Archive

Tag Archives: johann sebastian bach

Yo-Yo Ma is god. I don’t know anyone with an informed opinion who would disagree with the assessment, even atheists. There are some excellent cellists out there today, and who I would give good money to hear, but Yo-Yo is in a class by himself.

But even a god has his gods, and Yo-Yo Ma has now recorded the words of his own god three times; the first in 1983, when he was 28, and said himself at the time that he was too young; the second in 1998, when he was 43; and finally (he says) in a new version released this week, when he is 63. That music is Johann Sebastian Bach’s, six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, which are the words god might speak to you in a still small voice inside your soul. 

I have spent the past four days listening to his performances, and have gone through the newest set three times, and individual pieces more than that. No current cellist has such a personal take on the music as Yo-Yo Ma.

(I’m going to continue with his full name. The Associated Press stylebook says that on second reference, I should just call him “Ma,” but that seems too perfunctory; “Mr. Ma,” as The New York Times would use it, sounds too much like a Bond villain, and “Yo-Yo” is out of the question, being too familiar — would a Christian call Jehovah “Joe?”)

There is something that sometimes happens with a master artist, who has so mastered his craft, that he feels free to take his work into new and personal spaces. Anne-Sophie Mutter recorded the Beethoven Violin Concerto in 1980 with the Berlin Phil and Herbert von Karajan, when she was 17; and again in 2002 with the New York Phil and Kurt Masur, when she was nearly 40. The first is a nearly pitch-perfect mainstream performance — the standard recording for anyone — and has seldom been done as well, not to say bettered. The second is so idiosyncratic that it almost seems like a different concerto. The second is deeply personal.

So, when Yo-Yo Ma made his first attempt at the Bach Unaccompanieds (I don’t mind using the nickname for the music) he seemed to want to make sure he dotted all the eyes and crossed all the tees. It is a note-perfect recording that would be a fine set for anyone who only wanted or needed one, but to me, it is oddly unsatisfying. It lacks personality. What can I say? He was young. 

I have heard Yo-Yo Ma play all six live in concert twice, and both times, the concert is deeply remembered as one of the pinnacles of my concert-going career. Live, Yo-Yo Ma earns his godhead. No one I have ever heard has come close to the depth and interiority of his interpretations. The audience sat rapt for two-and-a-half hours hearing the music, not as entertainment, but as their very personal insides brought out to see and hear. 

I have heard him live on other occasions where he would play one of the Bach Suites as an encore. Each time, they brought the house to a reverent stand-still.

Alex Ross — former music critic for The New Yorker — wrote this about a 2017 performance by Yo-Yo Ma of all six Suites at the Hollywood Bowl — a venue not known for the attention spans of its patrons: “Almost no one made a sound. Almost no one moved. When a large audience is listening intently, it creates an atmosphere that cannot be measured or recorded, only remembered. Here, it was as if music had stilled the world … he was following his natural musical rhythms, to the point that it felt less like a performance than like an interior monologue … [The audience] was under the spell of a solitary searcher in the dark.”

That is the Yo-Yo Ma I know from hearing him in person. 

(An aside: Yo-Yo Ma in person and on recording are very different. This happens sometimes. In the studio, he seems to want to be note-perfect and thought-out. His studio recordings are models of propriety and elegance, but they lack the electric presence and risk-taking of his live performances. I remember hearing him play the Dvorak concerto in Phoenix in the 1990s, and the performance nearly destroyed me, it was so deeply emotional. His studio recording is tremendous, but cannot bring me to the same tears. Yo-Yo Ma is not alone in this. For years I thought of conductor Bernard Haitink as a mere Kappelmeister, plodding along competently. I had only heard recordings. But when I heard him do the Eroica with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, he blew me away with the most powerful Eroica I ever heard live. And Kurt Masur had something of the same reputation. On CD, his performances can be competent but routine. But I heard him live with the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall in the Verklaerte Nacht and Beethoven’s Eighth that were soul-searing. Sometimes the recording is a miserable liar.)

But what about this new recording. It is not the one for a beginner: It is too idiosyncratic. But for anyone familiar with the music, the latest version provides almost constant new insight into the music — and not only into the music, but into human existence; into the cosmos. 

