experience.



October 7, 2012 at 03:21 PM · I once heard a live recital bootleg tape of Silverstein playing solo Bach that was absolutely stunning. Alas, I don't have a copy...

The older I get, the more I admire and appreciate Heifetz's solo Bach. Conviction, confidence, originality, vision, and the chops to produce the goods: it is all there.

October 7, 2012 at 03:38 PM · Least revered: Marty Dalton

October 7, 2012 at 06:25 PM · Yes, my own attempts (as a non-professional, of course) at playing the Bach S&P's have also met with stunning accolades, to wit:

".....He's followed the urtext exactly. Unfortunately, he must have turned the manuscript upside-down....."

"....What technique!!! What tone!!! - That's what everyone was asking...."

"....A performance for the ages (That is, ages five to six)...."

"....When it comes to Bach, he doesn't come close to Bach...."

"...I've heard double-stops, but never half-stops...."

"....After hearing that performance of the Double, I really needed a double...."

"....The Preludio of the E-Major Partita sounded like someone running the Chicago Marathon and coming in dead last...."

"....This performance really puts the 'shock' in Chaconne....."

October 7, 2012 at 08:09 PM · haha! :)

Milstein is great, yes. Monica Hugett also, but totally different. All recordings are inspiring.

October 8, 2012 at 03:23 AM · I'm with Sander, I love Milstein. Also quite fine I think are the recordings by Mintz and Szerying. One that did not do much for me was Szigeti. And somehow Grumiaux is not my favorite either, even though his recording is highly critically acclaimed.

I would like to hear this Cecylia Arzewski recording too. I see that Rhapsody has it, so I will be listening to it tomorrow in the office!

October 8, 2012 at 12:20 PM · I suppose it depends if you want to hear an approximation of Baroque-era instruments, tuning and ornaments, the tone/vibrato of the 20th century giants, or someone more modern who may be somewhere in-between.

October 8, 2012 at 01:31 PM · Milstein is my favourite also. Szeryng's meticulous 1968 performance is also magnificent, and a striking contrast. But James Ehnes's interpretation on Analekta in 2000 should also rank among the best. I like Menuhin's recording the least among those that I have heard. I didn't care for Perlman's performance much, and gave my copy away to somebody who seems very happy with it.

October 8, 2012 at 01:55 PM · Perlman's is best if you really like the Galamian edition. (Not my thing, really.)

Otherwise, for complete sets, Milstein (DG) is fabulous if you like violin playing. There are some tapes about of a live concert he did in the 50s that hit even closer to the mark.

Shumsky was my first favorite complete set. Great power and integrity. The b-minor alone is worth the price.

For the g-minor and a-minor sonatas, the 30s recordings done by Szigeti are pretty awesome. His posthumous recordings of the complete set in the 50s have value, but tread carefully.

And if you don't need completeness of any sort, Joseph Joachim's recordings are priceless.

October 8, 2012 at 01:57 PM · ...

October 13, 2012 at 01:44 AM · I think it is important, in understanding any of the great artists we always seem to be discussing, to recognize that there is a historical aspect. Specifically, let's look at Jascha Heifetz. Mr. Heifetz came out of a 19th Century romantic virtouso tradition. And he transcended it.

But to appreciate his perception of Bach, take a look at Mortimer Frank's program notes on the "Heifetz Collection" recording of the Bach Sonatas & Partitas.

Mr. Frank says, in part, "When Jascha Heifetz made these recordings, few if any major instrumentalists took .....historical performance traditions into account. Viewed in this context his recordings are in some respects a reaction against the encrustations of Romantic tradition that veiled Baroque style."

And this: "Appoggiaturas.....are played as before-the-beat decorations, altering slightly the melodic line as Bach conceived it. Still, from a violinist whose training was rooted in 19th Century traditions, these performances stand as one of the many examples of the way in which Heifetz was a transcendent artist, not only in his technical brilliance but in his intuitive grasp of style as well."

Bravo, Mr. Frank.

And bravo, Mr. Heifetz.



October 13, 2012 at 09:46 AM · Just to add a couple, Ilya Kaler's are excellent, and among the A-415 crowd's, I think Lucy van Dael shows a good deal of insight.

October 13, 2012 at 06:13 PM · I genuinely cannot listen anymore to the older Bach recordings - much as I love and respect Szeryng, Szigeti, Heifetz, etc in the grand Romantic repertoire, their Bach just usually leaves me bellowing at my radio and wanting to throw things. Yes, I'm a Baroque nerd. Right now a recording that I'm very fond of is Viktoria Mullova's new one, she plays in a historically informed style with at least a period bow (don't know if it's gut strings or Baroque instrument), but doesn't fall into the dry academism that sometimes still ruins HP performances. And even though it's old, I will always love Sergiu Luca's set - sentimental reasons mostly, he was the teacher of one of my most influential former teachers, and I spent many a lesson gleefully listening to crazy Luca stories. But it's also a marvelous historical document in itself, as I believe it was the first attempt to play the 6 in period style.

