old school bach

The UC Berkeley Music Library does not circulate CDs except to graduate students in the Music department, so I go to the Berkeley Public Library in its recently-renovated beautiful building downtown. Like the Urbana Free Library, my old haunt back home, the classical music selection is rather extensive, especially if you browse the shelves of LPs in the back. I realized that I have the habit of enjoying pieces in concert and then never listening to them again, so I’m trying to rectify that and also improve my knowledge of the Canon of Western Music™

To that end, I went and checked out four CDs — Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass (in next year’s SFSO season), the Brahms Trio for piano, violin, and horn, Op. 40 (heard at a festival with Jaemin — I still miss her), Britten’s Spring Symphony (next year’s SFSO season), Hymn to St. Cecilia (performed it at MIT), Flower Songs (have done excerpts with Fluff and Perfect Fifth), and three Bach Cantatas (performed 106 at MIT). As I remember, the first piece I read at MIT was number 106, “Gottes Zeit is die allerbeste Zeit” (“God’s time is the best time”), in a Chamber Chorus rehearsal in Killian Hall. In retrospect it was a shaping experience for me musically — serious choral music earned a dedicated spot in the list of Things Anand Cannot Live Without.

The recording I borrowed today is from a set of all Bach’s cantatas in order. The first thing I noted is that there is a boys chorus on the recording. Nothing wrong with that — boy choirs can sound quite lovely. But then I realized that some of the solo bits are sung by boy altos and boy sopranos. There was something profoundly disturbing to me to hear a boy sing “Ja, ich komm, Herr Jesu” (“Yes, I come O Jesus”) On further thought, I realized that my objection was a bit deeper — I think that it was a wrong decision musically to make boys sing those solos.

This is an entirely unprincipled preference. In Bach’s time, those solos would have been performed by boys, so the composer’s preference, determined by historical analysis, is the version in this recording. The second movement of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms calls for a boy alto, and I think it sounds much better that way than with a female alto. There the text is “Adonai roi lo’echsar,” which is the psalm “the Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.” Is my objection then a revulsion to young children declaring that they are coming to Jesus in death?

One major difference in the way in which theater and music deal with the oldies is that theater artists are unapologetic about reinterpreting old pieces of theater to make them more relevant to modern audiences, whereas classical music encourages a return to the old performance idioms. A concert of baroque music with baroque tuning and performed on baroque instruments gains an air of “authenticity” that attracts audiences. In contrast, a performance of Shakespeare using Elizabethan performance conventions would be patronized almost exclusively by class field trips.

If I look at choral music (and orchestral music as well, although it’s a harder case to make) as a theatrical performance, my discomfort gains some undeserved credibility. I’m not familiar enough with performance practice and discussions thereof, but I do know I’m not going to rip this cantata recording to mp3.

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