Southern California Early Music Society

Bach: A Changing Image and a Memoir
by Alan Rich, March 1999

The highly respected author and music critic takes a nostalgic look back at the J.S. Bach of his student days in time for the many musical celebrations for this, the revered composer’s birth month. —ed.

“Of the twelve greatest moments in music,” proclaimed Archibald T. “Doc” Davison in his much-loved peppery-positive tone from his bully pulpit in Paine Hall, “six are by Bach, and six are by Brahms.” This was Music One, the annealing force in which the musical tastes of generations of Harvard freshman were formed and sealed for all time; the time was 1941, mere weeks before the bombs were to fall on Pearl Harbor. To most of us at the time, the name of Bach conjured up the loud Wagnerian exercises of Leopold Stokowski and his Philadelphia Orchestra, one of which had already gone Hollywood, along with fancy, floating shapes, in Walt Disney’s Fantasia. The name of Brahms signified the even louder exercises by Serge Kousevitzky and his Boston Symphony, a short subway ride from Harvard Square, where the music’s blubbery eloquence seemed to pronounce its own greatness from within.

After that lecture a bunch of us rushed over to Briggs & Briggs, where the record clerks were traditionally benign about granting the student hordes free access to the listening booths, spot-checking the bulky 78-rpm albums one after the other, hell-bent on finding those twelve defining moments. Brahms was easy; to vulnerable undergraduate ears the music was full of nothing but greatest moments, and there was enough of it recorded to allow for what we thought of as imaginative, personal choices. But Bach? Our textbooks suggested the presence of treasures galore: church cantatas by the hundreds, vast quantities of keyboard works, passions, masses, dozens of concertos and other orchestral works, on and on. But the recorded resources, even in a store as encyclopedically well-stocked as Briggs & Briggs, were meager indeed. Of the church cantatas, which we read about in the books, and were eloquently told about in “Doc” Davison’s richly purpled prose as the highest distillation of Bach’s own definition of his relationship to God and to music, only one complete work had found its way to disc by 1941: a faint but obviously grandiose recording of Christ lag in Todesbanden, sung in Catalan(!). Of the Passions, there was only a cruel distortion of the Saint Matthew in Koussevitzky’s bloated reading with the massed forces of “Doc” Davison’s own Harvard and Radcliffe Glee Clubs producing a sound something like wet blotting paper, sung purportedly in English — who could tell? — with the da capos abridged, on 53 78-rpm sides, retailing at 54 1941 dollars. (I knew one student so affluent as actually to own a copy; he’d play it for invited guests on Sundays with incense and sherry, and with 53 trips to the record player at four-minute intervals to flip those fragile discs.)

Even in those unenlightened times, there were islands of probity. You could hear the orchestral works in something like an “authentic” performance (although nobody dared to use the term back then) with Adolf Busch conducting a fine small ensemble, with Rudolf Serkin at piano rather than harpsichord, but with George Eskdale’s breathtaking high trumpet in the Second Brandenburg. Wanda Landowska’s first version of the Goldbergs on six imported (and, therefore, expensive) discs, more elegant and propulsive than her later RCA recording, graced record shelves in the more affluent homes. Albert Schweitzer’s recordings on an organ in Strasbourg, ponderous but loving, gave off a glorious noise. The British émigré E. Power Biggs began a series of broadcast recitals on the newly constructed Baroque-style organ at Harvard’s Germanic (now Busch-Reisinger) Museum, and opened ears to more of what Bach had in mind in this mighty music.

Remarkable to relate, many of these early landmark recordings are still available in CD transfers: the Busch Brandenburgs, both of Landowska’s Goldbergs and a couple of Schweitzers. One more relic of the time, dim-sounding and “inauthentic” though it be, lingers in my affection and also remains miraculously available (on England’s heroic Pearl label): the B minor Mass recorded in London’s Kingsway Hall in 1929, conducted by the redoutable Albert Coates and including among its soloists the divine Elisabeth Schumann and the era’s great Wotan, Friedrich Schorr. My major school activity, taking up far more pleasurable time than my studies, was the Crimson Network, Harvard’s student radio station (now known as WHRB). During the pre-finals cram weeks (known in gentle Harvardese as “reading periods”) the station broadcast all-night musical “orgies,” one composer per night. At 3 a.m. on the morning of June 6, 1944, during our Bach Orgy, we had to interrupt that recording of the B minor Mass for the news of the Normandie invasion. Boy-oh-boy, did we play the hot-shot radio act for the next couple of hours, stealing news broadcasts from all the networks and eventually returning to the Mass with, as was only proper, the “Et resurrexit.”