Tetzlaff's recording is one of the best of the non-HP ones out there, in my opinion though I often find his tempi bewilderingly fast.

October 14, 2012 at 11:55 AM · Mara - I would be curious to have you describe precisely what it is about the older interpretations of Szeryng, et al., that provokes such an extreme reaction (please avoid throwing anything valuable!), other than their failure to meet your HIP standards. When I listen to any performance, I try to appreciate whatever beauty and insight it brings to the music. Whether a performance is HIP or not, I do not usually find that I am disappointed. What is different about the way you listen? Is it that the older performers do not understand the harmonic structure or something? Just curious.

October 14, 2012 at 12:50 PM · Hmmm.

1. So it's a battle between the "older" style of Szeryng, Heifetz, et. al., and the newer, "authentic" Baroque interpretations, eh? Well, doesn't being "authentic" (presumably the way it was played in Bach's time) make the Baroque style the "oldest" rather than the newest? If the Baroque style is truly authentic, then that makes the Romantic style newer rather than older, no?

2. Let's say that Bach had eaten only organic foods and taking his vitamins and CQ-10 and had lived another 300 years. So one day he buys all of the Bach sets on the Internet and listens to the Milstein/Heifetz/Szeryng/und so weiter group and says, "Say, I really like that. I never thought of playing it like that. That's better than anyone I knew. (And, by the way, who is this guy Paganini?)."

There's just no accounting for taste.



And, by the way, I am rediscovering the Heifetz performances of the Sonatas and Partitas. Say what you will, but Heifetz makes each voice in the Fugues stand out as separate melodic lines in a way no one else does. It is brilliant, and in spite of the other romanticisms in his style, I cannot imagine that this is not what the composer had in mind.

October 14, 2012 at 01:11 PM · By the way, there is an arrangement of Beatles songs as Baroque concerti grossi. It's probably still available.

Also, it has always seemed to me that Bach is perhaps the only great composer whom it is impossible to destroy by making "arrangements." The spirituality just comes through, whether it's jazzed up or played on a harmonica.

And speaking of Heifetz (ahem), I am find something very curious and unexpected in once again immersing myself in these performances after so many years. He is "in-the-moment" in every note, every melody, every chord. Nothing sounds mechanical or without intense focus and emotion. All of the old cliches about Heifetz just don't hold. If I had come across these performances and didn't know who was playing, I would have thought, "This sounds like Heifetz, but it is much much warmer and deeper. And what attention to every little nuance. I can't imagine anyone playing this any better, At this moment, this crowds out all of the others (and there are a lot of others I really like)."

October 14, 2012 at 01:53 PM · And one additional thought (as if I haven't said enough):

Yes, just because it's good doesn't mean it's authentic. However, just because it's authentic doesn't mean it's good. There were lots of hundred-year-old movies that sucked.



October 14, 2012 at 02:38 PM · Sandy - your additional thought sums it up. With all due respect to my relative, Wanda Landowska, without whose advocacy and popularization of the harpsichord and period performance we probably would not be having this discussion, there is nothing magic about HIP, period performance or period instruments. I await Mara's input on her reaction.

October 14, 2012 at 07:48 PM · John - I reject the notion that any instruments or bows are inherently "better" or "worse" than others. Our material hardware evolved to meet the different expressive requirements that were asked of it, according to the evolving aesthetic of the period. Darwinianism simply doesn't work when applied to music.

As to the articulations used by Luca, I can't speak for that except to say that articulation in baroque music is to some extent personal and dictated by the individual performer's interpretation of the expressive character of a given passage. One of the things a baroque bow is very good at is a sort of "syllabic" legato, where the notes have a varied stress pattern of strong and weak almost like syllables in a word. On the other hand, the baroque bow doesn't want to smooth things out into an undifferentiated legato in the way that modern technique with the Tourte bow has tended to teach us. The baroque bow creates an articulative environment where the spaces and "breathing" between notes and phrases is of great importance.

As for recordings of the Bach S&P, my personal preferences are for John Holloway (HIP) and Viktoria Mullova (HIP technique with a gut strung Stradivarius in modern set-up and a baroque bow).

October 14, 2012 at 10:55 PM · Michael wrote: "Our material hardware evolved to meet the different expressive requirements that were asked of it, according to the evolving aesthetic of the period. Darwinianism simply doesn't work when applied to music."

That has to be a classic self-anihilating comment ...

October 15, 2012 at 02:33 PM · Elise - what I meant by my comment about Darwinianism was that the idea of Darwinian 'progress' ought not to be applied when considering the history of music.

October 15, 2012 at 02:49 PM · It may be "progress" when it comes to advances in technique. But it ain't "progress" when it comes to the heart; it's just differences. Baroque Era isn't any less emotionally transcendent than Classical Era, which in turn isn't any less emotionally transcendent than Romantic Era. It's just different sides of the human heart. They're all contemporary, which is why they are all played.

October 15, 2012 at 03:58 PM · At the risk of sounding ill-informed, what does HIP stand for? Either this acronym has not penetrated to England or it hasn't penetrated to me.

