Music loves an anniversary—we are always in the midst of one—and 2000 saw a doozy: the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death. This was celebrated (if “celebrated” is the right word for a death anniversary) in many fashions, and in many places. But by no one was it celebrated more thoroughly, or more energetically, or more lovingly than by John Eliot Gardiner, the English conductor. Gardiner is probably the most renowned Bach performer in the world right now. He is a leader of the “original instruments” movement, which prides itself not only on its Baroque-era instruments, but also on its adherence to “authentic” performance practices. Once these back-to-nature types were revolutionaries, or counter-revolutionaries; now they are practically the establishment.

While a student at Cambridge, in the middle 1960s, Gardiner founded the Monteverdi Choir, initially for the purpose of performing a work by that early Italian composer. The choir has not been off the stage since. Then, in the late 1970s, Gardiner founded yet another group, this one an orchestral one, the English Baroque Soloists, who have met with similar success. With these groups, John Eliot Gardiner became the Karl Richter of his day. Who was Karl Richter? Why, he was … the John Eliot Gardiner of his own day—the man of Bach, to whom the world turned. We will take up the subject of Richter shortly.

Gardiner spent his 2000 on a Bach Cantata Pilgrimage. He and his choir and orchestra performed—and, in the process, recorded—all of the extant cantatas of the master, which number almost two hundred. They did this in twelve different countries, and in sixty-one different churches. And they presented the cantatas on the days for which Bach intended them, according to the old church calendar. Occasionally, we take the “completeness” impulse too far— all of Mozart, including every insignificant scribble; every Schubert song, down to the last syllable. But the Bach cantatas are very much worth performing in toto, and Gardiner and his soldiers (or pilgrims) did so very well.

They concluded their year in New York City in St. Bartholomew’s Church on December 31, which, helpfully enough, was the Sunday after Christmas—a meaningful day in this calendar. (St. Bart’s is known among music types as the church that brought Leopold Stokowski to the United States, to work as its organist. This was before he became The Great Stoki—the people’s idea of a conductor.) In a program of five cantatas, the Gardinerites showed why they are so adulated by their many fans, a portion of whom occupied every seat in the vast church.

The strength of Gardiner—and of Gardiner-style Bach performance—was apparent in the opening motet of the first cantata, BWV 225 (Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied!). The singing was crisp and bouncy— light on its feet. It was whistle-clean, yet with a beautiful flowing line. Gardiner had his choristers and instrumentalists well balanced; everything was lent its proper weight. The members of the choir are relatively few, so each individual singer—certainly each vocal section—is somewhat exposed. The same is true of the orchestra. The ensembleship of all concerned was consistent and first-rate.

As for Gardiner himself, he is a thoroughly musical man. He is somewhat rigid in his conducting technique, but it does not come out in the music-making. Obviously, he caught the Bach bug early, and will always have it. In the motet, he responded to the joy—the spiritual glee—of the composer. More than a manager, he is a true leader, who conveys to his forces not only textual and technical correctness (which is no small thing), but also love of the music. And to his great credit, he does not attempt to make the music do anything; he merely allows it to unfold. The music itself knows what to do, if only we will get out of its way.

One weakness of the evening—for me, at least—was the orchestra, those English Baroque Soloists. The Sinfonia that opens BWV 152 (Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn) sounded sickly, scrubby, on those sanctified instruments, which tend to be coarse. The violinist Itzhak Perlman once complained of turning on the radio and hearing “scratch-scratch, hoot-hoot” (this last stands for wind instruments, or sometimes singers). He has a point. A thin, vibrato-less sound may appeal to certain notions of historical accuracy, but that is not the same as appealing to the ear. In St. Bart’s, the players often sounded weak, and limp, and uninspired. So too, they tended to sound diffuse and indistinct—mush coming from somewhere underground. There was a sharp contrast between the voices—alive—and the instruments—dead. This is a contrast that makes for a distracting and detracted-from concert.

