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Sorry, Ms. Hahn, Your Notes are All Too Good
Subjected to relentlessly repeating sounds, the human mind reflexively imposes a pattern on them. The clock’s tick-tick becomes the infinitely more interesting tick-tock, though even that improvement on absolute uniformity hardly makes for a full evening’s entertainment. This conversion of sameness to variety is completely arbitrary in application. With minimal mental trickery the pattern can be transformed from tick-tock to tock-tick, without the sound itself having in any way changed. Weak-strong becomes strong-weak by the mere flick of a switch in the brain of the listener.
Hierarchies of this sort are essential to music, especially that of the 18th-century. Much of Bach’s work is an unbroken succession of rapidly flowing notes. This surface regularity has led some detractors to call him the infernal sewing machine, the cogs and belts of his mind making perfect stitch after perfect stitch in the often-complex musical fabric of his music. Digital performance by unfeeling software not programmed to mimic, even if imperfectly, the convincing metrical relations and welcome inconsistency of human performance is hard to listen to: it sounds so close to real music, but in its unyielding perfection produces a kind of anti-music.
Synthesized performances of pieces such as Bach’s C Major Invention and his C Major Prelude from the First Book of the Well-Tempered Clavier provide good examples of the horrors of this sort of numbing mechanical consistency. Yet here, too, the mind will find a hierarchy; by noting the placement of Bach’s cadences and following the interplay of counterpoint and harmony, the listener will begin to hear stronger and weaker beats, and important moments in the structure of the piece, perhaps even within a given measure.
The ear is aggrieved whenever the computer cleaves to its precise course and blatantly disregards moments demanding rhetorical flexibility that would point out cadences by taking a more elastic approach to musical time. Still more fundamental damage to musical sense is done by a chronographic delivery of the quickest note values. The incessantly identical becomes a form of punishment.
This essential variety in moving from one note to the next was crucial to 18th-century musicians. The flutist Johann Joachim Quantz was one of the greatest musical pedagogues of that or any other century. A colleague of C.P. E. Bach in Berlin and a great admirer of the old man, Johann Sebastian, Quantz spent most of his career as the flute master of Frederick the Great, passing his evenings complimenting the Prussian monarch on his moving playing of Adagios, while turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the king’s notoriously faltering playing of the fast movements. Quantz addresses a central issue of making the notes on the page come to life in his celebrated treatise, On Playing the Flute published in Berlin in 1752: "Where it is possible, the principal notes must always be emphasized more than the passing ones.” Quantz calls these "good" and "bad" notes, and believed it vital to identify these and then to make the difference between them come across in performance. His rules are easy and intuitive: the first beat is the strongest; in the most common meter with four beats to the measure, the third beat is the second most important, then beat two and finally beat four. This hierarchy obtains in every bar, unless the composer has contrives to work against this expectation. The English term for eighth-notes gets it right with “quaver”, since these and other notes can do exactly that when played with alternating intensity, and even, suggests Quantz, duration. It seems that 18th-century players made sure things had "swing," though few modern musicians try this themselves when playing Bach. The lifeblood of these quickest notes is pumped by a finely tuned pulse. The subtle difference between good and bad notes brings life to 18th-century music.
To oversimplify, this finely calibrated approach to metrical hierarchy was largely lost over the course of the 19th-century as musicians turned their attention away from the immediate, refined differences between adjacent notes in favor of long phrases. The rational order of the bar was often obliterated by the obsession with the big gesture; the slight, but meaningful, movements of the salon were displaced by the outsized flourishes of grand opera.
To play 18th-century with Quantz’s concept of good and bad notes in mind is not a matter of trying to be "authentic" or recreate the sound Bach would have heard, though the concept was basic to his understanding of musical performance. Democratize the notes in the measure and you have the faceless masses marching by in lockstep; give them their proper place and they come to life in all their detailed finery. Egalitarianism is a bad idea in Bach’s music.
It is this unwitting leveling which ruins violinist Hillary Hahn’s latest release on the on Deutsche Grammophon: "Bach: A Violin and Voice." The concept behind the CD is Hahn’s and it is an excellent one: bring together arias from his Bach’s vast oeuvre of Cantatas that have obbligato violin parts. All violinists of Hahn’s caliber and standing must play Bach’s unaccompanied violin works, the touchstone of musical accomplishment at the instrument. But I suspect that, while this music is as beautiful as it is demanding, it always comes with a great sense of obligation. Though often very difficult, Bach’s arias for violin and voice are more immediately appealing, more ready to be held close rather than admired from afar. If I’ve got to abandon ship and make for that desert island, I don’t hesitate when I grab for the cantatas rather than the partitas and sonatas for unaccompanied violin.