@Sander, yes I remember the album of baroque elaborations of Beatles songs. I thought that the Rejouissance-style version of Ticket to Ride was a particularly successful bit of pastiche.

October 15, 2012 at 05:02 PM · Historically informed performance

Though why Wiki has the link as "Authentic_performance" is another matter.

October 15, 2012 at 08:11 PM · HIP = Historically Informed Performance. Also called simply HP, performance practice, period performance, and a dozen other names.

Answering Tom's earlier question, I find the "old" Bach performances frustrating and unappealing because they play Baroque music in a purely Romantic style, and it seems incongruous to me. Playing with a uniformly rich, sustained sound with a modern bow has a nasty habit of obliterating the nuances (both rhythmical and harmonic) that Bach actually wrote and that are appropriate to the Baroque aesthetic - It's the solo violin equivalent of Stokowski's Wagnerian-sounding Bach orchestral suites, though if you also like those, I suppose we're reasoning from opposing principles.

October 15, 2012 at 10:29 PM · Highest revered:

1. Rachel Podger on a Baroque violin

2. Viktoria Mullova on a contemporary violin (partitas only)

Least (not at all) revered:

too many to mention; in essence just anyone who approaches Bach as if it were Paganini or other technical study and/or plays with "equalized" bowing, too much vibrato, too long phrasing, legato; flat style, etc...

October 16, 2012 at 12:16 AM · Mara - thanks for your response, which is helpful but probably not sufficiently specific for me to fully grasp. Can you point to a place in one of the S&Ps where there is rhythmic and/or harmonic nuance that is obliterated by the Szeryng/Grumiaux version and to a recording which brings it out to your satisfaction?

October 16, 2012 at 01:30 AM · Tom, I'll take a crack at that. Sometimes when I listen to Grumiaux and other players of that era, their vibrato is kind of relentless, like their wrist is connected to a Sawzall motor or something. I think there was a time when violinists were trained that no matter what you are playing, this kind of fast vibrato is just meant to be a continuous part of your tone, you never turn it off and you never change it. I got that impression of Grumiaux initially by listening to his Bach Double recording. Even romantic-period music is not done justice by this approach, which is why I like other recordings of the Franck Sonata better than Grumiaux, for example. If this is what Mara meant by a lack of subtlety, then I guess I'm with her on that point.

October 16, 2012 at 01:08 PM · Paul:

Very interesting observation and comment. I think Francescatti has a vibrato like that - rarely varied and "on" almost all the time. One of his most interesting recordings in this regard is of the Ravel Kaddish (which is the Jewish prayer for the dead). Francescatti uses practically no vibrato, and then when he does, it is really impactful.

There's just one thing about this issue that I see a little differently, however. The art of the violin is ultimately not one of technique but of sound, and ultimately not one of sound but of "voice."

The voice, in my opinion, is the artist's inner "vision" - his or her conception of what the music should sound like, given his or her particular violin sound.

I liken this to an actor's use of his or her individual, unique voice in saying the lines. In no way could Al Pacino possibly sound exactly like Cary Grant - or even try to - when reciting the same lines from the same play. There is a different conception and in fact an entirely different voice. Yet both can give credible, convincing, and "authentic" portrayals of the same character with the same dialogue.

The truly great violinists, I believe, do not do something just because they can do it. Grumiaux doesn't use (or even overuse) vibrato just because he can, or out of habit. It is his conception of the music, given his individual violinistic "voice" and artistic vision of the composer's intent.

Now, you may prefer or not prefer a particular violinist's individual "voice" or interpretation, but that does not necessarily make that interpretation invalid. One of the things I truly love about the violin is in fact how many different violinistic "visions" there are of the same piece of music. It's like seeing a great work of art from yet a different light, which then reveals yet another side of a work of genius.

Maybe that's not a very well-informed or professional way to consider these issues, but it is mine.



October 16, 2012 at 01:22 PM · What Sandy said! I do agree with Paul that there was, at one time, a tendency to overuse vibrato. One valuable contribution of the A-415 crowd has been to counter that tendency, particularly for the earlier music. However, to the extent you get to the position where vibrato is not permitted if you are playing baroque music because they did not use it at the time, it becomes dogma that inhibits rather than furthers interpretation.

October 16, 2012 at 01:55 PM · It's not really so much about overuse of vibrato as it is about the monotony of it. It's great to have a strong/secure voice, but if your voice is always the same, that gets to be less interesting for the listener after a while. There are many ways for a violinist to introduce subtlety and nuance in his voice, and vibrato is just one among many dimensions.

Another dimension that seems very important for Bach S&Ps is how much one's bow comes off the string. You will hear people say that you should never play spiccato in Bach -- everything should be staccato or martele. Since we're talking about Grumiaux, whose Bach is often said to be very good (and there's a lot to like about it), compare for example Grumiaux playing the Gigue from the D-Minor Partita with Janine Jansen. Jansen's playing sounds more fresh and alive to me, and I think it is because her bowing technique is different, maybe lighter, crispier. Maybe that's horrifying to the A415 crowd, I really don't know, but as the listener I get to decide what I like.

