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Casals, a Catalan cellist, famously discovered a copy of the sheet music to Bach’s then little-known cello suites in a Barcelona shop in 1890 at age 13. He called it “the great event” of his life, and from that point forward he lived with the music constantly. But he waited a dozen years after discovering the suites before performing them publicly. When he finally did so, he became one of Bach’s champions—the most important since Felix Mendelssohn prompted the first major Bach revival in 1829. Between 1901 and 1904, Casals brought the cello suites to Europe, North America and South America, fighting the prevailing belief that they were lifeless technical exercises rather than music intended for dedicated performance. Decades later, over the years 1936–39, he recorded the suites against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. Today, the recording sounds overly loose in terms of interpretation as well as, frankly, a little screechy. It does not display the disciplined fidelity to score or the perfect intonation of more recent recordings by János Starker, Mstislav Rostropovich or Yo-Yo Ma. But Casals’s recording was immensely influential in bringing Bach’s music to a wide audience and establishing its place at the center of the canon.
With Glenn Gould’s recording of the Goldberg Variations, Elie writes, “Bach became modern.” Gould was a young genius with a touch of Marlon Brando about his looks, who in 1955 made one of the landmark classical recordings of the twentieth century. It was a time of new advances in “high fidelity” technology, and Gould—more a recording artist at heart than a concertist—exploited the use of repeated takes and splicing to assemble the perfect record. “The freshness of Gould’s approach—thirty-eight and a half minutes; no repeats; no pedal, no rubato; no fidelity to older models”—and the unprecedented clarity in the lines written for each hand dazzled aficionados, and they also imparted to the music a spark and life that ensnared a new generation of listeners. In a section on the 1955 recording sessions, Elie recounts fascinating details, like the way Gould removed his shoes and requested a piece of carpeting so that his foot movements would not be audible on tape. In the ensuing years, Gould retreated into hypochondria and documentary filmmaking and developed bizarre habits like wearing gloves and winter clothes year-round. Yet this somehow renders his incredible moment in the sun even more poignant. He made a second recording of the Goldberg Variations in 1981, in a performance as introspective and wise as the 1955 sessions are dashing and confident.
Casals and Gould are ideal subjects with which to explore Reinventing Bach’s topic of recording technology and classical music, as both men forswore the concert hall for significant periods of their lives. Casals silenced his cello by refusing to perform in countries that recognized Spain’s fascist government, and Gould withdrew from recitals and concerts in order to concentrate on recording. Certainly it is the case that most people alive today never heard either man play in person, and yet we know them by their famous albums. Gould’s 1955 Goldbergs sound as lively as ever, and Casals’s cello suites, if somewhat less relevant to today’s listener, have informed the recordings that we do know.
In both cases, then, Elie is doubtless correct that the act of recording helped preserve and promote Bach’s music. But Casals and Gould are hardly representative cases. Most professional musicians, even virtuosos, spend their lives traveling and performing, and their days are harried and hectic because of it. Thus, it grates a bit when Elie reveals that during his thousand-and-one-day project, he attended very few performances of Bach’s music, noting that he did his listening “almost completely through recordings.” And several of the concerts that he does describe are actually a little suspect. At Christmastime in New York City, he observed notices for many traditional Bach performances, but the “event that drew me was a lunchtime poetry reading punctuated with organ music by Bach and other composers.” Another concert that Elie attended was a program of works not by Bach, but by a twentieth-century composer who used the Goldberg Variations as an influence. Elie reveals that it was the first time he could remember listening to music while doing nothing else, and his mind soon wandered to mundane daily affairs.
Making an argument for the centrality of Bach’s recordings is well and good, but its exponent should be someone who has also spent time experiencing the magic of Bach performed live. Elie is like a hermit who champions solitude without ever really knowing the pleasures of company. Thus the reader has little confidence in his final judgment that, for today’s classical music converts, music performed live “seems insubstantial and elusive.” This is a surprising conclusion, because Elie characterizes one Bach concert he did attend—a performance of the St. Matthew Passion—as “life extending.” (He fell asleep during the St. John Passion.) I love my recording of the Mass in B minor as well as anyone, but even though I can take it with me anywhere, when I listen to it I am not really there. It cannot compete with the live sound of the chorus and orchestra in full cry, or the spectacle of dozens of striving musicians attired in concert black. Nor can an iPod quite reproduce the light, running energy of a live Brandenburg concerto as the players perform standing, practically dancing, or the concentrated dedication it takes to bring off one of the partitas for solo violin. This is to say nothing of the fact that those who believe in the arts (especially arts that are struggling to find young new listeners) should patronize them and support hardworking musicians with their dollars, not merely with their words.
Bach recording has certainly had its extraordinary moments in the twentieth century, but so has Bach performance. One of them occurred quite recently: Elie mentions (but might have explored more closely) the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage undertaken by John Eliot Gardiner from 1999 to 2000. Gardiner and company performed 198 cantatas in fifty-nine concerts in Europe and the United States, at the points in the liturgical calendar for which they were composed. In this way, Gardiner renewed public interest in an overlooked body of Bach’s work, using the medium of live performance to remind us that, during Bach’s lifetime, many masterpieces were heard only once. Those concerts took place before Elie’s Bach journey began, so he could not have attended them. And to be fair, his enthusiasm for Bach’s music is infectious; even the greatest of composers needs champions in every generation. But Elie should make some time for the concert hall.