The debate over original instruments is by now an old and repetitive one, but I cannot resist relating an anecdote of my grandmother’s, which came to me as I was listening to Gardiner and his people. My grandmother’s mother had a cramped, cluttered apartment, which she wanted thinned out and tidied up. She asked my grandmother to help. As Daughter went to throw out an old, cheap, cracked vase, Mother exclaimed, “Oh, no! That was my grandmother’s!” Replied my own grandmother: “Don’t you think, if she could do better, she would?” You could say something similar about Bach and the matter of orchestral instruments—or organs, or whatever. Of course, a player in Neville Marriner’s Academy of St.-Martin-in-the-Fields once famously cracked, “If Bach had had access to modern plumbing, he would have used it.”

Gardiner, who finds the original plumbing perfectly acceptable, thank you, had with him a nice complement of vocal soloists, starting with the bass Peter Harvey. He is a canny, well-trained, warm-voiced singer. He was resonant yet lithe, a good thing in a Bach bass, or in any bass, for that matter. Then there was the soprano Gillian Keith, who for the most part was pleasant and clear (despite some flatting). There was hardly any vibrato in her singing, reminding us that a touch of life does no harm to Bach. You may not need the opulence of an Eleanor Steber, but a little bloom and lubrication is welcome. A real discovery—or at least I myself had not encountered him —was the tenor James Gilchrist, small of voice but an utterly satisfying Bach singer. His phrasing was beautiful; he was attentive to detail—this is not a singer who would ever, for instance, clobber a grace note. In addition to being beautiful and correct, Gilchrist’s singing was at times moving. The countertenor Daniel Taylor, too, impressed. But the soprano Joanne Lunn—along with some others—sounded bleached, etiolated, in the unfortunate English tradition.

Some of the arias sounded to me rather insubstantial—if not outright anemic, certainly not full or confident enough. Musicians of this type are prone to thinking that they are being quiet, contemplative, and pure, when instead they are being pathetic and mousey. The warmth and relative fullness of a chorus often came as a relief after the poverty of the arias. And I was interested to note—in the program’s biography —that John Eliot Gardiner runs an organic farm in Dorset. Too perfect, that! It could have been invented by an anti-original-instruments parodist. Doubtless some lovely things come from Gardiner’s organic farm, but every now and then we could use some big, full, juicy, flavorful, well-rounded fruits and vegetables, chemically abetted.

Gardiner closed the concert—and year— with two encores, demanded by the packed and standing house (or, rather, church), roaring and stamping its appreciation of this conductor, and these musicians, and their particular commitment. Gardiner must have felt tremendous satisfaction and fulfillment as the final notes wafted off. His project was one of the most remarkable ever undertaken in music.

So it is with the recordings of the cantatas, which have been coming out at a steady clip from Archiv Produktion, a division of Deutsche Gramophon. Let us stick a toe into them, sampling just one, that devoted to the Whitsun, or Pentecostal, cantatas. The virtues of the music-making here are many: clarity and nimbleness; power and sweep. Gardiner does all that Bach asks, and Bach—in the course of his compositions, including the cantatas—asks for everything. Nothing in music—nothing that has been discovered in music—is unknown to Bach. Nothing exists that he failed to predict, or establish, or exemplify. If Cleopatra had infinite variety, Bach has even more of it.

In these many recordings, most of Gardiner’s soloists are unknown, or little known, but there are some stars sprinkled in, such as the tenor Anthony Rolfe Johnson, and the young, and sensational, Czech soprano Magdalena Kozena. Already, Kozena has shown herself to be one of the outstanding Bach singers of our time. Her album of Bach arias—recorded in 1996 and also available from Archiv—may be taken as a model. This is thoroughly tasteful, understanding, exquisitely expressed Bach, neither “objective” nor “subjective,” but natural and faithful and superb. Kozena is featured on the Whitsun disc, along with another blue-ribbon singer, the countertenor Robin Blaze. His aria “Nichts kann mich erretten” is dazzling, an unbelievably florid, operatic piece (part of Bach’s variety), as virtuosic as anything Vivaldi or Handel ever wrote for the wicked stage.

