Sunday, September 27, 2009

Bach to Basics

Anybody who has studied the arts, such as painting, knows that an important part of the training, especially in the past, was to copy old masterworks. For instance Manet spent years in museums, trying to understand the secret of how the Flemish masters handled light, or how and why earlier Italian masters included very detailed landscapes in their portraits. In short, in order to create something new and unique, one had to have an understanding of art’s history. The same is true with music: a composer ought to know why Debussy sounds like Debussy, Hindemith like Hindemith. Part of general music education is to understand counterpoint and harmony, or to analyze a fugue. Unfortunately very few performing artists are interested in the past performance practices, perhaps wanting to stay away from anything “old-fashioned” that could possibly ruin their reputation as instrumentalists. Yes, there have been copycats: Erick Friedman wanted to mimic his one-time teacher Jascha Heifetz and succeeded in doing so rather well. Many spoon-fed students have no voice of their own: one famed violin teacher’s students all make the same glissandi in identical places. Teachers are notoriously inflexible and hard-headed: they teach as they themselves were taught. This is very human. Don’t most parents raise their children in the same manner they were raised? I had four copies of the Tchaikovsky concerto, all with very different fingerings and bowings, and I was expected to execute them properly. Naturally, I later took what I liked from each and added my own to the mix. Gabriel Bouillon had a very simple principle regarding fingerings: in fast passages make them as simple and clear as possible and save the fancy finger work for the more melodic passages. Ricardo Odnoposoff, himself supposedly the favorite student of Carl Flesch, insisted that I use his teacher’s editions, yet changed most of the fingerings.

In my youth it wasn’t easy to learn about performance traditions in music. I has an opportunity to play for a couple old-timers born in the 1800s and learned a lot from them. My first teacher (after being self-taught initially) was a longtime student of Jacques Thibaud (the only male, he used to say, as the maestro had an eye for young pretty females). He had inherited a lot of music with the great Frenchman’s markings, by his own hand. I remember when I was handed a copy of Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole and the entire slow fourth movement basically read 4-4-4-4-open string. As playing with the pinkie was almost unheard of (that’s why Fritz Kreisler’s fingerings in the printed music almost never use that digit), Thibaud must have had an unusually strong little finger and was able to produce a beautiful sound with it. Kreisler, of course, was famous for never using his own markings, playing even different notes from the printed page in his own compositions. My teacher had a vast collection of old 78s, many in bad shape, but I learned quickly how to filter the sound while transferring them to tape. Most French HMV recordings had been made using copper masters and during the occupation of most of France, the German army melted those down for war materials. I had the fortune of hearing and copying an early Thibaud recording, pre-vacuum tube amplification, the soloist standing right in front of the horn microphone, accompanied by the only source loud enough: a brass band. One side had d’Ambrosio’s Canzonetta, the other Gabriel-Marie’s La Cinquantaine. Thibaud was at his prime and the playing of those works probably among the greatest ever recorded.

Today it is rather easy to find historical recordings which have been transferred onto a compact disc. On them one finds great artists whose names are missing even from books. Not only are early 78s replicated but also the first experiments on wax rolls. One of my personal favorites is The Great Violinists, Recordings from 1900-1913, on Testament label. Of particular interest to me is the way movements are performed from J.S. Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin. We hear Joseph Joachim in 1903, four years before his death and Pablo de Sarasate from the same year, five years before his passing. Present are also the great French pedagogue and soloist Henri Marteau whose Bach is ten years younger, Thibaud from 1904 and Joseph Szigeti from 1908. Since Joachim was responsible for resurrecting the works and publishing the first truly playable edition of them, with the help of his student, friend and colleague Adreas Moser, one is most interested in him. To my surprise Joachim’s interpretation seems contemporary and it would be hard to believe the recordings age if it weren’t for the scratchy sound. Vibrato is missing or very minimal, intonation and style exquisite. Sarasate plays the E-major Preludio like a virtuoso piece but even that sounds fresh. The Frenchmen and Szigeti sound a bit freer in style but their playing is a far cry from what the “norm” was to become in 15-20 years. The Roaring Twenties and following Great Depression left their imprint. Even baroque music was supposed to sound romantic and the more glissandi, vibrato and other effects were present, the better. No wonder Odnoposoff warned me about the Flesch edition: phrasing and most of the bowings are great, at least thought-provoking as the original is right underneath, but please, pay no attention to the fingerings which made every movement seem like the Air on the G-String. Heifetz, who for an unknown reason never let students use his own mentor’s editions, always played Leopold Auer’s David-influenced Chaconne with the 16th notes on the last page turning into triplets and them to 32nds. Very effective but hardly what Bach’s intention was, although I don’t think the composer would have minded as the performances were so fabulous every time.

Post-war interpretation of Bach changed a lot. Violinists from the Soviet Union started showing up in competitions and their approach with the all-steel strings and a certain hacking style became popular. Other Eastern European fiddlers played very similarly, such as the Polish Wanda Wilkomirska whose otherwise excellent Chaconne has all the trademarks of 1950-60s. In Germany style still remained akademisch and Wolfgang Schneiderhan recorded an absolutely perfect and pristine Chaconne. The only problem with it was that you couldn’t light a match and even smoke a cigarette in the same room as the recording sounds outright flammable, so extremely dry. Arthur Grumiaux played his Bach beautifully as did Nathan Milstein and many others, Henryk Szeryng included. In David Oistrakh’s Soviet Russia there was no real tradition in Bach or other German/Austrian composers. Even Mozart was off-limits unless a violinist was to participate (with the government’s blessings) in an international competition. Oistrakh had a somewhat odd preference to Bach’s violin/keyboard sonatas, not the composer’s most exciting works.

As a teacher, I think it almost criminal not to introduce gifted students to that part of our instrument’s history we nowadays have access to. Yes, the recordings hiss and high pitches are missing, but neither does the Mona Lisa look like it did after Leonardo da Vinci finished painting it. It is up to the individual to decide what is important. In my 20s I was teaching Wieniawski’s second concerto to a student at the Sibelius Academy and lent her a recording of Heifetz playing it. A week later she returned the LP and I asked how she liked it. Her reply said it all: “I don’t know, it wasn’t in stereo.”

First page of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas