Interpreting Bach today

The position of someone who wants to play Bach nowadays is a complicated one. He arrives at a point in the history of interpretation which may be the time for a synthesis between wildly conflicting elements.

The first half of the 20th century was dominated by by a style of playing heavily indebted to late romanticism. The aesthetic norm was then a certain thickness of the sound, a usually fairly slow approach, and singing was more important than dancing. There was little knowledge of the style of the period, Bach was taken as a timeless composer who could be made to work on any instrument, with any style of playing.

This was the time Fischer and Feinberg made their recordings of the Well-Tempered Klavier.

The 2nd half of the century went in the extreme opposite end of the spectrum. The tempi have sped up dramatically. It takes 3’45 minutes for Klemperer to conduct the St Matthew Passion. Gardiner today does it is 2’40. This is roughly the time it takes for Mengelberg to perform his heavily edited version.

The spirit of the dance has been brought back into the music, together with a far greater transparency of the textures. We now know a huge amount about the style of performance in the Baroque era. We play at the correct pitch, with the correct instrument, the correct singers in a way that, we hope reflect more fully what Bach would have heard, or wanted to hear.

The position of an artist coming after this is a rather difficult one. If you have chosen your camp, then maybe things are still easy for you. But you would be artistically poorer for having done so.

There is undeniable beauty to be found in the Baroque movement. I myself came to it rather left, my youth was spend ideologically leaning towards the late romantic era. Furtwängler was my hero, and the Bach of Edwin Fischer has been a transformative experience for me. It is only very much later that I started to listen to people like Harnoncourt or Gardiner, and was eventually convinced of the value of the historic movement.

So when you can listen, and truly appreciate, your Bach in aesthetic as wildly different, or even opposed, as Mengelberg and Gardiner, where does this leave you?

It sounds like the right moment to speak of synthesis, but this may be akin to mixing oil and water, however hard you try they just won’t.

I do not claim to have an answer to this problem, which is perhaps strange considering I spend most of my days playing Bach at the moment in preparation for the performance of the Well Tempered Clavier.

The only thing I firmly believe is that I should not chose my camp. I have heard wonderful things from Karl Richter, Mengelberg, Feinberg, Fischer, Hereweghe, Gardiner, Harnoncourt, Leonhardt and many others. I have learned to appreciate things which on paper are incompatible. This is a reflection of the infinite greatness of the music of Bach. It cannot be pigeonholed, and as soon as you believe you are forming a set view comes along something which destabilises you.

The important thing seems to remain open. How this will translate in my own interpretation, I do not know yet. And perhaps I should not know to much, at least for now.

Perhaps the time of experimentation is not over yet. Or perhaps it should never be over. It does seem to me that an interpretation which can bear the traces of conflicting influences without being made incoherent by them would be so much the greater for it.