by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Nov. 3, 2003
Musicians who specialize in performing works of the deep past, from the Baroque, the Renaissance, or before, eventually have to face up to the impossibility of their task. The philosopher Lydia Goehr, in her book “The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works,” shows that the concept of a “work”—an infallible score to be scrupulously realized in performance—did not exist until the Romantic period. Before then, scores were less like papal writs than like cooking recipes, leaving crucial details up to the taste of the performers. Singers would adorn their lines according to their abilities and whims. Instrumentalists would fill out their parts with ornaments and other sonic curlicues. Composers often doubled as virtuosos, throwing out ideas in off-the-cuff improvisations. In this repertory, the modern ideal of the note-perfect performance, so prized in conservatories, automatically produces an inauthentic result. Play only the right notes, and you play them wrong.
If you really wanted to re-create the musical culture of Bach’s time, you would have to stop playing Bach altogether and concentrate on contemporary composers. Before 1800, there was no great reverence toward the musical past, and even a living giant such as Bach had approximately the glamour of a TV weatherman. The historian Tanya Kevorkian suggests that Bach’s cantatas were received with something less than universal devotion; while some members of the congregation followed closely, others chatted, milled about, or went out for a smoke. “Mein Gott, here goes Bach with his tortured counterpoint,” the typical burgher might have said. Centuries on, a work such as “Ich habe genug” causes audiences to fall silent with awe. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s new recording of the cantata, on Nonesuch, is beautiful enough to stop a war, if anyone thought to try. Were Baroque listeners uncultured idiots? Or did they have a healthier attitude toward music’s place in society? At about the time audiences began treating composers like gods, it would seem, the truly godlike composers began to disappear.
The most authentic performance is the most alive performance. I can’t favor John Eliot Gardiner’s meticulous reconstructions of the “St. Matthew Passion” over Otto Klemperer’s Brucknerian renovation; the latter has too much august beauty to be dismissed. It’s not what Bach had in mind, but you can imagine him saying, as Stravinsky said when he heard Bernstein’s over-the-top “Rite of Spring”: “Wow!” Still, there is much to be gained by studying the past and recovering its habits. The music has a better chance of staying alive if the performer uses an appropriate instrument and knows some of the oral tradition that went along with the score. We are luckiest when we get a performer at once learned and fervid; and it was a very lucky crowd that came to the Frick Collection earlier this month to hear the violinist Andrew Manze.
Manze is a balding, bespectacled Englishman of deceptively professorial appearance. He made his name with a series of recordings for the Harmonia Mundi label. The latest is a delightful all-Mozart disk, in which he manages to give some backbone and bite to the dinner-party anthem “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.” Manze is much in demand as a conductor, but at the Frick he showed up with only his 1783 Joseph Gagliano violin, playing solo works of Bach, Tartini, and Telemann. He commands an astonishing variety of colors, from eerie whisperings to guttural fortissimos, from pure-toned lyricism to a gritty attack one or two steps removed from bluegrass fiddling. A kind of live-action musicologist, he is able to marshal these sounds into a cogent narrative. His playing is at once spontaneously inventive and magisterially controlled.
First came Manze’s own arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. In some comments beforehand—the violinist likes to preface his performances with wry, donnish lectures, which makes his flair for the demonic all the more arresting—he alluded to musicological speculation that this most famous of organ works might have been originally composed for violin (perhaps by Bach, perhaps by someone else). Even if it wasn’t, Manze would have been within his rights, as a headstrong Baroque virtuoso, to make the appropriation. In this version, the opening unisons, which create the familiar Halloween melodrama on the organ, become silvery tendrils of sound, spreading out like cracks in ice. A musicological puzzle was temporarily solved: the Toccata and Fugue emerged as a striking new composition by Andrew Manze.
Bach’s Second Partita in D Minor is most definitely by Bach; Manze plays from a copy of the composer’s manuscript. Bach’s immaculate handwriting, Manze declared, leaves “very little guesswork” for the performer. Following along in the score, I wasn’t so sure. Bach gives no firm tempo indications, very few dynamic markings, little about style of expression. Manze had to flesh all this out, sometimes drawing on performance tradition and sometimes applying his own ideas. He accepts Helga Thoene’s theory that this partita, with its monumental chaconne, is a memorial for Bach’s wife, Maria Barbara. In a performance of unforgiving intensity, Manze transformed the partita into a five-act monodrama of grief, in which the turn toward D major halfway through sounded like a failed attempt to smile through tears (big double-stopped chords came haltingly and effortfully) and the last statement of the theme became an X-ray of a spent and vacant heart. I’ve never heard the music played with such raw feeling.
The Frick’s music room was the perfect space for Manze’s intimate assault. Seating a hundred and seventy-five, it resembles the sorts of rooms for which Bach wrote. The concert series at the Frick remains one of the best deals in New York: tickets are free, Joyce Bodig’s programming regularly buses in brilliant new talents, and something about the space guarantees a joy of connection. The trick is in figuring out the cloak-and-dagger ticketing system. Details can be found on the Frick’s Web site, although a high-speed connection will get you only so far. Requests must arrive by regular mail on the third Monday before each concert, preferably with a ducal seal attached.
A week after Manze visited the Frick, the Pomerium vocal ensemble gave a concert of fourteenth-century music at Cooper Union, in the East Village. Like the Frick, Cooper Union is routinely lit up by lively programs, which are in need of support. Pomerium’s program centered on songs and sacred pieces of Guillaume de Machaut, one of the first composers in history to have put an unmistakable personal stamp on their music. He wrote partly in the wake of the Black Death, and his music is almost deliriously inventive, as if he were trying to forget the world around him by making a new one on paper.
Alexander Blachly, the leader of Pomerium, has been involved with early music for decades, and his thinking has evolved and matured along with the rest of the movement. He told me in a phone conversation that back in the sixties early-music specialists were obsessed with the ideal of “staying true to the work”; performances were correct, chilly, studiously inexpressive. “It all came out sounding like Hindemith training exercises,” he confessed. Now Blachly aims for a more elastic approach, for more shapely and sensuous phrasing. His current ensemble—on this evening, four women and seven men, with high voices dominating—easily meets his demands. Plain lyric strains gave a human touch to even the most ornate, mathematical designs; vibrato-free, church-choir tones alternated with a more red-blooded, vernacular style. The singers delivered Machaut’s great “Notre Dame Mass” with the same ardor that they applied to secular, love-drenched pieces such as “Dis et sept, cinq,” “Je sui aussi,” and “Quant Theseus.”
As I listened, I got a sense of Machaut as a familiar intellectual type—the self-imprisoned man who hides his passion behind a panoply of masks. He wrote reams of poetry and music in praise of a young noblewoman named Peronelle d’Armentières, whom he seems to have romanced in his sixties. Peronelle, having thrown herself at Machaut out of adoration for his art, soon abandoned him for a man closer to her age and station. Somehow it’s all too perfectly awful to be true. Like Beethoven in his “Immortal Beloved” period, like the Thomas Mann of “Death in Venice,” Machaut may have locked his highest passion in a region of his mind. Performers must not only follow the notes but set the emotion free.
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