Valuable as these soloists are, the entire enterprise rests on the shoulders of a single man, the conductor, Gardiner. The choruses from BWV 34 (O ewiges Feuer, o Ursprung der Liebe) are shouts of joy, thrilling in their effect. It is hard to stop listening to them, even for the sake of moving on to something else, perhaps equally satisfying.

One striking thing about the original- instruments movement is how many of our best musicians it has claimed. In addition to Gardiner, there is Christopher Hogwood, Trevor Pinnock, and Nikolaus Harnoncourt (two more Englishmen and an Austrian). To some of us, this is a particular sorrow, as so many of the most important orchestral podiums—in Berlin, New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Boston—go a-begging, or will soon be occupied by men less worthy than their predecessors. But Gardiner and his fellows believe firmly in what they are doing. In fact, their faith in their mission is so strong that they are apt to dismiss or scorn anyone who dares to do things a little differently. The harpsichordist Wanda Landowska—a Bach pioneer—will forever be quoted as quipping, “You play Bach your way, I’ll play Bach his way.” But this is a little too pat and self-congratulatory. Bach has been performed admirably by many musicians, of varying bents. Even Rachmaninoff left a beautiful recording of a Bach sarabande—unconventional, yes, but completely and indisputably musical. This was Rachmaninoff.

Gardiner, in a 1983 magazine story, said, “On original instruments, one hears the composers almost for the first time. Works are being revealed for what they really were.” This is not only nonsense, but insulting nonsense to boot. One could discourse without end, but suffice it to say that if you cannot hear Bach in, oh, Otto Klemperer’s B-minor Mass, you are a fool. We may laugh at—to choose another example— Sir Thomas Beecham’s big, swollen, bells-and-whistles Messiah (with the heldentenor Jon Vickers as a soloist), but who would not prefer to hear this work performed “inauthentically” by great musical minds and hearts than to hear it performed “authentically” by sterile primitivists—the ones Neville Marriner once referred to as the “brown-rice-and-open-toed-sandals crowd”? (The other side can fling insults, too.) The original-instruments men, as I have said, are a great musical boon (although mainly for their talent, not for their scholarship or crusading); I wish only that they would stop pretending that anyone who deviates from their program is a charlatan.

In his day—the 1950s and 1960s—Karl Richter was considered quite advanced. He devoted his career to Bach, and he pared back a good deal of nineteenth-century excess from this music. Richter may seem overweight today, but, when he cut his path-breaking recordings, he was considered slim and trim. Born in Saxony, he was a harpsichordist, organist, and, last, conductor. As Gardiner did after him, he founded a choir—the Munich Bach Choir —and an orchestra—the Munich Bach Orchestra. They were exclusively his instruments; no one else conducted them.

Their major recordings have just been reissued in one box, by the label that also gives us Gardiner and Kozena: Archiv. Here we have—in the title of the set—the “Sacred Masterpieces,” which are the St. Matthew Passion, the St. John Passion, the Christmas Oratorio, the Magnificat, and the Mass in B Minor (in my estimation—and that of many others—Bach’s most elevated, most divine work). We should avoid strict comparisons between Gardiner and Richter here, because the church cantatas are one thing, while these oratorios are another (they are “apples and pears,” as Gardiner’s would people say). Yet generalities are possible.

Richter and his forces certainly sound big, after Gardiner and his elite ensembles. Then again, the Gardiner groups might sound small following Richter’s. The modern instruments are, to me, an improvement—and hardly an intrusion on Bach’s conception.

The St. Matthew Passion here is intensely felt, as was everything that Richter did. He had a close communion with this work, knew it inside out. Every bar is conducted not only with intelligence, but with an obvious conviction—even when Richter is wrong, he is convinced, which is not a bad thing in a musician. The tempos, while not necessarily fleet—as is the fashion today— are far from sluggish. And this Passion is conspicuously dramatic, carrying a storytelling quality. The same is true of the John. And we should, I suppose, expect no less in a Passion.

