Friday, September 9, 2016

Under-appreciated Repertoires

There are some really outstanding and remarkable repertoires of music out there that, for whatever reason, are under-appreciated. I don't think that I'm the only one who thinks so.

The string quartets of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Bartók and Shostakovich are quite often performed and recorded so we can't call them neglected, but the string quartets of Haydn, who not only originated the form, but left us eighty-eight wonderful examples, are not performed quite as much as one would like. Haydn is always the slightly overlooked composer. This is the String Quartet op. 20 no. 2 in C major played by the Quatuor Mosaïques on original instruments:

The music of Bach is widely appreciated, of course, but there are some areas that are neglected and the main one, I think, is the huge repertoire of cantatas for small orchestral group with choir and vocal soloists. These are absolutely unsurpassed examples of religious chamber music that are probably not heard very often due to the fact that they are no longer a part of the religious service they were originally written for. Plus, they require very good musicians and sometimes require some unusual instruments. In addition, we don't seem to have too many appropriate venues for them these days. This is certainly an under-appreciated repertoire for most listeners. This is the Cantata BWV 113 "Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut" performed by John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists (further credits at YouTube):

One of the largest under-appreciated repertoires is the five hundred and fifty-five sonatas for harpsichord composed by Domenico Scarlatti and barely known before the 20th century. The only complete recording is by Scott Ross and it is well worth becoming familiar with. Here are fourteen sonatas from the middle: K. 204a to K. 216:

An older repertoire and one that has yet to be really discovered is the music for vihuela by Luis Milan some of which is played by guitarists. Here are some samples. The first is the Fantasia XI de consonancias y redobles with Ernesto Quezada, vihuela (doing some very nice ornaments).

Next Robert Barto playing Fantasías XIII and X:

Finally, Fantasías X and XII played by Ralph Maier:

I'm sure my readers have their own favorite neglected repertoires, so why don't you tell us about them in the comments?


Anonymous said...

I am a loss to explain the popular ranking of Bach's repertoire. In my view, not only his cantatas are unsurpassed but all of his musical ideas can be found in them. If something horrible happened and all of Bach's music was destroyed except for the cantatas (I include passions/mass bm, etc, which are all extented cantatas), I would say we would still have 95% of his genius on display.

Now why does the ranking baffle me? His most famous piece, the toccata in Dm, is quite possibly the worst thing he ever composed. In fact it is said it was intended as a device to test new organs (and it's so unbachian it's questionable whether he composed it himself). Being "worst" still means music 100 times better than anything by U2 but not a patch on his cantata material. The Air in G is so pretty it could have been composed by... Vivaldi -- and that's the problem. It's great music but it's not of the caliber of the cantatas. The Art of Fugue is pure genius but it's not meant to be listened to. Certainly Bach never intended it as such: they're all studies (like the WTC). The idea of playing the whole thing at a concert strikes me as idiotic. I bet Bach would not approve.

Even among his cantatas, weirdly enough, the most famous ones are also among the weakest. Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring is harmonically rich in ways only Bach could pull off, but BWV 147 sits squarely in the bottom half of his vocal repertoire.

Along with the cantatas I would add his partitas (for violon or keyboard), which are way above the cello suites (whose popularity also baffles me): yes they're great music, but they come nowhere near lifting one's soul to the heights of the cantatas.

Why the ranking is all wrong is a mystery to me.

Bryan Townsend said...

Regarding the quality of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, oh yes, you are quite right, possibly the worst piece he ever wrote. After playing a lot of the cello suites and some of the violin sonatas and partitas, I have to say yes, while they are tours de force due to the limitations of the instruments, they are not in the same league as the cantatas. They, plus the passions and the Easter and Christmas oratorios and the Mass in B minor, do indeed contain the great majority of Bach's genius.

But I might disagree a bit regarding the Well-Tempered. Yes, intended for teaching, but there are some astonishing pieces of music in there!

David said...

Bryan and Anon, to keep this chat going someone has to jump to the defense of THE Toccata. (I guess it's me.) Is part of the problem the interpretations that have dominated the aural scene? I mean the Virgil Fox and more recently the Cameron Carpenter, overloud, uber registrations? If you can bear it, listen to Helmut Walcha's recording and revisit the question of the musical quality of the piece. I am not a big HIP proponent, but it may well be the correct approach to this JSB piece.