One aspect of the recording merits special mention: its engineering. One reviewer said it sounds as if we are hearing the music from inside the cello. There is a presence to the sound that is closer to having the performance in the room, live with you, than any recording I have come across before. You can feel the buzz of the low notes in your very sternum. It is body-feel as well as ear-sound. 

There are details to mention. In the Prelude of the first suite, about two-thirds of the way through, the music climbs the scale up to a fermata — a held note — which is usually played as the top of a crescendo. It is the climax of the movement. Here, Yo-Yo Ma gives us instead a diminuendo, so the final held note is a hush. In the Courente of the second suite, he takes off like a house on fire, twice the speed I’m used to. He brings a sense of spontaneity to his performance that can only come from having played the music since he was four years old (yes, he began, taught by his father, from before he even began school). 

No music I know is more interior than these suites, and the older Yo-Yo Ma gets, the more Innigkeit his performance. 

His second two sets each has a gimmick. In 1989, it was a series of six short videos made in collaboration with six different film directors and various other collaborators. In some, the suites are not even heard in their entirety. (The CD release is complete, however). 

In this new set, Yo-Yo Ma makes the case for understanding the six suites as a single artistic entity, a kind of through-composed drama, over two-and-a-half hours. There’s playfulness in the first suite, grief in the second, celebration in the third, contemplation in the fourth, the weight of the world in the fifth, and in the sixth, written in a higher tessitura (originally for a smaller, five-string instrument) what can only be called transcendence. Over those two-and-a-half hours, we are given not a potpourri or melange, but a psychic and emotional journey. 

The crux of this journey is the Sarabande of the fifth suite. Only 20 bars long, it is the bearer of all the weight, the moment the tenor of the music changes. Cellist Paul Tortelier called it “an extension of silence.” Yo-Yo Ma played this movement on September 11, 2002 at the site of the World Trade Center, while the first of the names of the dead were read in remembrance on the first anniversary of the attack. 

After its depths, everything to come is a dawning of light. That Sarabande is a single line of melody, arpeggiated  and coming to rest after every phrase in a note dropped deep into a well of sadness. It is a movement that requires the uttermost from a musician. It is so simple that underplaying it will let all the power out of it, but overplaying it can sound mawkish. Yo-Yo Ma invests it with such mournful simplicity, varying his tempo by minute amounts, hardly measurable, but carrying all the expressivity. I dare you to hear this movement without weighing your life in the balance and weeping. 

His only competition for this is the man who resurrected the suites after finding a copy in a junk shop in Barcelona in 1890. Pablo Casals made the suites the core of cello repertoire; they had been before that considered mere practice etudes. Casals recorded all six between 1936 and 1939 and set the mark rather high, expressively. For me, they have never been bested, not even by Yo-Yo Ma. They are old, scratchy recordings and allowances have to be made, not only for the engineering shortcomings, but also for Casals’ technique; it was the best, even brilliant for its time, but decades of cellists working out fingerings and bowings have made later performances more natural under the fingers. But for profundity and emotion, Casals has never been bested.

Yo-Yo Ma, live, plays them in such a way that they break any separation between musician and audience. The thoughts expressed in the music are the not so much conveyed to the listener as momently co-experienced by performer and audience. It is something they discover deep in themselves, and for the moment, there is no difference between audience, cellist and Bach himself. They are at one.

When Casals plays, however, it is as if he is playing for God alone. He is alone in the room with the paraclete, discussing the Cosmos. 

Surely no real music lover can live with only one set of performances. I have Casals, all three Yo-Yo Mas, Pierre Fournier, Anner Bylsma, Janos Starker, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Jaap ter Linden. There are also many performances on YouTube, including a video of Yo-Yo Ma playing all six at the Proms in London in 2015 (link here). 

For those for whom one version is sufficient, I recommend Yo-Yo Ma’s second set. They are deep but not idiosyncratic. If you want to dive deeper, get Casals (remastered by Ward Marston on Naxos) and Yo-Yo Ma’s newest set. You cannot go wrong with Fournier or Rostropovich. There are almost no bad recordings. 