The war ended, and so did the Bach famine. By 1946, two years before the dawning of the LP era, the hills had already come alive with the sounds of the leaner, cleaner Bach we now know and honor. In Boston the composer and scholar Daniel Pinkham produced the Cantata No. 106, Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (Actus Tragicus), on the Technicord label, with small performing forces and harpsichord. In New York the young Robert Shaw, fresh from his days as choral director for Fred Waring, formed his Collegiate Chorale and recorded cantatas and the B minor Mass for RCA with chorus and orchestra numbering a paltry but “authentic” 35 each. On Britain’s new highly-touted London FFRR label came a somewhat fairer likeness of St. Matthew, again sung in English and with enough cuts to fit onto a mere 42 sides, but with forces far smaller and better balanced than on the old Boston set. Reginald Jacques was the conductor, and among the soloists was the incomparable and tragically short-lived contralto Kathleen Ferrier. One entire CD from that set, containing all of Ferrier’s performance, is included in London’s ten-disc anthology of the harrowing, haunting singing of this treasurable artist.

The LP era exploded upon us in 1949. The new technology that allowed for uninterrupted listening 30 minutes at a throw, with a hitherto unheard-of frequency range, also allowed for a huge repertory expansion. Producers armed with portable tape recorders could range freely through the performing world. Orchestras and soloists in impoverished postwar Europe — in politics-racked Vienna most of all — were only too happy to deliver their vast repertory into American microphones for a flat recording fee and no royalties. Vox acquired a St. Matthew in Berlin, led by the estimable Fritz Lehmann with soloists including a promising young baritone named Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Vanguard, through its subsidiary Bach Guild label, began gobbling down cantata performances in Vienna, under the batons of previously unknown conductors like Felix Prohaska and Franz Litschauer and the roving American Jonathan Sternberg. The German conductor Hermann Scherchen, known for years for his championing of hard new music, virtually began a whole new career on the Westminster label with a series of cantatas recorded in Vienna in the early 1950s, and with a B minor Mass of almost mystical impact, his excruciatingly slow tempos made logical by an overarching vision.

For the glory of Bach, then, the first decades of the LP era constituted a bacchanal of rediscovery comparable in amazement quotient to the years after Felix Mendelssohn’s restoration of the St. Matthew a century or more before. Comparable in amazement, in fact, but infinitely more respectful to the source. The world had pretty much rejected the brocaded reharmonized and reorchestrated Bach of earlier times. Even the performances of the pioneering Wanda Landowska, who had preached her gospel from an oversized and romantically resonant harpsichord the size of a grand piano (and made for her, indeed, by the piano-making house of Pleyel), and who performed the sacred Preludes and Fugues with a rubato suitable for her countryman Chopin, were overshadowed by the more straightforward Ralph Kirkpatrick recordings on one hand, and by the nonpareil Glenn Gould — who on an “inauthentic” piano seemed to redefine all of Bach for his own time. Karl Richter, with his Munich Bach Choir, found a Bachian middle ground: performing forces of proper size, honoring a range of expression aimed at audiences unafraid of beauty in music of any and all eras.
For us today, awash in the 32 fine-print pages of Bach in the latest CD catalog, the marvel lies not so much in the quantity as in the variety. I recently checked out a new recording of the Cantata No. 8, Liebster Gott, wann werd’ ich sterben?, a work whose first movement I have often used to win over those few abiding doubters who question the possibility of beauty in Bach. On the new recording — conducted by Philippe Herreweghe on Harmonia Mundi — that first movement times out at six minutes, 41 seconds. On another disc, part of the nearly-complete Bach cantata series on Germany’s Hänssler label, Helmuth Rilling dispatches that movement in four minutes, 34 seconds. On Karl Richter’s old (and, alas, discontinued) Deutsche Grammophon recording, the same music commands the attention for eight minutes, eighteen seconds. Each performance states the music’s intense, dusky beauty in a manner loving and convincing; I rejoice in owning all three.
Even so, I cannot discount the beauty in the Bach of other times. With or without the imagery in Disney’s Fantasia, Stokowski’s take on the D minor Toccata and Fugue maintains its bone-chilling resonance — far more, I blushingly add, than the evidence Christopher Hogwood has put forward that the work was actually meant for solo violin. Recently the New York Philharmonic issued an archive album culled from some of its broadcasts over the years, and included is an Arturo Toscanini performance from the 1930s of the same work in an even more blatant orchestration, by Sir Henry J. Wood. Toscanini on Bach? (His only other exemplar on disc is the Air on the G String.) Toscanini, whose often-touted watchword was “fidelity to the composer’s own wishes”? No, the racketing percussion and the blooie-blooie of Toscanini’s brass lie at some remove from anything Bach might have envisioned. Yet there is beauty here, which Sir Henry J. Wood bravely underlined in his own vision of the music, and which Toscanini obviously took to heart. You can play the discs of this Toccata and Fugue in the Wood or Stokowski blowups, comb the used-record stores for Jaap Schroder’s now-discontinued solo-violin version, or mingle with the organists whose rendition fills a whole column of tiny print in the latest Schwann. Give thanks for the luxury of choice.