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    On Playing Bach

    Olivier Latry was recently featured on Pipedreams (program #1942). I was fascinated by his comments about playing Bach at Notre Dame. While he is aware of current understanding of historically informed performance, he said that approach does not work on the on the 1868 Cavaillé-Coll. He approaches Bach on that instrument as a transcription. Therefore, he unapologetically uses the swell pedal and varies registration in ways that would be considered inauthentic by Bach scholars.

    I found Latry’s performance of Bach’s Fantasy and Fugue in g (BWV 542) very satisfying. He provides an interesting alternative for playing Bach that may work better on organs without the requisite resources for an historic approach.
    Bill

    My home organ: Content M5800

    #2
    In playing according to the instrument available, one can focus more on artistic content rather than trying to get a "period accurate" performance on an instrument that clearly resists such treatment. Sure I like hearing Bach on a Baroque instrument, but the music is certainly not limited to that setting.

    Comment


      #3
      People like Latry are in a special category, which allows them special privileges. They have played more repertoire from more times and places, on more organs and in more spaces than most, if not all, of us on this forum. They have an exceptional technical ability, an understanding of performance practice, and the ability to adjust to various musical situations. When someone like that says they are going to use a different approach, I'm less likely to be critical.

      I have heard someone (who was internationally renowned) try to pull off something like this - it was a disaster. Even the non-musicians in the audience felt short-changed. But Latry is not one of those.

      Also, his idea of treating his performance as a transcription is interesting. A lot of people cringe at the idea of transcriptions, but even Bach wrote transcriptions and every time we play a harpsichord piece on a piano, we're doing the same.

      Again, Latry's experience with and understanding of both Baroque and Romantic organs makes him someone I'd trust to bring a piece of music into a different context.

      Sadly, there are too many organists, with insufficient technique, who don't understand the music or the instrument well-enough to make this work. We can't judge people like Latry against this less-than-satisfying backdrop.

      Comment


        #4
        Originally posted by regeron View Post
        every time we play a harpsichord piece on a piano, we're doing the same.
        And with Bach's music, this works rather well most of the time.
        I worked with a pianist and a string quartet this weekend for BWV 1052 and it sounded great on a standard piano. But then again, the pianist is extremely good and can even make very simple instruments sing.

        Comment


          #5
          Originally posted by regeron View Post
          People like Latry are in a special category, which allows them special privileges. They have played more repertoire from more times and places, on more organs and in more spaces than most, if not all, of us on this forum. They have an exceptional technical ability, an understanding of performance practice, and the ability to adjust to various musical situations. When someone like that says they are going to use a different approach, I'm less likely to be critical.
          I take your point but ... ... if you are correct, no one outside of a very few places with historic organs or authentic reproductions OR performers with exceptional talent and experience like Latry should attempt Bach on the general run of American Classic or Romantic or Symphonic instruments that predominate outside of Germany. I was going to say much the same thing the day Voet posted. When I play Bach at church on the Rodgers Trillium I simply can't sound like Bach did so I don't try. I guess I approach the piece as a transcription. I don't think of it that way. I don't need Latry level talent or experience, just an idea. An idea of how to approach the piece that pleases me and hopefully anyone else listening. If I play a Dupre or Durufle piece on the Rodgers it is just as inauthentic a vehicle for reproducing that repertoire. What then?

          Whenever Sophie Veronique Choplin or Daniel Roth play Bach on the big Cavaille-Coll in St. Suplice, about all that is 'authentic' is the notes. That instrument simply wasn't designed to play Bach, but it's what they have to work with. Rather than give Latry a pass for being exceptional, we probably should give kudos to the thousands of unsung men and women that attempt Bach on their various and sundry Parish instruments and make it work.
          Last edited by Leisesturm; 12-02-2019, 05:35 PM.

          Comment


          • regeron
            regeron commented
            Editing a comment
            Thank you, Leisesturm, for your comments. They make me wonder if I really made my point, or even if I had thought it out clearly enough.

            Perhaps I was taking into account the rhetorical principle of knowing your audience before you address them. For those of us, myself included, who regularly play for the musically uneducated, we can get away with a lot of things and still bring satisfaction to our listeners. Perhaps what I was trying to say was that if we are on a world stage, and that other experienced and well-trained musicians will be among our audience, we owe it to them to have a good reason for doing what we are doing.

            I have been to lots of recitals in my day. Some were absolutely amazing and I will treasure those moments as long as I live. Others were somewhere between ho-hum and bad, yet the audience in question found the recitals to be thrilling. Sometimes an organist's choices of interpretation were limited to what they could physically accomplish (or not).

            You are right - many of us play on instruments that are non-authentic for lots of our literature, but we still do our best to try to accommodate that repertoire. In my mind, we have found musical treasures that we wish to share with others, in whatever way we have at our disposal and to the best of our abilities.