But excuse me now, I’m going back into my fourth listening to the new set. I don’t think it is possible to get tired of this music. To paraphrase Dr. Johnson, to do so would be to tire of life. 

klemperer 6I am listening as I write this to Bach’s Mass in B-minor, in a version recorded in 1967 by the New Philharmonia Orchestra and BBC Chorus conducted by Otto Klemperer. I am blown away. rifkin cd cover

Not just at the music, which I know well, and have nearly a dozen recordings of, from Joshua Rifkin’s spare-outline version, with one singer per part, to the more full-blooded Robert Shaw version with his chorale and orchestra, to the zippy race-through by John Eliot Gardiner. Each is an event in its way — it is hard to make Bach’s music anything but beautiful and profound.

But Klemperer brings something else to the performance. You hear it with the first notes, the solemn adagio opening Kyrie. This is no period-instrument version, thin and edgy. This is the full power of Milton’s heaven resounding. You know this is not a collection of tunes, but rather a calling-into-being of the entire universe. One is reminded of the opening of the King James Genesis. This is serious music.

kyrie adagio

Since this recording, a prejudice has developed against grandeur: The authentic-instrument, period-practice movement took hold. One year after Klemperer’s recording, Nikolaus Harnoncourt released his stripped-down, lean and brisk period performance. Since then only a very few have ventured to record the music with a symphony orchestra and large chorus. Instead, we have chamber versions, and even smaller ones, such as Rifkin’s. I am not here to complain about them: Many are beautiful and thoughtful. And I would not want to do without Gardiner’s version. But in the quest for authenticity, something has been lost: In the search for “what Bach actually heard” using instruments of his time, we have given up what Bach meant.

This raises the question of “intent.” Period advocates measure intent by musicological and historical standards: Bach’s brass players had no valves, strings were gut, bows were slack, pitch was lower. All these things can be documented. But intent is more than that. Bach intended to create the glories of the heavens on earth. And one doubts Gabriel’s singers and instrumentalists were bound by the constraints of period technology. Bach intended his music to be as grand has possible. If what was possible in his age was limited, that should not restrict us to 18th century limitations.

Klemperer was famous for what has charitably been called “granitic” performances of Beethoven and Mozart: His slow tempos and careful orchestral balance underline the monumental structure of the music. If rhythmically driven or lyrically pretty music is what you seek, look elsewhere. Klemperer makes you see the music as something sculptural, complete from all angles and subject to minute scrutiny. This is certainly not to everyone’s taste, and when it comes to Beethoven symphonies or Mozart operas, Klemperer is a world I wish to enter only periodically, as a sort of reminder that not everything is Riccardo Chailly or Leonard Bernstein. Klemperer does not seem interested in our pleasure, and even less with our attention spans. This is serious music and he intends you to take it like that: It may be work, but you are better off for it in the long run.cd cover 2

But when it comes to Bach — and here we must mention also his monumental recording of the St. Matthew Passion — this approach gives us a weight and profundity that elevates the music. Instead of using his musicality to discover what Bach wrote, he uses Bach to discover the vastness and emotional depth of Creation. Bach is not the end, but the tool.

Now, for many current music lovers, this is a distortion of what Bach meant. And for many, this can come off like grandiosity. Expectations are lower these days: We find solemnity and profundity suspect. And Postmodern culture looks for art to be about art, about culture, and not about Providence or our place in the cosmos. We wish to remain modest about such things. “About what we cannot speak we must remain silent.”

The historical-performance people have this take on the music. Bach used dance movements, they tell us, and so the music should dance. They hit bar-lines like blacksmiths, beating out the rhythm, as if every movement were a Landler, OOM-pa-pa, OOM-pa-pa. They break phrases up into choppy bits, claiming scholarship for authority. And I won’t even mention the flat, vibrato-less performance and often-squeaky 18th century instruments. The results become not music, but a museum display.

I don’t dispute that we may learn something about how music was performed 250 years ago and I don’t dispute such knowledge can be important and interesting. But I will continue to dispute this is music. This is academia invading the concert halls. And it comes off as interesting as academic prose. And who but a scholar wants to read a dissertation?

So, Klemperer uses the music to find a place in the cosmos, and if the cosmos is vast, so the music expatiates. It fills the space of the heavens. If it takes three days for an astronaut to reach even our closest neighbor, the moon, then so what if it takes the conductor 13 minutes to span the Kyrie. Yes, we could get there faster if we up the tempo, but we lose the metaphor in doing so.

