Period Instruments and Bach

(Originally posted in February 2010)

Sometimes people ask me if I like any Bach performances on the modern instruments.  Somehow they expect me to say ‘no,’ but my answer is actually ‘yes,’ with an asterisk.

Those people who expected me to say ‘no’ might have heard me lightly criticize modern performances on some occasions.. I don’t deny I do that sometimes.  But when I did that, I must have had no expectation as to what I was going to hear.  When I hear the metal string sound from the high-tension turbo-charged modern violin with a continuous vibrato playing Bach, out of the blue, I may get a bit displeased.  But certainly that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate Bach performances on the modern instruments.

I like the sound of gut strings, indeed I do.  And I know many modern players admit that they too like the gut sound; just that they think gut strings are often less practical.  You have to keep metal-wound gut strings in a long tube (some new instrument cases don’t even accommodate gut tubes anymore).  They are too unstable when you don’t have the time to let your strings acclimate to the humidity.  Some say they can’t play as loud on gut as metal strings.  But the consequence of using metal strings is the lack of warmth when played without vibrato (I think I can prove this by using the audio spectrum analyzing software like Audio Xplorer; it shows that a gut string produces more overtones and distributes them more richly) —— we all are told to avoid playing on open strings, and to let the vibrato dictate the intensity and character of the tone.  But when you let the gut-strung instrument speak honestly with less tone-tampering from your left fingers (here the concept is ‘allowing’ the instrument to speak, not ‘forcing’ it to speak), the sound is heartwarmingly rich and sweet to me.  And in this case, the ‘shape’ of a note, executed naturally with your bow hand, would dictate the intensity and character of the tone.

The winds’ cases are simpler.  The sounds of baroque oboes, flutes and bassoons are just undeniably different from their modern counterparts’.  Also the baroque wind players are typically and hopefully more mindful of the shapes of the notes, and they are (thankfully) out of the curse of the constant vibrato, as we period string instrumentalists are.  I really like the way baroque winds sound in Bach.

So far I sound like I don’t appreciate Bach on the modern instruments… Now let me get to my point.

I do prefer the sound of the period instruments and stylistic execution of their players, but what makes you enjoy a performance does not necessarily depend on the sound itself.  I love it when my modern instrumentalist friends play Bach.  I love it when I hear kids play Bach.  I love it when a modern player comes to me and asks my thoughts on playing Bach.  I absolutely respect those modern players who give a lot of thoughts into playing Bach.  And when I hear the players’ respect for the composer in their performances, I’m smiling.  When I sense that they bring the right kind of hearts to the music, I’m ecstatic.  : )

…Sadly I have little patience with the professional modern players who don’t respect Bach’s works and their context and, also with period instrumentalists who rely too much on their musical intuitions.  Bach deserves more than that.

A quick postscript: I did say I like the sounds of the baroque instruments, but that isn’t the main reason why I study the baroque instruments and why I am going to organize my own professional period instrument ensemble to do Bach.  When I direct a Bach cantata, I want it to serve its purpose, and in order to make it work, we need the right tools for the job — and I think the baroque instruments are the right (and easier) tools to make it work.

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