The great, repeated chorale of the Matthew is rather aggressive, almost angry —less peaceful and serene than in other performances. It is a little cold, actually. Indeed, there is a peculiar fierceness in this performance. But its power is undeniable. It has a grandness, and a majesty, befitting the work. Its various annoyances—for example, the boys’ choir is stubbornly off-pitch and strident, as such groups usually are—can be overlooked or forgiven. The whole of this performance is better than its parts, as should be the case in a work so massive, sprawling, and momentous.

For these recordings, Richter deployed some of the best solo singers available, including the soprano Irmgaard Seefried, who excelled in oratorio, song, and opera, all three. Her singing in Bruno Walter’s great traversal of the Brahms Requiem (now sadly unavailable) is magnificent. Yet she is somewhat stilted and out of place in the Matthew, and you would certainly not favor her over the newcomer Kozena. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the great baritone, is the bass soloist, and therein lies a slight problem: some of the arias are a mite low for him. But he handles them with his usual intelligence and artistry. His “Komm, susses Kreuz” is superbly judged, with just a hint of portamento (or sliding, certainly acceptable, when it is musical).

Especially successful—practically worth the acquisition of the entire set—is the Christmas Oratorio. Richter is splendid here, but our attention must focus on two of the soloists, the tenor Fritz Wunderlich and the mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig. In Bach singing—as in so many other kinds —these two are nearly unmatched. Wunderlich is so fluid and so beautiful, he almost defies belief. Bach is famously (or infamously) murder on tenors—he persisted in writing high-lying, punishing stuff for them—but Wunderlich, unlike virtually everyone else, is never pinched, never under strain, never struggling. His “Frohe Hirten, eilt, ach eilet” is somewhat slow, but amazingly creamy. There is a gleam in his voice and a remarkable evenness to his passagework. With apologies even to the noble Nicolai Gedda—Wunderlich’s fellow tenor in versatility and grace—this is as good as it can get.

Similar superlatives must be summoned up for Christa Ludwig, who in this recording displays all the qualities that won her fame and adoration: solid thinking, a wondrous voice, which manages to be both pleasantly bottled and free, and a technique so secure it could not be budged in a hurricane. When she “hugs the line”—which means, roughly, maintains the phrase—the line is well and truly hugged.

There are several Class A recordings of the Oratorio—I myself have always been fond of Eugen Jochum’s—but it is difficult to recommend against Richter, and, of course, his soloists (who also include the excellent Gundula Janowitz and the sturdy Franz Crass).

And what of the B-minor Mass? Richter’s recording was made from a live performance given in Japan, in 1969 (Bach—even before the heavily globalized age—knew few boundaries). The performance is vintage Richter, a combination of intensity, musicality, and what can only be called, in this context, spiritual understanding. The opening Kyrie is utterly arresting—as if announcing the presence of an immortal opus. There is, again, that continuity, the conductor’s grasp of the thread, or the connectedness, of the work. The choruses are quite grand, but the arias, duets, and other ensemble pieces are very finely textured—even spare. As before, there are defects to distract and detract: for instance, the trumpets in the heart-pounding chorus “Cum Sancto Spiritu” are unbearably shrill. But, again, we must evaluate the whole, and Richter delivers the musical and religious experience that Bach arranged for.

Really, they are not so different, Gardiner and Richter. After all, they are both musicians, and both Bach men—and they go about their business honestly. I, for one, have little interest in the Bach wars (although I take my shots, as can be seen above). These wars are, ultimately, futile and unnecessary. The music—especially its surpassing spirituality—is the thing, no matter how large the chorus standing before us, no matter what instruments the players bow away at, no matter what the tempos (as long as they are musically reasonable and coherent). I would not do without John Eliot Gardiner’s career, and I would not do without Karl Richter’s. And I would not, if I could help it, do without their recordings. In either case—and in the case of Otto Klemperer, and in the case of every other musician worthy of the name—we hear Bach. And there is no higher experience in music than that.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 19 Number 6, on page 52
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