          #6
          I've been thinking about this, and I've come to the conclusion that music isn't that different from literature. There is a reason we read certain works hundreds, even thousands of years after they were written - they speak to us across centuries and language about our human condition and foibles which are unchanged. But ... unless you are fluent in ancient Greek, or medieval French, or even Victorian English - you aren't reading the same story the contemporaries did. Even if you recognize the words, they have slithered in meaning. The Canturbury Tales is absolutely ridden with in-jokes and subtexts that you will not get if you aren't a Medievalist. It isn't wrong that you are getting something different from the story reading it today, that is what makes it great literature.

          Even if you could travel back in time to Germany and hear Bach perform his own work, the feelings and memories that fire off in your head in response to the music will be different from what the locals are experiencing. I love hearing early music on period instruments, but great music is great because it can move forward out of it's own time and still be beautiful, important, and relevant.

          Comment


          • myorgan
            myorgan commented
            Editing a comment
            Great point, lizny!

            Michael

          #7
          Originally posted by Leisesturm View Post
          If I play a Dupre or Durufle piece on the Rodgers it is just as inauthentic a vehicle for reproducing that repertoire. What then?
          And thus the debate will continue for centuries on end–organ purists vs. modernists. As you read Lizny's post comparing our discussion with classical literature, it helps reframe the discussion in a way musicians can hear it without taking up arms to defend their position.

          The discussion between the two sides will continue for centuries to come, and most will reside somewhere in between. If I want to attend an historically-accurate performance, there is a place for that. If I want to attend a musically-pleasing performance (not that the two are mutually exclusive), there is a place for that as well.

          Either way–enjoy the performance.

          Michael

          P.S. I AM surprised at some in this thread. A short time ago, one poster stated that concert organists readily adapt to each space they're in, and in this thread appears to decry that practice. MAKE UP MY MIND!!!
          Way too many organs to list, but I do have 5 Allens:
          • MOS-2 Model 505-B / ADC-4300-DK / ADC-5400 / ADC-6000 (Symphony) / ADC-8000DKC
          • Lowrey Heritage (DSO-1)
          • 9 Pump Organs, 1 Pipe Organ & 6 Pianos

          Comment


            #8
            Let me just expand this topic a little bit.
            How do you guys think about Baroque fingering (early fingering) and "all toe" pedaling techniques?

            I am confused about this for a long time, and I get different opinions from different people.

            ​​​​​​As a beginner, my textbooks and my teacher is not teaching or expecting me to use baroque fingering and all toe pedalling to play Bach or Pachelbel yet.
            I am playing some easier intermediate level Baroque repertoires, using modern fingering and pedal techniques, according to my textbook. And they sound just fine to me.

            But I have heard a lot of people say you are supposed to use only toes and absolutely no heals while playing Bach. Or, at least as less heal as possible.
            And also even beginners should use exclusively baroque fingering in playing Bach, otherwise it's sacrilegious.
            And, have to make sure every note is detached from each other, because there is no legato in Baroque.

            Which makes me feel very confused because on one hand I feel ashamed because I am "cheating" by playing with modern fingering and pedaling.


            By the way my instructor suggest me, during practicing, it's better to keep all legato and slow speed, then detach certain places later.
            It's actually a very helpful advice, because it force me to think it accurately how long exactly is the value of each note. And I would not be confused with "detachment between notes" and "rest between notes due to repeated note or break between phrases".

            Comment


              #9
              As one of my teachers said: use the tools that are available to you. Meaning, if you are playing on a modern AGO pedalboard it makes more sense to use modern pedal technique. If you are playing on an instrument with a flat pedalboard and short pedals, it makes more sense to use mostly toes. You need to be able to adapt to the instrument you are playing.

              Don't get too hung up on historical performance technique - it's not the absolute and only way to play such music. Think of it as a stylistic option and an artistic decision. Some people like to play in that style a lot, others not so much. It is useful to learn, but don't treat it as the definitive way of playing music from that period.

              Following that, it is wise not to set your own interpretation of this music in stone. It is perfectly acceptable to change the way you perform a piece. One day you might choose to employ historical performance technique, the next day a modern interpretation. Have fun creating music rather than trying to satisfy the opinions of what some scholars say is the "only" way of playing such music. No matter what you choose to do there will be those that like it and there will be those that do not. The music of Bach tends to fall victim to strong opinions more often than not. Of greater importance is your personal expression, and what you want to say about this music.

              Comment


                #10
                Even scholars are not 100% sure about whether Bach himself used toes only. My friend Hans (a scholar, too) has quite a pragmatic approach: he says that if the pedalboard allowed it, Bach would probably have used heels from time to time. When you look at the music, you'll find that a lot of it can be played very comfortably using toes only. And I like that. It gives me a lot of freedom.