October 16, 2012 at 02:32 PM · With these considerations in mind, give another listen to Heifetz. I think you'll be surprised.

October 16, 2012 at 03:10 PM · I have never made a mistake. I thought I did once, but I was wrong.


Yes, I think one of the great gifts of the human brain is the ability to understand and appreciate different points of view without necessarily giving up one's own preferences. If only the politicians would do that.

In addition, I think that the potential to really appreciate a transcendent composer like Bach is enhanced when we can experience the music from different perspectives. From that point of view, Grumiaux isn't so terrible, nor is the avoidance of the dreaded vibrato.

One of my favorite musical history anecdotes is that when Ysaye once played the Brahms Concerto, the composer was in the audience. Afterwards, when they met, Brahms said, "So, it can be played that way, too."

Who's to say that Bach wouldn't have gotten a kick out of Stokowski's bombastic arrangements of his music? Remember, Bach absorbed all of the different musical styles and forms of his day and integrated them into his unique vision. Who's to say that he wouldn't have done the same with the performance styles that came after him? What if he had been introduced to sonata form, or vibrato, or the sax, or the synthesizer, or (gulp) 12-tone music?

It seems to me that Bach didn't want to be stuck in his own time and his own little world. So why should we?

October 16, 2012 at 05:57 PM · Any time HIP comes up, there are always people who pose the issue as one of restriction and authority versus freedom.

To do so is to utterly, utterly miss the point, and to waste time building an elaborate straw man to knock over.

I simply like good HIP performances of baroque music better. I liked them better long before I knew a single thing about the principles that guide HIP. I like them better even though I was raised on classical music and mainstream performances.

Incidentally I think Janine Jansen's performance of baroque music is rather more HIP in flavor than a lot of modern performers. Indeed her playing in general has a bit more of detailed speech-like inflection than is normally found in modern performance.

As to the Stokowski Bach. I don't find the conversion from organ to modern romantic orchestra as jarring as other stylistic changes. Maybe it's just that director Martin Scorcese made such brilliant use of Stokowski's recording in the movie The Aviator that I have positive associations with it.

About Bach--it is far more speculative to say that Bach would have made use of all the various twists, turns and styles of modern classical music than it is to say that we can know something about the musical idiom which formed part of the context in which he composed.

October 16, 2012 at 08:11 PM · Andres - with respect to you last point about Bach, I agree with you that understanding his context is important. That said, it is clear that Beethoven was composing piano music for instruments not yet in existence and always pushed the envelope. While one may certainly come to prefer, as you do, HIP performances of Bach, which, I agree, have much to recommend them, IMHO, it is difficult for me to conceive of Bach as so time-bound that you cannot interpret him in a manner outside the context of his compositions.

October 16, 2012 at 09:33 PM · Another view on the original question...

The two S&Ps I (currently) like most are Szeryng and Milstein. I used to have a boxed set LP of Menuhin -- not sure which recording session. I still like Menuhin for Bach, especially his earlier stuff.

I have a lot of respect for Heifeitz. But not to the point of adulation.

And dittos to Sandy.

Who's the worst? I'd say I am. Anybody want to fight for the honor?

October 17, 2012 at 02:32 PM · Andres:

Of course it is speculative to wonder what Bach would have done had he lived significantly longer. However, he clearly was open to and did familiarize himself with the differing trends of his time, and did integrate those into his compositions.

And, with all due respect (and I do follow and respect your opinion), I believe that nothing could be more "speculative" than knowing precisely what music performance actually sounded like over 150 years before the invention of sound recording. We may be taking a highly knowledgeable and educated guess, but it's still a guess.



October 17, 2012 at 07:40 PM · Maybe it's just because I'm slow, but I have to confess that I've always been really put off by Tetzlaff's superlumninary performances of the fast movements. He dazzles, to be sure, but to me, the fast movements are just too fast to experience the music. It's almost as if he's trying to show off his technique, rather than to make music. It's puzzling, because he's a first-rate musician, and he performs other movements beautifully.

Yet his Bach is critically acclaimed. What's wrong with me?

October 17, 2012 at 08:31 PM · @Lyndon, I don't remember anyone being ridiculed for his or her opinion.

HIP serves a valuable purpose, I am just not all that into it. I hope I'm allowed to respect something without particularly liking it.

And it might not really be possible to say what music sounded like in Bach's time, or what Bach would have liked, but it certainly is a fun diversion to muse about it, especially with a glass of wine or scotch in hand.

And Sandy, I'm partial to this version: "I used to be conceited, but now I'm perfect."

October 17, 2012 at 08:37 PM · I haven't heard it in years, but I remember liking Uto Ughi's quite a bit. (I had at one point around thirty recordings of the Sonatas and Partitas. I liked something about probably 27 or 28 of them.)

I like some HIP performances, but I don't accept the ideology. When Bach played music by Palestrina, there's no evidence I'm aware of that he used older instruments or retuned. When Bach's music was first played, it also didn't feel like a window back into an earlier era for the audience. I would guess it sounded fairly new! Bach arranged many of his pieces for different instrumentation in different keys. Even some of the Sonatas and Partitas and Cello Suites.