It should also be noted that Klemperer has some of the best soloists available at the time: Janet Baker, Nicolai Gedda, Hermann Prey and others. Full-throated singers who can rise above a full orchestra. klemperer caricature

One looks back at the history of art, music and culture and sees the pulse, diastolic and systolic, changing from an era that sees itself examining itself and human societies to one that looks for humanity’s place in the universe. We often call these impulses “classical” and “romantic,” but these terms are quite gross. The realities are more subtle. But think of Alexander Pope and compare him with Byron, for instance. Or compare Gluck with Wagner. We are in a slack period, uncertain about insisting on great themes, large statements, universal truths. In fact, we are likely to say there are no universal truths. The violent, murderous 20th century we lived through, full of ideologies and dogmas — all claiming to be universal truths — taught us to be more humble. Universal truths can be genocidal.

So, we have drawn back, like turtles into our shells, and claim that since a belief in truth can be bloody, therefore, there must be no truth. We have become a generation of Pontius Pilates. This makes emotional and historical sense, but it does not follow logically.

There is at least one universal truth, I believe, that is impossible to deny: We will all die. Death is universal. And if our own extinction is inevitable, so is its corollary: Everyone we love will die; everyone we love will leave us. Loss is a universal human experience.

If we start from first principles — and death and loss count as just that — perhaps there are inferences we can draw from these axioms. And even if some of them are not universal, they may still be widely prevalent among human cultures. Of course, we want to tread lightly with these. Stalin, Franco, Hitler, Pol Pot, Osama bin Laden may still give us pause. But we should not be deterred from seeking these inferences from first principles. Art that merely looks at art seems pasty-faced and weasely compared with the larger attempts of artists such as Michelangelo, Tolstoy, Homer, Beethoven — and Bach.

So, I say, open up the floodgates, let the dam overflow, give Klemperer his head and let it all fill us up, fill up that empty space we all feel, the community of humanity in our loss, our finality, our upward vision into the starry night for the immensity of creation.

And I say this as an atheist. Bach may be using the Catholic liturgy, but we don’t need to be Catholic to feel the power of the universe behind his notes. Bach, himself, wasn’t Catholic. His religion did not use the full Mass. But that didn’t stop him from filling out the words, in a language he did not speak, with counterpoint and harmony that reflects that immensity.

So, I don’t wish my Bach shrunk down to human size; I want my Bach to be a Mount Palomar opening into the cosmos.

The Mass has played out in the time it took me to write this short note. Now, I think I am ready to change the CD and begin the Matthew Passion. Open heavens, let me see into you.

Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach is the alpha and omega of music.

It’s one of the few things most musicians agree on. The question is whether to pay attention to the alpha part or the omega part.

For many, he’s the beginning of 250 years of the classical-music tradition: During most of that time, his music was the earliest regularly programmed and, for composers, the model of what good music should be.janus coin

Beethoven called him “the father of us all.”

But for an increasing number of listeners, he just as importantly is the culmination — the end — of the long tradition of polyphonic music dating back to the Renaissance and the Middle Ages. Like the Roman god Janus, he faces both directions at once.

He is the hinge on which the history of music turns, the hinge between early music and our modern tradition.

J.S. Bach was born 325 years ago in the dead center of what now is Germany. In 1685, it was the town of Eisenach in Thuringia.

eisenach 1647

So many of his family were musicians — uncles, cousins, grandparents — that in parts of Germany at the time, Bach was a slang term for musician the way “Einstein” is sometimes used for a scientist. His father was Eisenach’s bandleader.

The young Bach was a spirited fellow — caught once with a girl in the choir loft; another time, he fought a duel in the streets; and later, for another offense, spent a week in jail.

He must have had a very passionate side, given his two wives and 20 children, even in a cold German habitat.

He joined the family business, as it were, and had a series of musical jobs for the rest of his life.thomaskirche leipzig2

His career can be divided into three distinct parts. From age 18 to 32, he was a church organist, mostly in the city of Weimar. From 32 to 38, he wrote secular music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen in Cothen. And from then until his death at 65, he was in charge of all music at St. Thomas Church in Liepzig.

At St. Thomas, he wrote a new sacred cantata every week for five years. About 250 of them survive: They make up a third of his output.

The composer didn’t get around much; few people did back then. All these places were within 50 miles of each other.

bach ms 2

The High Baroque

We call J.S. Bach a Baroque composer, but what does that mean?