This discussion of Bach got me thinking about how popular Peter T's 1812 Overture is and how the composer thought of it with utter revulsion.

Finally, I would like to add pretty much the entire oeuvre of Telemann and the music of Villa Lobos (piano, symphonies, string quartets) to the neglected repertoire inventory.

David said...

Bryan, Sorry for the multiple comment thing. On Scarlatti's 555, I wanted to give a plug to a second complete recording: Pieter-Jan Belder's on the Brilliant Classics label ( This project is more recent than Scott Ross' and uses a wide variety of instruments, an approach that reduces "harpsichord fatigue" (for me at least).


Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, David. Yes, there is no discussion if we all agree! In honor of your comment, I will listen to some different versions of the Toccata. I'm afraid the last one I heard was the derangement by Vanessa Mae.

To add to your list, Ravel disliked his own Bolero rather intensely.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for the heads-up. The Scott Ross one is from quite a while back, but just recently reissued. But he does use three different harpsichords. I will seek out and have a listen to Pieter-Jan Beldar (though I may have heard a couple already...).

Anonymous said...

David: Thanks for the suggestion about Walcha. As for Villa Lobos, yes absolutely. A delightful composer!

Bryan: I agree with Ravel about the Bolero. I don't get its cult status. I'll take the fabulous Daphnis and Chloé any time over it.

Jives said...

Ok, I'll make this one about me:) As a composer working outside of academia, I think I'm neglected by definition, no? Thankfully there is a local orchestra ready to remedy that. The piece is called Fantasy Suite for Orchestra, and it gets two performances this weekend.

that's a MIDI rendering of it, ah perfect computers. If the (gulp) live performance is not a train-wreck, I'll post a recording of it after the weekend. Wanted to share this with you a few weeks back Bryan (and commenting folk), but wasn't ready yet. Here goes.....

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Anonymous. I should do a post on Villa-Lobos. I think I have played every single piece he wrote for guitar in concert, including the Concerto and the Sextuor Mystique.

And thanks, Jives!! Great that you sent your piece. But at least you have a performance upcoming. I'm even more neglected because I have about four orchestral pieces looking for a premiere. I'll write something once I get a chance to listen to it.

Anonymous said...

Bryan: You belong to a rare breed. Very few people would be capable of performing all of Villa Lobos in concert, however hard they tried. I've played guitar all my life and I can play almost anything: classical, rock, jazz, etc. I am not saying this to brag. In fact, just the opposite. I was still a kid when I realized I could never be a performer: that no matter how hard I practiced I could never get past a certain plateau. I could play the Chaconne to my friends but the quality never rose above that of a hard-working amateur. I am a math guy so I had no problem with music theory, which is why I was able to become quite fluent in all these different idioms. And having a guitar always by my side has been a psychological lifesaver. SOme people turn to drugs. I was lucky I could turn to my guitar in hard times, and I felt the effort I put into it was repaid tenfold. But the point of my comment is to say that mine is the common experience of most people and you, Bryan, are the exception. It's a humbling experience you may not have encountered when you realize that, no matter how hard you try, your fingers will simply not be be capable of producing the sound that you want. For me, anyway, nothing has schooled me in humility quite like learning to play an instrument. And yet I would do it all over again.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thank you for your heart-felt comment, Anonymous! Are you the same Anonymous who wrote the two previous comments on this thread?

I have always had a connection with Villa-Lobos. I think that it might even deserve a post!

You talk about fingers, but it is my feeling, after many years teaching, that it is the mind that really produces the sound and it seems as if you have fine mind. Perhaps you never had the right kind of teacher? They can sometimes really help get past a block.

I have written about the humility that comes, especially, from learning to play Bach! To my thinking, this is one of the best things we get from playing music. Genuine humility these days is rare!

Anonymous said...

Yes I am the same anonymous. Thanks for your kind words. It could be I never had the right teacher. It could also be (perish the thought) that I am just not very good.

Bryan Townsend said...

Not everyone is a guitar virtuoso, of course!! But with a good teacher, most people really drawn to the music can learn to give a pretty good performance.