Does Bach Need 'Rescuing' from Period Instruments?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

In recent months, symphony orchestras have returned to the music of J.S. Bach with a vengeance.

The New York Philharmonic is in the midst of a month-long Bach festival with the expressed goal of reclaiming the master's music for modern instruments. At the Philadelphia Orchestra, Bach's St. Matthew Passion and Brandenburg Concertos are on the calendar this spring. The orchestra also plans to re-record the Bach transcriptions of Leopold Stokowski – those sumptuous, technicolor arrangements that had been considered passé (if enjoyably so).

"There's been a weird phenomenon for a long time that has made it pretty rare to see Bach on symphony orchestra programs," said New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert in a recent video explaining the orchestra's project. He goes on to question the "exclusivity" of suggesting "there was one only one right way to play Bach."

All of this is a far cry from the period-instrument movement's expressed goals to rediscover how Baroque music might have sounded using original instruments and performance practices. For years, if not decades, period-instrument players had gained the upper hand by researching appropriate tempos, ornamentation and instruments. In this podcast, host Naomi Lewin asks three guests about this phenomenon.

"I think [orchestras] are panicking," said Monica Huggett, a leading baroque violinist and conductor. "In London, where I worked most of my career, the big orchestras stopped playing Bach because in the end, there was so much good historical performance that they really didn't need to do it any more and people really didn't want to hear it any more."

James Oestreich, the consulting classical music editor at the New York Times, sees things differently. "I wouldn't agree that the large orchestras are panicking," he said. "I think they've lost their balance to some extent. I think they've lost confidence in the repertory to some extent. To hold up the music scene in a world capital like London or New York and say this should set standards for who performs what, I don't think is fair."

Oestreich adds that the New York Philharmonic played lots of Bach in the 1990s, and the orchestra is "perhaps overselling" the novelty of its current festival.

Lewin also asks a prominent New York pianist whether she's trying to reclaim Bach for the modern instrument.

"I'm not doing anything unique by playing Bach on the piano," said the pianist Simone Dinnerstein. "I think that I just have more omnivorous tastes and think that Bach sounds very interesting and different when played in many different ways on many different instruments with modern orchestras, on authentic instruments."

Weigh in: Do you enjoy the sound of Bach played on modern or on period instruments? Please leave your comments below.


  • James Oestreich, the consulting classical music editor and a freelance writer for the New York Times.

  • Monica Huggett, a leading baroque violinist and conductor who teaches at Juilliard.

  • Simone Dinnerstein, a pianist who has made a number of Bach recordings. Her latest, called “Night,” with the singer-songwriter Tift Merritt, features a modern rendering of Bach.


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Comments [58]

Martin B. Brilliant from New Jersey, USA

Three questions come to mind about any performance of Bach: is it music? is is Bach? is it historically authentic?

If you like music as music, you can play Bach any way you like. There is no law against that. For some people, the most important thing is that you like it.

Suppose instead that you want it to be Bach. Bach sometimes didn't specify the instrument, or even the tempo. In that case, and maybe even if he did specify, then as long as you have the melody, the harmony, and the rhythm as he wrote it (and intended it to be read), it's Bach. Because that's all he wrote.

Maybe you like historic things: reading history, seeing historic artifacts, watching historical reenactments, and so on. Then you will want to hear Bach played on authentic instruments in authentic baroque style.

In my humble view, it's best to like everything. The fewer things you dislike, the happier you will be.

Sep. 11 2016 10:20 AM

What a great conversation.....

I have performed baroque music with period instruments and also with modern instruments.... happily, in all cases.

There is no right or wrong, only choices to be the best we can be for our audiences. Today, I sang some Schubert with a period fortepiano. Last week, the same with a modern piano and also a 1860s Broadwood. I enjoyed them all.

I think that the most important thing is to make music.

If we have the opportunity to play Liszt on a period Erard piano....great! If a modern Steinway is available.....why not?

Even in their own time, composers and musicians seized the moment, and made certain compromises. Chopin preferred the Pleyel French piano of his day, but happily played Broadwoods when he toured Britain. Leonard Bernstein preferred better English for his West Side Story recordings in '85, but used Carreras for his voice.....