                Comment


                  #11
                  This kind of debate also exist in Fine Art. Very similar to what we are talking about here.

                  People have different opinions on paint applications, and historically correct materials.

                  Some people strongly argue that paintings before 18 centuries are all done in glazing technique, on a monochrome underpainting, requires some special painting method and steps.
                  Also, some people argue that historically all drawings are done in curved lines cross hatching while after late 19 century the French school start the teaching of straight line method which is widely used nowadays.

                  But in the end, all these are just some stylistic options. Because
                  1, it's not like, if you don't use historical painting applications you will not achieve the visual effect of a classical painting. And there are so many artists and pieces in history, they were clearly not painted by the same method.

                  2, it's very unlikely that we could get exclusively historically accurate painting materials. If you try hard enough you might get close. But most of us don't have options, because most of the materials are produced in modern factories, using new chemical ingredients. You have to adapt your technique to what is available to you.

                  3, for a lot of people, their problem is way more fundamental than the application. Which means, if their painting or drawing doesn't look right, their problem is in the shape accuracy and shading accuracy.
                  Which is sort of like, playing the wrong notes, wrong value and wrong phrasing.
                  If your problem is in there, no matter you use modern technique or historical technique, your works would look terrible, your playing would sound terrible.

                  4, by the end, we are still modern human beings living in a modern world. We are not artists from 17 century, and we are not preparing ourselves to go back to 17 century.
                  I guess in music it could be more important to play historically correct because you are playing a piece from the old time.
                  but in fine art, the new artist are creating new art works, to the new audience. We can choose classical style, or paint in historical way, as much as we want. But in the end, it's still your work, your performance, by an artist living nowadays, given to an audience that is living nowadays.

                  Comment


                    #12
                    Originally posted by Sarah Weizhen View Post
                    I guess in music it could be more important to play historically correct because you are playing a piece from the old time.
                    If you really want to go down this road of "historical correctness", you need to disconnect the organ's motor and get someone to manually work the bellows like in the olden days. And don't forget to switch off the heating in the church building and light a candle instead of just clicking a switch
                    Oh, and people who identify as a woman wouldn't have been allowed to play the organ anyway.

                    This might sound a bit "over the top", but the question remains: where does one start and stop when it comes to "historical correctness"? How much do we actually know about organ performance in Bach's time, and what's merely a more or less educated guess? And one could also argue that Bach might have made good use of everything a modern organ has to offer, so it might be alright if we try this, too. I'm not a fan of playing a Bach piece with excessive use of the swell pedal or such, but I like experiments. If it sounds right and does justice to the music, a lot is possible.

                    Comment


                    • andijah
                      andijah commented
                      Editing a comment
                      Sarah, take the example of Elizabeth Stirling, who was born in 1819. She was one of the first women to publicly perform Bach's organ pieces and one journalist commented that she was a fine organist and the prejudice against female organists might be dropped. Elfrida Andrée, a Swedish organist and composer, had similar struggles.
                      I can't say for sure, but until at least 1850 female organists were extremely rare in Europe. Might have to do with the fact that you actually move your legs and need to wear cloths that allow you to do this. Even today, I get people asking why I play the organ and not a nice ladylike instrument as the flute (male flutists probably get to hear the same stupid stuff).

                    • myorgan
                      myorgan commented
                      Editing a comment
                      Sarah Weizhen A few years back, we had a thread about women's clothing appropriate for wearing while playing a concert. At the time, I shared a link to ladies pants that were so voluminous and flowed like a silk skirt. Some ladies in the symphony used them to fulfill their dress requirement for concerts.

                      When the thread was active, I never thought about it, but one could view various *ou*ube videos of Carol Williams, Dianne Bish, and Dame Gillian Weir. Technically, you should not be looking at the pedals while you play, but while you're learning, it is somewhat necessary.

                      Michael

                    • regeron
                      regeron commented
                      Editing a comment
                      Ha, one of my organ professors suggested that if we wanted to be 'authentic' we should play with head lice!

                    #13
                    If you really want to go down this road of "historical correctness", you need to disconnect the organ's motor and get someone to manually work the bellows like in the olden days. And don't forget to switch off the heating in the church building and light a candle instead of just clicking a switch
                    Oh, and people who identify as a woman wouldn't have been allowed to play the organ anyway
                    andijah That's very good point. Just like I said in fine art it's very unlikely that anybody could get 100% historically correct materials, you have to size all canvas with genuine rabbit skin glue before you start painting, you have to use genuine animal hair brushes, you have to grind ruby to get red pigment. Maybe your models have to dress in baroque costumes, and furnitures should be antique as well. There is no end of that, and it's just crazy.

