Speed Freaks Do Bach

Please, stop turning sublime classical works into dance music.

I’m pleased to possess, in a dusty sleeve from the cheapo-but-interesting days of Vox records, what appears to be the world’s first recording of a major Baroque work on original instruments. It’s Handel’s “Royal Fireworks Music,” recorded in 1961 with masses of keyless oboes and bassoons, serpent horns, valveless trumpets, hunting horns. I put it on for musician friends and watch them slide off the sofa laughing. It’s a howling mob of splattering horns and blatting oboes, everything gloriously out of tune. Oh, the pleasures of the really, really bad.

Nearly as great is the scholarly lecture on the flip side, in which we are informed that, believe it or not, this is exactly how Handel sounded in his time. Since brass instruments could not be played in tune, they simply carried on out of tune while everybody else was in.

Of course, our lecturer got it wrong. The game but incompetent pioneers on that recording simply didn’t know how to play their horns. Listen to any decent original-instrument group of the last 30-odd years and you’ll hear lucid, in-tune, elegant playing—as in this version of the Royal Fireworks by Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert. And the original-instrument folks have been creeping forward in history. We’ve seen more releases of Mozart, Beethoven, and beyond with original instruments.

In the process we hear scholarship go right and we hear it go wrong. Sometimes, we hear it go nuts. After all, research can take us only so far. We can’t really know what music sounded like before recordings arrived, and the historical data is vague and contradictory. The older the music, the more uncertainty. As the early-music movement matured from its first burgeoning in the ‘70s, the exponents ‘fessed up: Their original claims of “authentic performance” gave way to the more modest “historically informed performance” (aka HIP). Musicians make guesses informed by the evidence, further informed by their sense of musicality. It’s musicality that makes the thing work or not. Our Handel performers guessed wrong, and they lacked the chops to do even the wrong thing right.

The first really good original-instrument orchestra I heard was the Academy of Ancient Music, in the late ‘70s. The recording was Mozart’s “G Minor Symphony,” and my jaw dropped in the first bars. The familiar opening theme sounded nervous and muscular rather than logy and saxophonish, as it does with big modern orchestras. Wow! I thought as the piece went on, You can actually hear every note in the score. It was as if that long-familiar piece had been restored and renewed. I was instantly an enthusiast.

After conceding much of the Bach-and-backward repertoire to original instruments, mainstream orchestras began to get hip to HIP. In the ‘80s at symphony performances in Boston and elsewhere, you started to see much of the string section disappear for Mozart and Beethoven. As Glenn Gould played Bach aspiring to make his piano sound like a harpsichord, modern orchestras began to aim for a leaner and cleaner sound in the Classical-period repertoire.

Ah, the ‘70s and early ‘80s. That was the good time, when performers often beautifully balanced the scholarly and the expressive. This is the period of some treasured HIP recordings, like Nicholas Harnoncourt’s Monteverdi “Vespers.” Then, in the ‘90s, in the midst of its triumph, for a lot of us early music and its influences went sour. Lean and clean turned mean.

Sometimes textures got so slimmed down they became anorexic, as with the conductors who started doing big Bach choral works with one singer on each part. The more obvious extremes, though, have to do with tempo. Clock the last 40 years and you’ll find the beat getting relentlessly faster. The scholarly rationalizations are more sophisticated now, but somehow what they invariably add up to is: You can’t be skinny enough or fast enough.

There’s a speed sweepstakes going on. Six years ago in Boston I heard a Bach “B Minor Mass” from which slow tempos had been essentially banished. No more grandeur, no more sublimity, no more sweetness, no more tragedy—all qualities in which the “B Minor” is incomparably rich. Or used to be. In this performance the speeds were brisk, brisker, breakneck. In the “Crucifixus” movement, Christ trotted all the way to Golgotha, pumping his cross.

I thought that was the last freaking straw, everything fast as possible, until two years ago I heard a conductor take movements of the “B Minor” faster than possible, chorus and orchestra scrambling desperately to catch up. In the crowd after the performance I heard one guy exclaim, “I didn’t know Bach was so bouncy!”; another, an organist no less, wondered, “I don’t get it. What’s the big deal about that piece?” The most trenchant comment was from an older composer, who sighed as I passed, “Too bad. It really is the greatest music in the world.”