HIP is a modern phenomenon, and Bach just wasn't a purist.

October 17, 2012 at 09:46 PM · I have no issue with trying to play the music on period instruments and using the conventions that people playing baroque music would have used, to the extent we can figure out what they did. This exercise can certainly produce insight, just as my teacher's comment about the partitas -- "remember that these were dance movements" -- also contains important interpretive information. I simply can't accept that there is something magic that automatically renders these efforts superior to the efforts of folks who study the pieces and play them without using period performance techniques and instruments. All of the musicians who try to play these pieces with understanding provide some sort of insight. I am grateful to both the A-415 crowd and pioneers such as Szeryng and Milstein. They have all enriched my understanding of the pieces.

October 18, 2012 at 01:11 AM · And of course if you're going to be a HIPster then you need another violin and bow, and who can afford that? If I could afford two great violins, I think I'd just buy one awesome violin.

October 18, 2012 at 12:38 PM · OK, how about this:

Historical accuracy and authenticity is one thing, and preference is a different order of business. One would think that the well-informed and educated individual would prefer that which is historically accurate, and that there would ideally be a 100% overlap of historical authenticity and preference.

However, there are those whose preferences are simply not what is historically accurate - "Period performances be damned; give me my Grumiaux. I just like it better. Besides, I didn't spend all those years learning vibrato for nothing. And who wants to buy a hundred-year-old Model-T Ford when I've got a brand new Honda in my garage? And, to me, a period performance on a Baroque violin with one of those peculiar old bows and using no vibrato sounds like a train squealing to a stop."

That being said, personally I really do like period performances as well as the others. I even like Heifetz.

But is this really a matter of right-and-wrong? I'm not enough of a pro to know. I do know that someone once defined a "conservative" as someone who believes that nothing should ever be done for the first time.



October 18, 2012 at 02:02 PM · @Lyndon the HIPsters might not play their modern violins, but did they trade them in?

October 18, 2012 at 02:56 PM · @Bill W: nothing's wrong with you.

There seems to be a recent trend toward überschnell Bach performance. I don't consider the Indy 500 approach to be historically accurate, since it's highly unlikely that JSB had access to meth.

HIP aside, the too-fast approach evokes the same feelings that I have when I have to deal with a neurotic person. It's OK for someone to like that approach, but it's OK if I don't want to listen to it.

Just because people CAN do something, it doesn't mean they SHOULD.

I enjoy a lot of HIPs, but I actually prefer the "romantic" approach, as long as it's good. It's good to savor the notes.


October 18, 2012 at 04:08 PM · josef suk - bach's sonatas and partitas, 1971 recording for EMI

October 18, 2012 at 04:54 PM · Didn't one of Bach's sons complain that his father played too fast. Read something like that a few decades ago. Wish I could find it again.

October 18, 2012 at 06:45 PM · I frankly do not understand how the HIP folks claim to know anything about tempos during that era. Metronome was not available until Beethoven's time, so there is no way of really knowing what any of the tempo indications meant. I assume you can make an educated guess of a range, just as Allegro today indicates a range and not necessarily an exact tempo in bpm, but who really knows about what the indications meant back then.

October 18, 2012 at 10:31 PM · To answer the original post:

Highest revered: Amandine Beyer (baroque) and Gidon Kremer (modern)

Least revered: Heifetz

**I've also studied some Bach with François Fernandez and Ryo Terakado, and both have very insightful approaches. I'm sure their recordings are also very interesting. I enjoy the Holloway recording intellectually, but it's not the most enjoyable for me.

As a member of the "HIP" crowd, maybe I could share some of my own experiences from my studies and professional work...

As to Mr. Holzman's comment about tempi, I think no one professes to know exact tempi, and they weren't indicated. In what I have researched and been taught, many written indications of that time had much more to do with the affect of the piece rather than a metronome marking. Lyndon Taylor's comment about the human pulse is an important one, because this was a time when the time signature was very indicative of the pulse, and so especially in 17th century music, many performers try to find a way to allow the pulse to maintain some relation to the time signature. Also, it is much easier to understand the tempo of a dance movement if you understand the dance. So if the music is too slow, then the dance movements just wouldn't work. While this doesn't give you a number on a metronome, it helps to inform the player as to a reasonable tempo range for the music.

Many baroque players, myself included, don't continue to play modern violin because the technique is different, especially as it relates to bow usage. Many people use chinrests or shoulder rests these days with baroque violins, making the left hand more similar to modern violin, but baroque bows (coupled with gut strings) really require a different usage of the bow. Also, if you look at the method books of the time, the concept of bow usage is fundamentally different from modern usage.

Many of us cannot afford great instruments for both, so we are forced to chose, which is a scary proposition, especially if you live in an area where baroque music isn't super popular. So for example, for me, my baroque violin is much better than my modern violin. Not everyone who takes up baroque violin does it as a side hobby...