Mostly, it means energy, emotion, drama and density.baroque art

From roughly 1600 to 1750, whether it is the painting by Rubens or Rembrandt, the poetry of John Milton or the counterpoint of Bach, Baroque art embraced its own artifice and reveled in florid extravagance.

You can listen to the music of Bach like any other, of course, letting it flow over you. Its tunes are memorable and its rhythms and harmonies are always interesting and pleasurable.

But Bach’s music offers special rewards that you can uncover if you try listening with your attention focused on these three things:bach canonic portrait

* Counterpoint: Much of Bach’s music is written in counterpoint, which means the playing of multiple melodies at the same time, overlapping each other. You can pick the top line and hear it as the “main tune” or you can listen to the subordinate parts and discover a tremendous richness of detail and meaning. Bach wrote many fugues, which are pieces of music in which the same melody overlaps itself in a different key, and races after itself (“fugue” comes from the Latin word for “flight,” as in “tempus fugit,” “time flies”). Listening to a fugue is like juggling with your ears.

* Bass line: Bach’s music has a forward movement driven by a clear and distinct bass line. You will find the music opens up for you if, instead of listening to the main tune, you focus on the lowest notes and see where they go: They will always guide where the top melody can settle. The 19th-century composer Johannes Brahms used to cover up the upper staves of music when looking at a new piece of music, and concentrate on the bass line. “That’s how you can tell if the music is good or not,” he said. You learn new things, like the way a football play opens up if, instead of keeping your eye on the quarterback, you follow the left tackle or linebacker.

* Dissonance: Oddly, for music that’s so listener friendly, Bach is one of the most dissonant of composers. It hardly sounds that way, because the sharp conflicts of notes are always resolved into a satisfying and harmonious manner, but the great emotional depth of Bach’s music — and its tremendous sense of humanity — comes in part from his use of dissonance as a metaphor for human suffering. (In an experiment, you might play one of Bach’s chorale hymn settings, such as “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” and play only the offbeats — it will sound surprisingly like Schoenberg.)

One of the canards about Bach’s music is that it is somehow academic and mathematical; the truth is, he was all over the map.

There is a core of irrationality in Bach’s music, a Dionysian freedom: You never know where he’s going next.

When Bach was working, music for church or concerts was polyphonic; that is, written not so much as a melody with accompaniment but as multiple melodies played one on top of the other to make a single whole.

Bach had an astonishing facility for combining separate lines and overlapping melodies with themselves, sometimes at different speeds at the same time, sometimes turning a melody upside down or playing it backwards.

There are worlds within worlds, and the contradiction of seeming to be the epitome of both order and spontaneity.WTC prelude 1

His music may have wheels spinning inside wheels, but it’s always surprising, like the C-minor prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, which begins with a repeated rhythmic figure, unchanging over a constantly shifting harmony, but about three-quarters of the way through, he simply gives up on the pattern and takes off on a flourish of notes like a skyrocket spinning in air, and just when you get comfortable with that, he settles into a melismatic cadence that keeps promising to come to a rest but refuses to stop.WTC prelude 2

Or that moment in the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto where everyone stops for fully five minutes to let the keyboard wander off on its own for a brilliant cadenza, essentially a rhapsody on a dominant pedal, that seems to find every possible permutation of its ideas, before the orchestra re-enters to conclude the piece.

Barroca

The word “Baroque” comes from the Portuguese word for a misshapen pearl, and it was initially applied to the art of the period as an insult, by the calmer minds of the era that followed.

The history of art is an alternation of periods that idealized order and simplicity with a succeeding age that valued emotion and drama. The Renaissance calm gave way to a Baroque frenzy, just as the Neo-classical stability of Haydn and Mozart gave way to the Romantic yearning of Berlioz or Wagner.Greek sculptures

You can find this alternation as far back as you want: The Hellenic stasis of the Parthenon frieze in ancient Greece gave way to the wild extravagance of Hellenistic sculpture of the time of Alexander the Great, with its writhing figures and tortured faces. The dour Romanesque of the early Middle Ages gave way to the bustling aspiration of the Gothic.

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche named the guiding spirits of the alternating eras Apollonian and Dionysian. They also are called Classic and Romantic.