A practical approach is best. No one has the money to have ten pianos while touring, each one best suited to the music one will perform, and tuned to the correct temperament and pitch.

Listening to Beethoven's own piano is a revelation. It has a different tone, volume, and temperament than modern pianos. It is an education to play and hear such an instrument, and we can all benefit when such an instrument, or close duplicate, is available. But, to say that Beethoven can only be played properly on such an instrument is just silly, because in his own time and area, his instrument was utterly unique.....his colleagues all used Viennese pianos.... his piano was a special gift shipped in from London.

We can thank period music fans (of all eras, not just baroque) for helping us better understand and appreciate the differences in style and instruments as music has evolved. It is really important.

And, we can thank modern fans for supporting modern practice, and for keeping a mind open to period practice.

It is good to learn, for all of us.

And, it is good to be practical.

Liszt often had a spare piano case he broke the Erard he was playing.... I doubt he was too picky about the second piano.

Mar. 22 2015 04:14 AM

There are some great comments here regarding this subject, but the people who are defending the use of only period instruments for Bach music are part of what's wrong with classical music and its future. These commenters are the exact elitism that drives people from classical music.

Young people are not fond of the period instruments, and I speak as one of them. They sound stuffy and exclusive. Actually, a harpsichord is just downright grating. I loathed Bach until I heard his works on modern instruments, and it was not until then I realized and appreciated the genius that is Bach.

Period instruments give classical music a bad name when it comes to new audiences. They make the music sound harsh and unpleasant.

I'm sure Bach would drive a car (or at the very least take public transportation) if he were alive in modern times. Just because something was done one way, doesn't mean you can't do it the new way too.

Also, I'm not saying there isn't a place for period instruments - there are people who enjoy those, and to them I say good for you. Enjoy what you love. But at the end of the day period instruments are a niche.

The biggest problem is classical as a radio format, where you are trying to put all these periods of music into one format. All sorts of styles, all kinds of sounds. It is like a rock station playing 1980s hair bands, with some early rock 'n roll, alongside modern alternative rock songs. That's like playing Def Leppard next to Mumford and Sons followed by Bill Haley & His Comets. Unfortunately classical has to play baroque era (often played on period instruments) next to romantic and modern pieces, followed by perhaps an opera or choral.

Painting classical with such a broad brush as a format is, in my opinion, how we have ended up with so many fragmented sectors of the genre, and why there are so many fierce disagreements over things, such as period instruments. If only we could have one station for classic & romantic, one for baroque, one for opera and vox, one for modern, one for film scores, and so on…

Nov. 20 2014 10:35 AM
Donald Bell from Seattle, Washington, USA

If you wish to hear what Bach actually wrote it can only happen on his period instruments. A modern piano can play the harpsichord notes, but so can a steel pan drum. Fun, but not Bach talking. Yes, you can put jam on your hot dog, but I hope you don't try it at a baseball game !

Jul. 24 2014 11:11 AM

I suspect that this Period Instruments business has some Political Correctness about it, like environmentalism...

What should matter is not what Bach had, but what he would have wanted to have. Probably not a brash French flute, but a healthy modern cello or violin?

We always see Beethoven portrayed with an angry expression- but to visualize him really mad imagine showing him a Steinway, then taking it away and, sanctimoniously, bringing back his period one.

Mar. 31 2014 08:20 AM
Andrea. from Reggio Emilia, Italy.

I tend to an absolute preference for "original" Instruments in Renaissance and Baroque Music, but i don't think they are mandatory for a good performance.

Also, because not everyone can afford buying ancient Instruments or copies of, find the correct way to convey a composer from the remote past's idea on modern Instruments is a necessity.