Some of the comments about HIP refer to it as a modern creation, or unnecessarily exclusive against modern interpretations. As far as I'm concerned (and I think many of my colleagues hold similar views), there are many modern interpretations that are great and valuable. But instead of thinking of HIP as trying to be "correct" for everything, think of it this way: HIP players attempt to approach baroque music looking forward, as a new invention, whereas many modern interpretations (not all, but many) approach it from the standpoint of modern music and look backwards. The use of early hardware (baroque bows, gut strings, etc.) allows us to explore what was natural to them given the equipment that they had available, equipment that was cutting edge at the time. I think many HIP players are not in it to prove modern players wrong, but rather to explore what the cutting-edge sound might have been then. There's no way to know if the HIP approach is totally right, but there's a lot of research and scholarship that goes into the performing decisions that are made, along with aesthetic choices to balance theory with performance.

I say all of this not to discredit what other people have said about their own opinions, but rather to give the point of view of someone who has given their life to the HIP world. I think we're not so close-minded and elitist as some might think...

October 19, 2012 at 12:44 PM · AJ - thank you so much for your helpful response to my comments and those of others.

October 19, 2012 at 11:00 PM · John,

You're partially right about the bows, at least in terms of how I play. The bows are made non-pernambuco woods, largely snakewood, and they are curved convexly or they have no curve at all (later long bows tend to have this approach). The other interesting things to note are of course the tip, whose rounded shape contributes to the lack of transfer of weight from the frog and therefore light up-bows, as well as the lack of a ferrel, which means the hair always lays flat (you can't play on "one hair" like on a modern bow).

The part where I don't quite line up is the usage of the bow. Because of the extra flexibility of the stick (the pressure that we can add without crushing the stick), as well as the qualities of gut strings, many baroque players use much less bow with a heavy touch. One of the big differences you will find between my modern and baroque playing is in baroque playing, my elbow is lower and the "motor" is from my elbow, not my shoulder. This allows the weight of the arm to be the primary sound generator, but the movements are not too large, allowing one to play fast notes without expending too much energy. This way of using the bow is written about very clearly in many treatises, the most common one referenced being Geminiani.

The chippy quality that you're referring to is probably in part due to this constant pressure exerted from the bow, and also from the extra chiff that we get from gut strings. About pressure, remember that not only were strings under higher tension (the conception that they aren't has been largely debunked), but the bow is high tension as well. Lots of volatility there. Another cause for the chipping is an aesthetic that has developed in the HIP world, in which especially music from the early baroque has a much wider variety of articulations including very very short. Personally, I have discovered that this chipping is quite easy, and finding a singing quality is my next personal project. But I would say that in general most baroque players are getting the result they want with the chippy sound. Depends on the player, though. Before discrediting the sound as not having the singing quality that becomes popular with bel canto music, try and see if the player is trying to point out something with their articulation. For me, often the short notes help to give an affect, but it's also to make room for the longer notes which I find much more important. This kind of variety in articulation can make the difference between hearing a fugue subject buried in other voices and just hearing some nice chord progressions...

Of course, I can't speak for all players. There are at least a few different "schools" of aesthetic for baroque music, which shows that while there are some things that are common (simply because they are so obviously explained from primary sources from the time), there are still aesthetic decisions to be made. Which is exactly why modern interpretations will never stop being relevant, because even though I may not agree with their use of vibrato or whatever, they are fantastic musicians who can inspire me in any case.

Time to go to bed in my part of the world. I'm loving the discussion though, and I hope as people contribute that they remember to answer the original poster's question (if they haven't already)!

October 20, 2012 at 09:24 AM · I am less moved by Milstein and Szeryng than most of you posters. I prefer Grumiaux and Suk (who is the only one in my LP collection to play the chords downwards in the Chaconne when melody is in the bass-line).

Of the 1950's crowd, I really like Heifetz (who for once doesn't sound bored!..); I dislike Szigeti, much too rough; but my favourites are the heart-wrenching discs of Enescu. The only modern recordings that come anywhere near Enescu's are the 1976 discs of Menuhin, his best by far, (despite his aging right arm..), intense and majestic.

Mullova's earlier discs already had a "baroque" swing and delicacy, and her new ones confirm my enjoyment of the sonorous 3-note chords, sizzling

détachés, caressing legatos, and bouncing dance rhythms of the HIPsters. To my mind, such research is a marvellous musical and sonic adventure, rather than misplaced nostalgia; after all, playind on gut strings does not imply arriving on horseback or refusing to wash!

We can thank gambist Jordi Savall for proving that we can play "authentic" instruments with authentic beauty and feeling; and "modern" 'cellist YoYo Ma for playing the Bach suites with "baroque" light and shade.

October 22, 2012 at 02:37 PM · This question may have been answered in passing in the thread, and, if so, apologies. Assume someone wants to approximate the baroque style as much as possible, but using a modern instrument. In order of declining importance, what should be done to achieve that? Is using a baroque bow the most important component? Gut strings?