Perhaps one of the reasons the music of Bach speaks to us again so strongly, through the newer interpretations, is that we’re currently entering another era of Baroque sensibility. The virtues of Bach’s time are re-emerging: variety and diversity rather than unity, the recycling of artistic material — Bach was not afraid to reuse material; he was one of the original samplers — and a mixing of high and low cultures. Bach used dance rhythms as the basis of much of his music, the way Duke Ellington and Chubby Checker might have.

(A modern version of the Baroque suite, with its allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue, might be an orchestral suite made up of a fox-trot, a waltz, a tango and a Charleston.)

Postmodernism has become a neo-Baroque, and Bach is speaking our language once more.

brilliant bach

Bach-Werke Verzeichnis

Bach’s output was enormous: The complete works fill 155 CDs in one collection. There are more than a thousand numbered compositions, running from music for solo violin to grand vocal works for multiple choruses and orchestras. Half the music was written for church services.

Much of the music is among the best known and dearest loved in the repertoire. Even those with no interest in classical music know his Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor for organ — it’s played endlessly every Halloween — and the Prelude to his first Suite for Unaccompanied Cello can be heard in several television commercials, including one for American Express.

His music connects with a lot of different audiences.bach at organ horizontal color copy

Culture wars

The problem is, there are two primary constituencies for the music of Bach, and the difference between them might as well be between red states and blue states: It’s a culture war.bach statue 2

The older tradition plays a beautiful Bach, with long, flowing melodic lines and a profoundly emphasized bass line, with clearly delineated harmonies. It is the Bach that for many, including Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, “is the only argument proving the creation of the universe cannot be regarded as a complete failure.”

The composer Debussy said, “Bach is our lord of music. Every composer would do well to pray to him before commencing work.”

This is the Bach we inherited, thick with 250 years of performance tradition. It is Bach as the Alpha of our music. For this contingent, Bach is something universal, primordial, fundamental: Homer in music, or Shakespeare.

The name Bach in German means “brook” or “stream.” “He is not a brook,” Beethoven punned. “He is an ocean.”

But that’s the Bach who is the first modern composer; there’s a rising contingent that views him instead as the culmination of a century and a half of an older music tradition — The Omega. It is a Baroque style of playing completely at odds with the traditional symphonic approach.

The younger tradition mistrusts such grand religio-philosophical interpretations as pretentious piffle. And for them, as for the conductor Arturo Toscanini, “Tradition is just the last bad performance.” They want to clean the browned varnish from Bach and find the bright colors underneath.

These new historically informed performance-practice people want to dance, dance, dance, and they emphasize the rhythm and up the tempo, sometimes approximating speed metal.kimberly marshall

“Sometimes the tempi have become absurd,” says organist Kimberly Marshall. “You’d think you were playing your LP at 78 rpm, like the Energizer Bunny or something.”

The revisionists quote poet Ezra Pound, who famously averred that “music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance.”
And they believe they’re performing the music in a more authentic way, meaning, the way Bach would have performed it himself. Usually, on the musical instruments that Bach would have known: valveless horns and trumpets, oboes with few keys, wooden flutes and short-necked violins with light bows. They strive to recreate the sound that would have resounded in Bach’s ear.

And this is the sticking point: Like believers in competing religions, their dogmas are irreconcilable. Whose ear is more important? Bach’s ear or the contemporary listener’s ear? After all, we can never have 18th-century ears. Too much has happened since.

“The loudest sound Bach would have heard might have been a door slamming,” says conductor Benjamin Rous, who began his career leading the Boston Baroque Ensemble at Harvard University. “If you wanted to give our listeners the experience that Bach had, you’d have to create a world without the last two centuries of history.” So, pick your side and make your argument.
hamlet burton

“It’s like politics,” says cellist Blythe Tretick of the trio Paradisa. “You get into some pretty heated discussions about these things. You can’t win, because it’s a matter of taste.”

Unexamined through all this is the basic premise that music should reflect the composer’s intent. It’s taken as an axiom. But few people are asking why. We don’t insist that Shakespeare be performed outdoors, with boys playing the women’s parts and with the rhetorical delivery of its actors. We don’t blanch at Richard Burton playing Hamlet in suit and tie.

So why do we argue over whether Bach’s musicians played with a vibrato or not? Shouldn’t the music be played to mean the most to modern audiences, the way we do with Hamlet? How much is composer’s intention and how much merely the limitations and conventions of his age? And is a performance something alive, or a museum piece under a vitrine?

