The Well-Tempered Music Guy

Simple thoughts by a simple listener on classical music

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Bach in Zankel

I took in a concert at Carnegie's Zankel Hall for the first time on Monday. Of course, I didn't go for the hall; I went for the strangely rare opportunity of hearing Bach well-played on period instruments (here, by the Bach Collegium Japan).

But first, a note about the hall. It's clearly not designed primarily for the pure sound of real instruments. The ceiling is entirely covered by lights and other equipment. It's like a dense, black forest of technology hanging over your head. I think this hurt the acoustics. I thought the concert sounded distant and muted for such a small hall. I was sitting in the first row of the balcony, which is not that far back.

On the other hand, perhaps the playing style contributed to that muted quality. On recordings (I've heard several of the BCJ's Bach cantata records), I've always found the sound similarly muffled and dead. They lack the immediacy, clarity, and liveliness of Gardiner's recordings, even if the playing and singing are polished. I had assumed that the problem lied in the engineering inadequacies of an obscure label (BIS), but after hearing this concert I wonder if it wasn't at least partly due to the group's style. As Teri Towe pointed out (in characteristically strong terms), the group played in the all-too-typical overly-staccato style of many period instrument groups. They don't use any portimenti, they fail to "connect the notes." I understand the criticism, but I have to say it didn't bother me too much. And although the notes were brief and isolated, they didn't sound abrasive as can also be the case with these groups. Suzuki and the BCJ seem to temper the effect of the staccato style by playing lightly. The problem is the cumulative effect is one that lacks energy.

But eh, who cares. It still sounded lovely and (relatively) clear, and like I said, I crave any opportunity to hear the music of the greatest composer in history performed on original instruments by a properly sized ensemble. And they played some of his best orchestral music: the Orchestral Suite no. 2 (the flute one), the Harpsichord Concerto in D minor, the Concerto for 2 Violins, and the Brandeburg Concerto no. 5. The Suite was the one piece on the program where the interpretation was actually interesting as well. The second movement was played in a lilting "Lombard rhythm," and some other notes were held and phrases tapered to pleasing effect. Everything was well-paced. I just wish I could hear the flute clearer, but again, I blame the hall.

I really liked Suzuki's harpsichord playing in the D minor concerto and the Brandeburg. He didn't vary the registers very much (I believe just engaging the second register for the various finales) and never used a buff stop, but it was still lively and exciting, interesting but still rhythmically vital. When I saw Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque do some Bach orchestral pieces at Alice Tully a few years ago, Koopman in his excited state banged the harpsichord so hard that it made a knocking sound. One would think that someone so familiar with the instrument would know that hitting the keys harder doesn't make it play any louder. Suzuki didn't do this, so you just heard the plucking without any knocking.

So why, in this greatest of classical music cities, do we so rarely hear period instrument groups doing Bach and Handel (frankly, I don't need to hear any other Baroque composers)? I can't wait until the next opportunity comes along.


Blogger ? said...

Presumably the various NY based period instrument groups will perform Bach and Handel in various venues. That would be the least one should expect in the greatest of classical music cities

3:47 AM  
Blogger Jonathan Toren said...

Is there any group besides the New York Collegium? They have few performances, most of their programs are a grab-bag, they use poor venues, they've gotten bad reviews, and they've gone in and out of existence.

8:35 AM  

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