October 22, 2012 at 07:48 PM · Tom, simply tuning the violin down a semitone or two will give an insight into different tensions, even on steel strings. The whole instrument wakes up, and an ordinary détaché aquires that sparkling "chuff"! Swelling on long notes comes from increased bow speed, rather than pressure.

I don't claim that this imitates a true baroque setup, but it's wakens the senses to anew range of sound colours..

October 23, 2012 at 04:55 PM · Hi,

Tom, in declining order of importance, I would say in my experience:

1- the bow

2- the strings (especially the plain gut E)

3- the tuning

Tuning does make a difference, but I find that it goes sort of hand in hand with the whole setup of the instrument (bass-bar, neck and bridge).


October 23, 2012 at 08:26 PM · Christian - thanks. That is very clear. I assume that gut strings means pure gut as opposed to wound gut, e.g., Passiones.

October 24, 2012 at 02:45 AM · Hi Tom,

Yes, gut strings do refer to plain gut E, A, D and a wound G.


October 24, 2012 at 02:37 PM · Highest revered Baroque performer - probably Rachel Podger.

Least revered Bach interpreter - Britney Spears.

October 24, 2012 at 04:14 PM · Comparing with a "slightly" different instrument - the cello - I believe it was Casals who rescued Bach's six cello suites from their oblivion as 19th century obscure technical exercises, and brought them to the fore as major pieces in their own right for the concert platform, where they are now found not only being played on the cello but also on the viola and even the violin.

For many, Casals's recordings from the '20s/'30s (I still have the LP versions) are still the quintessential performances of these suites, even though his style was not exactly HIP by today's standards!

Here are two films from 1954 of Casals playing the whole of Suite #1 in G in the Abbaye Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa. He was 77 at the time:

Part 1 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VhcjeZ3o5us

Part 2 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xBp_R_RcbEw

October 24, 2012 at 06:00 PM · While I find the HIP approach fascinating, I finally had to admit to myself that I actually enjoy modern-style (thought not necessarily HUIP) performances more. That's just me, and I never claimed not to be shallow.

I am a particular fan of Lara St. John's original Bach recording of the C major sonata & D minor partita,(the one with the once-notorious, now-lovely "jailbait" cover photo). Also her recording of the concerti (incl. the Double with her brother, and the G minor sonata).

Also a particular fan of James Ehnes' recording of the complete S&P's. Must be something about Canadians and Bach (hellooo Angela Hewitt).

October 24, 2012 at 09:34 PM · First an answer for Tom. For me, in declining importance:

1. Bow

2. Gut strings (pure gut EAD, wrapped gut G (some people also use wrapped D, if they are getting more chiff than they can handle))

3. Bridge/tailpiece (goes hand-in-hand, since the bridge is heavily affected by the tailpiece)

4. The tuning


1. The bow gives a whole different array of possibilities, and gives a vertical dimension to bowing that just doesn't exist with most modern bows. I have found it much easier to understand how the treatises of the time talk about bowing when using a baroque bow. It's a much more "vocal" experience.

2. The gut strings give a different color palate compared to synthetic strings. They are hygroscopic, so they react more to humidity and temperature, but the opportunity to be able to use an open E string beautifully is really great. Also, you can experiment with different gauges to see how your instrument reacts, allowing you to effectively play with how the overtones are conveyed by your violin.

3. Changing the bridge/tailpiece is one of the cheapest changes you can make (compared to changing the neck, bass bar, etc., which btw were far from standardized, so we have very thin necks from original instruments, as well as a whole variety of bass bars). It changes the angles created by the strings, generally reducing the downward tension felt by the fingers (not to be confused with the tension on the string, the subject of another thread, I'm sure). It also gives a different feeling for the bow, in terms of the spacing of the heights of the strings, which tends to be less than a modern bridge/tailpiece (depending on what the fingerboard allows).

4. Tuning comes whenever you want. I agree with the above who say the lower tuning (and therefore lower tension) gives a different feeling. But I'd far from call it a deciding factor, and for modern violins that are made for 440, the results can be quite different compared to older violins that were made in a time when 415 was a norm for that area (not true of all areas, btw).

October 24, 2012 at 09:42 PM · John Cadd, I'm curious to know what you mean by "slacken the bow hair"... Most baroque bows I've seen have much higher tension on the bow hair than modern bows, but perhaps I'm misunderstanding something.

I agree with your point about shoulder/chin-rests. There are nowadays many very prominent baroque violinists who still use one or both of these. I personally use neither and find many things better because of it (and don't feel inhibited technically in any way in playing baroque music in this way). But there are physical reasons for using one or the other (just like there are reasons that some baroque cellists still use an endpin), as well as making the "shift" a little easier for those who continue to play modern violin as well as baroque violin.

Personally, I found it a fantastic to use neither for my baroque violin beginnings, because it caused me to treat the baroque violin like a TOTALLY different instrument, allowing me to keep my technique separate and not have one affect the other too much. I think it's worth trying without either for everyone, and adding it back if absolutely necessary. I find usually those devices only promote tension, and while I use a chinrest on modern violin still, my baroque violin playing has transformed my modern playing into a more relaxed art. It's a great feeling.