Rock ‘n’ Roll

Perhaps this is the underlying truth of the historical-performance people: Unacknowledged by them, they aren’t so much re-creating historical fact as reflecting contemporary taste. We have grown up with a popular music based on rhythm and energy, so we may well now prefer our Bach the same way. Perhaps our ears are attuned to the virtues of Creedence Clearwater Revival bach with electric guitarand feel more comfortable with a Bach that sounds very like it.

And, too, after a violent century, we have become a little more circumspect about claiming the great philosophical ideas and universal truths we found in Bach’s music and that too often justified war and genocide. We have been humbled into seeking a more modest music.

Yet, the emotional and spiritual profundity is there, goading us into recognizing that if the current age is modest, the universe is still infinite, and someone with the genius to write the Mass in B-minor or the St. Matthew Passion is a brilliant mirror to that something bigger than our paltry selves.

You pays your money and takes your choice

Both styles of Bach performance are generously represented on CD. Arkivmusic.com lists more than 5,700 recordings.stern st. john pair

You might compare the recording of his violin concertos by Isaac Stern (old style) with those by Lara St. John (new style). You’ll get whiplash going from the first to the second.gould copy

The older style is warmer and richer; the newer style is bouncier and more rhythmic — and a whole lot faster. Discover which performance tradition speaks best to you.

One CD everyone should own is Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording of the “Goldberg Variations.” It’s not only one of the greatest Bach performances on disc, it’s one of the greatest recordings of all times: exuberant, manic in places, and with its counterpoint always clear. It has never been out of print. It’s neither old school nor new school: It is Gould school. Sui generis.

Here are other recordings to check out.

3 traditional recordings you can’t do without

old bach trio

* “Bach: The Great Solo Works,” with Rosalyn Tureck, piano. Tureck was a Bach specialist, and here she shows just how Baroque the composer could be, in a disc of lesser-known works. A must-have.

* “The Brandenburg Concertos,” with the Marlboro Festival Orchestra, Pablo Casals, conductor. This is old-style Bach, including a piano instead of a harpsichord in the Fifth Concerto (played by the great Rudolf Serkin).

* “Well Tempered Clavier, Book I,” with Daniel Barenboim, piano. Barenboim uses all the possibilities of the piano — pedal, arpeggios, strong bass notes — to make a heroic performance of this iconic music.

Revisionist Bach

new bach trio

* “Six Suites for Violoncello Solo,” with Anner Bylsma, cello. The music is played on a Baroque-style cello (the Stradavarius “Servais” instrument from the Smithsonian Institution) and shows it off at its best.

* “The Brandenburg Concertos,” with Concentus Musicus Wien, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conductor. Harnoncourt is one of the leaders of the “original instruments” movement, and he buffs up and shines Bach’s chestnuts with a fresh vision.

* “Bach Cantatas,” with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Chorus, Ton Koopman, conductor. This DVD includes performances of five of Bach’s church cantatas, including the famous Nos. 140 and 147 — with the chorus “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” — and his secular “Coffee Cantata,” which was essentially a singing commercial for the composer’s favorite coffeehouse.

Bottom line

The fact is, the music is so strong, so compelling, so moving — so graceful and so inevitable — that almost any performance will leave you in awe of the imagination and humanity of the grumpy little burger who wrote it.

It hardly matters if its the clever intertwining of voices in a Two-part Invention or a cantata in praise of a good cup of coffee or the cosmic agony of the final chorus of the St. Matthew Passion. graph

A former editor of mine created a little mind-game of an intellectual Cartesian co-ordinate system. Up and down its ordinate you map a person’s depth — how profoundly he or she can think and feel, and avoid cliche and generalization, with maybe Justin Bieber on one end and, say, Nelson Mandela near the other. And along its perpendicular abscissa you can map a person’s “width,” or how broad are his or her interests and competence.

There are people with great depth in a narrow band. They have a Ph.D. and know everything there is about the design of active site-directed irreversible enzyme inhibitors, but never heard of the infield fly rule. And there are those with a tiny dabs of knowledge in a very wide field — “Jack of all trades but master of none” — but very few, as my old boss pointed out, that score in both depth and width.

There is Shakespeare; there is Homer; there is Johann Sebastian Bach.

Alpha and Omega.