There’s incompetent bad, which as in my old Handel recording can be highly entertaining. And there’s sophisticated bad, which is just depressing. There’s no way to say to what degree those Bach tempos were “authentic.” The main basis for those tempos is fashion, not hard evidence. What can be confidently said is that a two-hour religious work of often tragic import containing little or no slow music is inexpressive, unmusical, and silly.

We’re seeing the Vivaldi-ization of Bach: gloom banished, minimal variety, implacably crisp, bouncy.  And the slim ‘n’ speedy virus has infected good conductors. When the well-reviewed 1989 John Eliot Gardiner recording of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” appeared, as a Gardiner fan I ran to get it. This time the great chorus of lamentation that begins the “Passion” was indeed an occasion of mourning: I’d blown 20 bucks. Gardiner takes the chorus of lamentation at near-gigue tempo. Jesus is crucified, his performance cries. Let’s dance!

To see what I mean with the piece’s mournful opening movement, compare the early ‘70s recording by the distinguished Bachian Helmuth Rilling with Gardiner’s. Gardiner’s is nearly 20 percent faster—and Rilling’s was faster than Herbert von Karajan’s and Otto Klemperer’s recordings of a few years earlier.

What it amounts to is that the influence of the early-music movement is turning everything into dance music. And the virus is spreading in the repertoire. Compare the tempos of Beethoven symphonies in the classic ‘60s Karajan set with a recent “authentic” set by David Zinman: Nearly every movement of every symphony is several notches faster in the newer one. In addition, the musical phrasings, the commas and colons and semicolons, are glossed over in favor of momentum.

Let’s compare beginnings of Beethoven’s “Sixth Symphony,” the “Pastoral,” whose first movement is titled “Awakening of happy feelings on arriving in the country.” Here’s Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic in the 1960s. Now here’s the beginning from a late-’80s original-instrument set by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music. I admire that band, that conductor, and much of this set, but I don’t know what planet Hogwood’s “Pastoral” is on. Our traveler is jogging too fast for happy feelings—he’s anaerobic. Hogwood’s tempo is nearly three metronome clicks faster than Karajan’s, whose tempo is on the brisk side for his time. But Karajan wouldn’t even rate on today’s dog track.

There’s something more troubling going on here, beyond tempos in classical music. I think people don’t want any music to be serious anymore. It’s all rock ’n’ roll now. Many people know mainly dance music, and that’s all they want to know—even in classical pieces. There’s an increasing disconnect between music and meaning. I saw that in the big New York rock concert in memorial of 9/11. In a way I understand it: When tragedies happen, creative people respond by doing what they do. But in a larger sense that concert disturbed me. What it said was, Three thousand people have died. Therefore, let us shake our booties.

The old saw comes to mind that for everything there is a season. There’s a time to shake that thing and a time to refrain from shaking it. Maybe one of the times to refrain is right after a catastrophe. Rocking in response to disaster mixes up the purposes of mourning and getting down, which belong to different seasons. Some kinds of music are there for serious moments, others to party with, and to erase the difference is to erase the purpose and integrity of any music.

The moral here is that in the absence of solid evidence, and sometimes in the presence of it, scholars are apt to believe what they want to believe, as whispered to them by fashion. The lecturer on my old Handel recording probably believed in progress, so it suited him that old instruments sounded lousy. When Wanda Landowska started playing harpsichord many years ago, some believers in progress were outraged that she’d resurrected an “obsolete,” “inferior” instrument. These days, literally and figuratively, scholars like to dance; fast and lean is the answer to everything. Perhaps some performers are just bored with the repertoire, so they inject it with speed. Maybe those performers should give the music a rest, because a lot of listeners aren’t bored with the music. We’d like strong, engaged, passionate performances rather than the Bach and Beethoven Lite we’re getting.

I hope someday our greyhoundish conductors will stop and smell the flowers: rediscover that tempo has something to do with meaning and expression and that a scrawny sound isn’t always the right sound. I hope they’ll let music be tragic and intense and sumptuous again, when it needs to be. For myself, I’m swearing off live performances of Bach for a while, until conductors have worn themselves out chasing that rabbit.