The passion of Bach's Air on the G String: three very different interpretations
Yesterday, while driving home from work, I had my radio on, tuned to Pittsburgh’s classical music station, WQED FM, as usual, and I immediately recognized the piece that was being performed. I listened with curiosity and then anger and disappointment as I made my way home.
It was a movement from one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s orchestra suites (Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068), the movement that has been popularized in the form of “The Air on the G String”.
I think this piece is a good litmus test of how we perceive and appreciate Baroque music.
(Update of 2015-06-10)
Many readers have commented on this post, and therefore I have written an important sequel to this post, 3 years later!
A listening test
Please click around on the YouTube videos to get a taste of different ways of performing the Air from Bach’s suite. I’ve embedded three very different interpretations, each with its own qualities.
- Which do you like most of the three?
- Which do you dislike most of the three?
People can get very emotional about differences in musical taste, and I’m not here to start an argument (just look at any of the comment threads on YouTube videos and you see what I mean!), but rather a discussion. I recognize that your choices might be completely different from mine, and I’m completely OK with that, and hope that you might be completely OK with my choices also!
The first version is an arrangement by Leopold Stokowski, from maybe the 1950s. It is a very slow, richly scored, melodically oriented version with emphasis on a deep, swelling vibrato-filled string sound. Different lines are given emphasis, one after another.
Croatian Baroque Ensemble
The second version is a live performance from 2010 by the Croatian Baroque Ensemble. It is played on period instruments, very briskly, with a prominent harpsichord continuo, with minimal vibrato in the strings.
The third version is from a recording by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, from maybe the 1980s. It is marked by a blend of legato voices, with an emphasis on unified beautiful tone.
What your preference means
First, I would like to point out that of these three versions, although I have a clear personal ranking, there are many things I don’t like about my favorite version of the three. If I were setting up a performance of this piece, I would make many different interpretive choices. Therefore, my indication of my preference is not an endorsement of every element of my preferred version.
The style classification system I’m using here is directly taken from the fascinating book by Bruce Haynes, “The End of Early Music”. In fact, the Air from the G String is used as an example in his book. My observations and descriptions here, however, are my own.
Stokowski: the Romantic style
If you liked the Stokowski best, you favor the old-fashioned Romantic style, music played with a long heart-throbbing melodic line and rich accompaniment. Soulful cellos are your thing.
If you dislike, you have a problem with odd composer-unintended arrangements, super-slow sentimentality, and personal idiosyncrasies such as slowing down to savor a particular romantic moment.
Croatian Baroque Ensemble: the Period style
If you like the Croatian Baroque Ensemble best, you favor a quick rhythm and counterpoint, with an emphasis on dissonance, as the carrier of heightened emotion. You like music to be played as though spoken, with many separated phrases, as though question and answer pairs.
If you dislike, you don’t like the rougher sound of non-vibrato violins, the dissonant attacks, and most of all, the speed and detachment of phrases that removes the relaxing, romantic mood you prefer.
Karajan: the Modern style
If you like Karajan, you focus on clear, beautiful tone, and seamless integration of instruments, avoidance of roughness and imperfection.
If you dislike, you find the endless legato lifeless and missing the extra edge of passion, and you perceive that the emphasis on integration detracts from the clarity of individual voices.
I prefer the Period approach of the Croatian Baroque Ensemble. I find it the most poignant and passionate of the three selections. I like the pauses of silence, the emphasis and swelling into the dissonant moments. The tempo is fast enough that the phrases feel like speaking and breathing. This is the Bach I have fallen in love with and have been enjoying playing myself in the past two years on recorder and Baroque flute.
Second, I have an honest, real emotional response to the Romantic approach of Stokowski, however perverse and bizarre it may be. It’s clearly nothing resembling what Bach would have expected in a performance. But on its own, it’s an ingenious product of Stokowski’s personal vision. You could say that Stokowski stole Bach’s notes and then composed his own thing using them as a starting point, changing everything else (from instrumentation to tempo to dynamics to articulation). I respect that. So even though part of me is horrified by this kind of plagiarism, part of me is also excited and wish that more of this perverse creativity would happen today. The Romantic approach went out of style decades ago, however, in favor of the Modern approach.
Finally, the Modern approach basically leaves me cold. Yes, the Karajan version was the one I heard in my car while driving home from work. I felt angry and sad by how the performance did not really inspire me. It was boring and muddy to me. Karajan may have been playing the pitch values of the notes the way Bach wrote them down, and not “disrespectfully” messed with the elements that Stokowski eagerly transformed and added to, but to me, his performance was more of a boring lecture to sit through than something that made me sit up and engage with the music. It was muzak to me. That was my reaction.
Period contrast: Ton Koopman with Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra
I mentioned earlier that there are many things I would do differently than the Croation Baroque Ensemble. The Period approach, like the Romantic and Modern ones, is not a single interpretation: it’s an entire approach with much diversity.
Here is a live performance in Period style that is noticeably different from the Croatian Baroque Ensemble performance. It is slower and sweeter, for example. But it also has more contrast between the long legato lines and the detached figures within them.
Which do I like better?
Of the two sample Period performances, which do I prefer?
Who knows?? When there are things I like and dislike about both? At some point (I try to make this quick), I stop being a listener or critic, and feel the need to stop listening, and go to work myself on how I would do things very differently, from anyone else, as a performer, to express my personal feeling for the music. That is why I’ve switched in the past two years from being a listener to being a performer. I can’t sit around pining away waiting from someone to play something the way I really like it. I have to do the work myself.
I hope this little exercise is helpful in clarifying some of the differences in the approach to performing and enjoying Baroque era music. The question of how to best deal with music from the 1700s is one that everyone who plays or listens to it has to grapple with, whether implicitly or explicitly. I think Haynes’ basic framework of three different styles is a useful one.
Myself, in the past year or two during which I have suddenly fallen in love with Baroque music, after a lifetime of not really liking it at all, I have been persuaded by the Period approach, both as a listener and now also as a performer.
(Update of 2015-06-10)
Many readers have commented on this post, and therefore I have written an important sequel to this post, 3 years later!comments powered by Disqus