                    And also it's true it's not right to say "this is just 100% how Bach play his work or how musicians from 17th century play the organ". We could make studies in history, but still everything is assumption. You never know what people do those days, and you are not going to be one of them anyway...

                    But I do find some audience are very picky. Like the other day I saw a video on YouTube of two women singing Rorate Caeli. They sing beautifully, but to my surprise, there are so many critical comments below saying that it's just sacrilege that women are changing. Something like "women singing those just sound like they are on a dining table" etc. I would buy it if they are criticizing that they are not on the right pitch or not right phrasing, but gender? In my church I seldomly chant, but I do sing in polyphony motets, as a female singer whoes voice is very much like a boys choir timbre, I feel very disappointed seeing comments like that.

                    Comment


                      #14
                      Late in my Church Music career I found myself playing a Brombaugh tracker organ once a month. We talk a lot about the flat non-radiating pedalboards still found on these neo-baroque instruments in America, and pretty much standard issue on European instruments. We talk less about the fact that the keyboards of these instruments differ greatly from modern AGO manuals. I cannot discern any difference (other than touch) between the keyboard of the Kawai Grand Piano and the Rodgers Trillium at my church. Both are hugely different from the Brombaugh. Each white key on the Brombaugh is maybe half ... maybe a little more than half the length of a white key on the Kawai or Rodgers. Surely that makes a difference in fingering patterns?

                      IF, as is likely, the fingering patterns called 'Early Fingering' arose as a result of the physical characteristics of Early Keyboards and Modern Fingering arose as a result of the physical characteristics of modern keyboards ... why then would one use Early Fingering on a Modern Keyboard simply because the music was composed by an Early Composer? Doesn't make sense to me and I have enough trouble (being self-taught) fingering things efficiently since I don't know any of the rules of either school of keyboard technique. I suspect, however, that the innate fingering that I have adopted has more kinship with Modern Fingering because all my work until recently has been on modern keyboards.

                      So, pedals. At my audition on the Brombaugh the Search Committee resisted every attempt I made to try out the instrument ahead of time. I didn't even get five minutes to so much as play a scale before they were all arrayed around me as I played the Little Prelude and Fugue in F Major. Cold. OMG. You bet I used Modern Fingering AND full on heel and toe pedaling on that Neo-Baroque puppy and you know what? The result was recognizably Bach (or whoever actually wrote it . So in future services (I got the job) I maintained a heel toe technique on the flat non-concave, non-radiating pedalboard and used my usual finger patterns on the very short Baroque Style keyboard. For what that's worth.

                      Comment


                        #15
                        Fascinating discussion. Full disclosure - I've never been a purist for anything musical. For me, purists belong in academia (which I was part of for 10 years). In a world where orchestras are failing financially, organs (and church buildings) are being abandoned and classical music radio stations have shut down, how is it helpful for the future of classical music to say that the only way to play it is the way the composer [presumably] did in his/her century?

                        The sustained interest in Bach's organ works is not because of a tiny audience of academics listening to "authentic" performances on instruments like the $2 milliion Arp Schnitger replica instrument at my alma mater. It flourishes because of the wide variety of performances of his music for the masses in public concerts, at big and small churches on all kinds of instruments, and by home organists who play for friends. The genius of the MUSIC, not what it is performed on and how it is interpreted, is what needs to shine through to captivate listeners.

                        If young people are to be drawn to classical music during their formative years, the music must have some initial appeal to get them hooked. Love him or hate him, Virgil Fox did just that with his stylized performances of Bach in unlikely places like Fillmore East in NYC. Wendy (Walter) Carlos did something similar with the groundbreaking "Switched-on Bach" record album created on the Moog Synthesizer.

                        There is no doubt in my mind that young people listening to these two performers play Bach in totally non-purist interpretations helped create an appreciation for Bach and classical music in a generation of listeners. What are we doing today to continue that inspiration so that in 50 years the name "Bach" will still have meaning to people who are not academics or musicians?

                        Fraser Gartshore has an interesting YouTube channel about music and organs. Here is a recent video with a segment addressing this very performance issue: https://youtu.be/Ks3tv0Uv9YE?t=727
                        Last edited by AllenAnalog; 12-05-2019, 10:39 PM.
                        Larry is my name; Allen is an organ brand name.

                        Main: Allen RMWTHEA.3 with Rocky Mount Electra-Piano, Allen 423-C + Gyro cabinet, Britson Opus OEM38, Saville Series IV Opus 209, Steinway AR Duo-Art, Mills Violano Virtuoso with MIDI
                        Lower Level: Hammond 9812H with roll player, Gulbransen Rialto, Roland E-200, Vintage Moog
                        Shop: Mason&Hamlin AR Ampico piano, Allen ADC-5300-D with 18 speakers and MIDI, 4 Allen theater organ tone cabinets (including 3 Gyros, but don't call me Gyro Gearloose!).

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