Sunday, August 11, 2013

Really Horrible Bach Playing

I was in this bookstore one time--it was a very nice bookstore in an old bank building. They had some music for flute and guitar playing in the background and I asked one of the staff who it was. She rushed away, got the names and rushed back and she was so enthusiastic about it that I just couldn't tell her that the reason I wanted to know their names was because they were really bad and I wanted to make sure to avoid them in future.

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.


Dash Nesbitt said...

Your opinion of Thile's Bach is . . . outrageous. Also, Christian Tetzlaff's B minor Corrente Double is at the same tempo as Thile. I, and most others, find his Bach genuinely lovely.

Bryan Townsend said...

Well, thank goodness! I keep putting out provocative opinions and then I find out that people agree with me! Thanks for countering, Dash. You are a violinist yourself, I gather? What I said was that the tempo of the double made it nearly unrecognizable and that phrasing was not bothered with. Perhaps you can hear phrasing in that welter of speedy notes, but I can't. Also, being frog-marched through the harmonies like that is not a terribly pleasant experience.

If you want to investigate other posts you may disagree with, I take a run at Nigel Kennedy in this one. Again, regarding Bach.

But do you also disagree with my thoughts on David Garrett and Vanessa Mae?

Bryan Townsend said...

I did try and find Christian Tetzlaff's Double online, but without success. Could you send the link? This is a version rather more to my taste:

Elaine Fine said...

It was the last movement of the G minor Sonata that made me as angry as your violinist-friend. There are scads and scads of mandolin players who play Bach beautifully. Why does this guy get the genius grant and all the TV and NPR coverage?

And yes, on another subject, bots abound when you look at stats. My post had more to do with inactivity than anything else, and I only put the chart on it because it gave such a dramatic trajectory.

More people have come to my blog during the last two days than in the last month thanks to a few bloggers who have pointed readers my way. I'm not sure how many will come back, but it has been an interesting day or two.

I'll bookmark your site and will be back. Keep up the good bloggery!

Bryan Townsend said...

Thank you so much Elaine, for your supporting comment and for visiting my blog!

Anonymous said...

That clip of Chris Goldberg Variations is old. i doubt you even listen to the new Album, which shows much more care and understanding. Truly a great work with spirit and energy.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, I suppose it might be, but it gave me a good illustration of my point about the interpretation. Don't forget I posted the clip of the Fugue from the G minor sonata. And I listened to the clips played in the interview. In fact, trying to be fair, I described his playing as "impressively gifted" which it is. I'm glad you enjoy his playing. But I still think (and a lot of violinists seem to think) that he doesn't have much sense of phrase or harmony.

Anonymous said...

anyone who would go out of their way to ask who was playing in a store "simply to avoid them in the future" is a complete dick. It's people like you that give classical music a bad name.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hey, I do my best! Oh wait, was that a criticism?

Keith said...

+1 to Anonymous. That person is a dick. No other way about it.

Bryan Townsend said...

I am normally delighted with the comments on this blog as they are far more civilized than one usually finds on the web. Very commonly the commentators are so well-informed that they graciously provide information I have omitted or gotten wrong.

But occasionally a troll slips through. Keith? Are you a troll?

Jay Sydinho said...

I totally agree with your post. Vanessa Mae as well as David Garrett are both very talented musicians. Though, the result of their work is garbage and has not much to do with classical music. Just recently I discovered a Vivaldi piece, played by Garrett and mixed with pop beats in the background. Horrible!

Mixing Classical Music with any other genre is intolerable. But maybe this is the spirit of the time today. It has never been easy to earn good money by playing. Now, some players jump into the marketing boat. Have a look at Piano Guys, they sell millions of copies by mixing Classical Music with Pop. Extremely awful music. However, (fatuous)people believe this must be/call it Classical Music and obvisiously like it.

Not only does this trend make me angry. It makes me extremely sad. Sad for the beauty of real original untouched pure Classical Music.

Fortunately there are many good musicians, too. I admit, I haven't heard of Kristóf Baráti before. I love his clear playing! I'm also a fan of Wen-Sinn Yang. His playing of Cello Suite No. 1 in G major BWV 1007 - I. Prelude - II. Allemande - III. Courante is excellent!

Thanks and keep up the bloggery!


Bryan Townsend said...

There is something uniquely awful about "disco" (as we used to call them) or "dubstep" (as I suppose we need to call them now) versions of Mozart or Bach. Thanks for your supportive comment,Jay! And thanks for your recommendation of Wen-Sinn Yang. I have looked at the Piano Guys. The last thing they did was a suite of Batman themes over the years, which I would prefer to their messing up Bach.

Ali Kang said...

Found your blog while searching / hoping to find Chris Thile's Chaccone, which I've been longing to hear for the two years since I first listened to his recordings of the first half of the Bach Solo violin sonatas and partitas.

Amazed to read the disdain rendered. As someone who's played the sonatas / partitas many times over 30 years, I cherish Thile's interpretation, and love hearing what he can do on the mandolin that I cannot on the violin. Listening to his Bach transformed the way I thought about the rhythmic impulse in Bach and reminded me that ah! yes, they are dances. I've brought that to my playing since.

The idea that there is one, or even just 20 or 200 ways to play Bach cheapens the divinity and infinite possibility within Bach's works. Each person will play it differently, and I, who do think Thile is a genius, am grateful for Thile's insight as a non-violinist.

Bryan Townsend said...

Welcome to the Music Salon, Ali, and thanks for your comment. We don't have an "official" truth here and we really like to hear dissenting opinions. I had a few reservations about Thile's Bach and a couple of violinists I talked to really disliked it, so I thought it would be good to throw it open for discussion. Could I just ask one thing? Would you be able to elaborate a bit on what Thile can do on mandolin that you can't on violin? I think I made a number of specific references as to the issues I had, but let me add one: the mandolin is not a very contrapuntal instrument and when Bach suggests two lines with one of his compound melodies, the lower voice tends to really get lost. But no, I don't begrudge Chris Thile anything all. Doesn't mean I have to like it, though.

DanW said...

Maybe joining the conversation late, but what the heck... I studied and played a fair amount of Bach on guitar (so, transcribed violin and cello pieces) when I was a student, and felt then as now that if the only music I ever played on the instrument was Bach, that would be OK. I also feel that the performer always brings him/herself to the performance, and that relationship is the most compelling (or disappointing) aspect of the performance. I'm now studying a few of the Bach violin pieces on mandolin and am entranced by the beauty of that music on that instrument - so Thile gets my vote, for the most part (we can quarrel re interpretations, which just makes it more fun). The timbre, precision and chording ability of the instrument exposes things that are often hidden when played on violin, imo. That said, that music is only fully realized when played on a bowed instrument by someone worthy of the task, no question. Perlman is my go-to for "how it should be played". Period correct? "As the composer intended"? Of less importance than the visceral feeling of connection to the music, regardless of the instrument or style. I gave up my scholastic arrogance long ago, and my ability to appreciate what I'm hearing has improved by orders of magnitude - I highly recommend ;-)