I am going to perform this laudable duty for you today and tell you about some performers that should be avoided. It's a funny thing that while one does run into some bad Beethoven performances from time to time (I heard one just last weekend) they are really not that common. But bad Bach is very, very common! For some reason a lot of people who really shouldn't be playing Bach, do.
First up is the inspiration for this post. Mandolinist Chris Thile was on NPR this morning (according to my violinist--I don't actually listen to the radio myself) promoting a new album of Bach's solo violin music played on mandolin. My violinist was so outraged that she ranted on for ten minutes. Let's have a listen, shall we?
Now that is one of the more graceful examples from the recording. It isn't on YouTube, but there is an example of one of the, ah, less graceful performances included as part of the interview on NPR. You should go there. click on the "Listen Now" link and go to about the 3:45 point. There you will hear one of the doubles from the B minor sonata played at a tempo that makes it nearly unrecognizable. And, of course, to do that, you also have to eschew any trace of phrasing, or musicality for that matter.
The interviewer asks Chris if he gets much pushback from the "purists" and he responds that in his experience the people that would "begrudge" anyone any sort of music are "few and far between". Well, sure. But that's a straw man, of course. By the way, has anyone heard any arguments lately that did not vigorously attack nothing but straw men? Darn few, at least in the mainstream media. Of course that is the easiest way to argue. I'm not going to do that here, by the way. I don't have to, I have the real person Chris Thile to grumble at.
Chris Thile is an impressively gifted mandolinist who probably should not play a lot of Bach. It will impress those who are not classical music listeners as a rule, but it is likely to outrage anyone who is a real Bach lover. Let's listen to an example of why. Here he is in a live performance of one of the variations from the Goldbergs playing with Mike Marshall:
What's wrong with that? Most of the notes and rhythms are there, but the sensibility, particularly with regard to rhythm, is wrong. Having a beat that rigid and snapping off short notes to emphasize a beat are what you do in bluegrass, not Baroque. There is some sensitivity to the melody, but none for the harmony. They just don't hear the harmonies, at least not in terms of their function.
I was in a master class once where a guitarist was playing the First Violin Sonata in the original key with a bit of this same lack of sensitivity to what was actually going on in the music. When she finished the maestro just looked at her and said "you played that like you were going shopping". I'm not even sure she realized how thoroughly she had been dismissed! But no, one does not play Bach with the same humdrum nonchalance that one goes to the mall with.
There are many other sins one can commit with Bach. But thumping him out as if he were a particularly tricky bit of pop music seems to be the typical one these days. We turn to David Garrett for an example:
Or you can turn his music into a kind of gypsy disco fantasia as Vanessa Mae does in this clip:
I could find some more examples, but I really, really hope I don't have to! I'm sure you get my point. But just in case you are still wondering what my beef is, let's hear some Bach played with understanding and sensitivity. This is Kristóf Baráti playing the Sarabande and Double from the B minor sonata in a concert at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory:
We don't begrudge Chris Thile playing Bach, but we just wish that he would notice the harmonies and phrases because they are just as important a part of the music as those little black dots.
Am I a "purist"? I don't know, is there a superlative of that? Could I be a "hyper purist" or something? Because, honestly, when it comes to Bach, I really don't think we should treat his music with less respect than we would a bottle of wine. And we would definitely want our bottle of wine to be pure wine, not adulterated with a bunch of stuff that doesn't belong there. Right?
UPDATE: And the juggernaut that is Chris Thile just keeps on a chugging. There is a big piece about him and his new Bach album on the Wall Street Journal site today (Aug. 23). Included is a clip of him playing the Tempo di Borea from the B minor suite. Here it is. So go have a listen. Well, sure, it's totally cool, Bach on a mandolin and all. And Chris Thile, is, as I said before, impressively gifted. But the sound! What an awful sound for Bach. Some notes come out well (as well as they can on mandolin) but a lot are stifled and barely there. Musicianship? Not a heck of a lot. And we are supposed to admire this? Nope.