However, attached to the music it contains, this recording falls victim to a fallacy: since Bach was a genius all of his notes were good ones. It’s just not so. The twelve tracks on the recording are book-ended by two arias from the St. Matthew Passion. The first is the strident Bass aria, Gebt mir meine Jesum wieder (“Give me back my Jesus”), which forcefully decries the capture of Jesus after his betrayal by Judas. The theme begins in the orchestral strings with two punched notes, later sung to the words “Gebt mir”: Bach sets these words as adjacent “good” notes, requiring equal and convincing emphasis. Conductor Alexander Liebreich and his Münch Chamber Orchestra set off at a brisk pace handled without the slightest difficulty by Hahn. The violin takes up the theme with kindred fervor before bolting off into a mini-concerto with furious scales und fervent arpeggios, as if giving full fury to the aria’s emotional, if purely rhetorical, defense of Jesus. Hahn plays this demanding show-piece with incredible precision, every note nailed exactly to its place. The facility alone is breathtaking. As Quantz acknowledged, the high speed runs cannot be broken down according to his rules of metrical hierarchy: they simply need to be ripped off with authority. I can’t imagine a more authoritative performance in this sense than Hahn’s. Eventually the music finds a more predictable logic for its argument on Jesus’s behalf, and becomes more regular, It is here that attention to weak and strong becomes increasingly important. But so intent on attaining the wrong kind perfection is Hahn’s playing that it saps the line of its vital energy. She is so good at each individual note, that the life is throttled out of this music. Give me back my bad notes!
Rather than tap the rich vein of good and bad notes, Hahn mines the fool’s gold of vibrato, warming up “important” notes, especially those coming at the top of lines. But here too, the quick-hitting tremolos are distracting and cloying. In Bach’s day vibrato was a special effect, an ornament to be deployed with a sense of discernment. That this decoration is now a ubiquitous element of modern violin playing is unfortunate and part of the same democratization of the musical surface decried above: the elegant figurine of 18th century now is churned out like mass-produced tchotchkes coming down the conveyor belt. None of this is to say that Hahn plays unmusically: her transcendent technical prowess and command of dynamic shading is matched by a forthright desire to express both something familiar and something new in this music. Every one of these arias collapses under expressive weight.
After Hahn makes her expressive intentions all–too-clearly out of the gate, baritone Matthias Goerne then stamps his way through vocal part, taking his cue from Hahn’s solo. It is harder to forgive him for his tub-thumping reading of the part since the scansion of the words would at least have helped in attending to metrical hierarchies. Gifted with a beautiful voice, he might as well be shouting which is rarely the way to convince someone. Because all the musicians give use about twice many “good” notes then the music holds, the aria seems twice as long as it really is.
The disc concludes with another aria from the St. Matthew Passion, Erbarme dich (Have mercy), transposed up from its original alto range for Christine Schäfer, the other singer on the album. This profound movement comes in the Passion after Peter’s has denied Jesus. The forgiveness being asked for is for the guilt of humankind: the Leipzig congregants believed that they were equally responsible for the crucifixion. That Bach captures this heart-wrenching prayer with a violin line demonstrates his profound understanding of its emotional possibilities. One of the great gifts and mysteries in all of Bach’s works, this aria begins with a very bad note: an upbeat. It should be timid, even frightened. In more concrete terms, it should be played lightly, since it leads to the “good” note that follows directly on the downbeat. Instead, Hahn gives it everything she’s got: strength and beauty of tone, the radiant heat of her lush vibrato. By investing this first note with such extraordinary, misplaced beauty, she kills the piece before it starts. Across this fondly conceived and brilliantly executed album countless other upbeats suffer a similar fate. Schäfer is only marginally less prone to elevating bad notes beyond their station in the this mercilessly “good” performance. For all her virtuosic brilliance and expressive power, Hahn failed to heed one of the most important lessons Quantz and Bach teach us: less is more.
David Yearsley teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org