Your final note about mawkish long notes: It's important to remember that the usual cause of this is religious adherence to Leopold Mozart's idea that every note should begin and end with a certain softness. But that says nothing about what happens between the beginning and the end, and there are so many interesting shapes besides the simple messa-di-voce. It's a constant journey to find the possibilities there!

October 25, 2012 at 01:03 PM · Thanks to all of those who have responded at such length to my questions!

October 25, 2012 at 03:42 PM · For all the considerable erudition, knowledge, attention to detail, and related attempts to replicate the historically accurate performance, there are still no recordings from Bach's time, and everyone who actually heard that style died long before the invention of recorded sound.

If the Beatles had lived 300 years ago, we couldn't be absolutely sure what they sounded like, either.

The Romantic Era not only had a major impact on the aesthetics and scope of music that lasts into the present day, but obviously on performance as well. And, in terms of violin playing, the violinists we consider the "greats" all reflect in one way or other the Romantic Era traditions that the historical performance interpreters seem to take exception to when it comes to Bach.

If you want to say you don't like it when it comes to playing Bach and prefer the HIP approximation of what Bach wanted, that's fine. In fact, even a lowly amateur like me really appreciates it (very, very much in fact). But I like almost everything, and really find value in the sheer variety of approaches to Bach.

But I don't understand how we can say that we know 100% for sure what Bach wanted when we have absolutely no recorded examples nor the guidance from anyone who was actually there.

So, that's my (undoubtedly uninformed) 2 cents worth.



PS. Maybe there should be a formal, televised debate (a'la the Presidential debates), with a proponent of each side answering questions from a TV news journalist.

October 25, 2012 at 07:46 PM · Sandy - you are correct, but only up to a point. We do have some idea of how they played in Bach's time from some of the written material, e.g., Geminiani and Mozart treatises and other written materials, and we have some idea of the violin setup. Obviously, these are not a substitute for actual recordings, and we can debate how accurate or universal their descriptions are. There may have been many local variations. For example, I do not think A-415 was a universal standard for tuning, although it may have had reasonably wide acceptance. All that said, there is still the question of whether you like HIP versions or not. There is certainly no magic about that them that makes them automatically better than modern performances. So ultimately, each performance and interpretation stands on its own merits, IMHO.

October 26, 2012 at 11:14 AM · Hi,

John, if my understanding is correct (someone please correct me if I am making a mistake), in baroque bows, most are made of snakewood or woods other than pernambuco and they are not bent to shape but rather cut that way. This cutting vs. bending is in fact one of the major difference between the baroque bows and modern bows which contributes to the different feel.


October 26, 2012 at 11:31 AM · For the moment let's assume a violinist wants to try HIP-ing (which I don't, but that's just me). Can't the same sounds and expressions be coaxed from a modern instrument? I stipulate there may be a difference in how chords are played because of the difference in the bow, and that chords are sufficiently important in baroque music to demand that change, but does one really need a different *violin* too?

October 26, 2012 at 12:43 PM · Paul - I suspect that with the bow and gut strings you could probably get close enough for most purposes.

October 26, 2012 at 01:39 PM · Hi,

I agree with Tom on this one.

As we are nearing the end of this thread, I would like to add that having done performances of works on modern and period setups, I have to say that both are valid. There are insights from period instruments into the music, phrasing and pacing that are interesting. Those, one can keep. However, I am not a proponent of playing on a modern violin and setup in a period way just to be right (i.e. non-vibrato performances with steel strings, etc.) One has to have taste and should be aiming to sound their best on the medium they chose, using the skills required for that medium. In the end, it is not the instrument but the musician and their knowledge of the music that makes a successful (or not so successful) performance.


October 27, 2012 at 01:15 PM · Yes, as we near the end of this detailed and sometimes controversial discussion, I think we probably should lighten up a little and accept the fact that the original question is about our preferences, which in the arts is not always about right-and-wrong.

In the early days of Second City (the legendary improv comedy club in Chicago), one of their early skits was of the great Severn Darden giving a small group a "tour" of the Art Institute. At one point he describes a supposed modern work of art in a hilarious satire on modern art (including a description of dabs of dried mustard on the supposed painting). One of the cast members in the back of the tour says, "I don't like it." And Darden replies, "Well, you're wrong."

So I think that if we're really going to be authentic, I would suggest the following:

- For the HIP performance, dress in the costume of the day, and begin each movement of the Bach S&Ps with a prayer. Anyone caught using vibrato will be burned at the stake. Required reading: "Musical Performance Before 1750." The only violin allowed is one made from the original wood on Noah's Ark by the two violin makers on board.

- For the Romantic tradition performance, play while lying on a luxurious couch. Between movements, sip wine and eat grapes. Sighing is encouraged, and keep all metronomes out of the room. Anyone caught not using vibrato will be burned at the stake. Required reading: "Musical Performance After 1850." The only violin allowed is a genuine Strad made on an assembly line last year in China.

Note: "Musical Performance Between 1750 and 1850" is no longer in print. And, anyway, it is neither authentic nor modern.


:) Sandy

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