Mar. 14 2014 05:20 PM
Elizabeth Field from Falls Church VA

The question that is ignored is, why are we only discussing Bach? The reason he is the principal, if not sole, representative of a major musical period which boasted a myriad of wonderful composers, is because his brilliantly unique style of composition lends itself to being translated and interpreted into virtually any performance tradition and it ALWAYS maintains its magnificence. That is why his music survived as standard repertoire for almost three centuries. The fundamentals of his notation (rhythm and pitches) are so complete and ingenius, I would suggest you can feed his works into a computer, absent of human interpretation, and the result will still qualify as pleasing and will pass the test of basic musicality. Selected works of other great composers also possess this quality (ie, Handel, Vivaldi, Haydn, Mozart). However, there were hundreds of other towering composers whose fundamental notation is far more dependent on the unnotated performance traditions of their times resulting in their works not making it into the historical canon of "great" works and are not known to modern audiences. What this teaches us, is that it is not about the instruments we play on (and I am a period instrument performer) but it is learning to understand the greater depths of expression that can be discovered by the study of historical performance practice. Bach does indeed sound great played by a modern symphony orchestra. How does the music of Caldara, Lully or even Purcell sound played on modern piano or symphony orchestras with no regard to historical interpretation. These were all revered composers in their own time as much, if not more than Bach. If our symphonic and even computer versions of Bach sound great, the question to ask is what are we missing in those versions?

Dec. 27 2013 10:08 AM
Priyanka from 3182

Prefer Bach played on both - preferably on the organ and harpsichord.

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Sep. 04 2013 08:27 PM
Annie from Franklin Lakes, NJ

Bach's music comes through beautifully on any instrument of any period. I loved the Bach 360 days, but I didn't learn to appreciate counter-tenor parts in the choral music. Couldn't they afford a real alto?

Apr. 01 2013 09:26 AM
D. Liguori

Historically informed performances of Bach are far from the only "legitimate" ones. But the enterprise of attempting to recreate as closely as possible the sounds composers would have heard in their own lifetimes is a worthwhile one. Everyone shouldn't be doing it, but someone should. And as Ms. Dinnerstein points out, period performances are often very imaginative.

Without a doubt, Bach and Mozart would have written with relish for the modern piano or violin, but it would be different music. Less so with Beethoven who, in his later years, could only imagine what pianos of the time sounded like. Most likely, the modern piano is more what he had in mind for the Hammerklavier.

Mar. 28 2013 05:23 PM
Andrew B. from Lower Merion, PA

I have a major quibble with the first choice "Always: Bach's music should be played in a historically correct manner."

The question posed was about the era of instruments used, not the approach. I think it is the duty of every performer, regardless of instrument used, to try to divine the composer's intent by studying the specific piece of music in the context of the period and the composer's overall output. Only after doing that, can a performer make an informed choice to diverge from what might be a historically-accurate viewpoint.

But the question and this answer choice is not fair at all. Just because Bach is played on modern instruments does not mean that the performance is not historically informed or historically accurate. For example, many performers will attempt to get a "period" sound/style out of a modern keyboard (Coming to mind: Dubrovka Tomsic, Wolfgang Rubsam). They will use historically accurate ornamentation, a different touch, and no sustaining pedal. While these performers may be using modern instruments, their performance is still to a large degree if not historically accurate, then at least very historically informed.

Stokowski's Bach transcriptions are at the other end of the spectrum.

In fact, I think it is possible to argue that the use of modern instruments by a highly trained performer could yield a more historically-accurate performance in a case where certain dynamic range or other sounds features weren't available on prior instruments but are clearly the intent of the composer. I think this is very much the case with the music of Scarlatti, Mozart, Beethoven and some other early romantics, not so much Bach.

Very glad to see that the overwhelming majority is open-minded to hearing Bach on different instruments. Otherwise,

--if you were a purist, you would miss out on Bach recordings of say Glenn Gould, Vladimir Feltsman, Sviatoslav Richter, Murray Perahia, Andras Schiff, Arthur Grumiaux, Hilary Hahn, Julia Fischer, Heinrich Schiff, Emanuel Pahud, the Canadian Brass, Maurice Andre, etc.

--if you were a modernist, you would pass over Wanda Landowska, Andrew Manze, Christopher Hogwood, Ton Koopman, Monica Huggett, Anner Bylsma, etc.

If you took either position, you'd be missing out on a lot of great performances, and I'd be very sorry for you.

Mar. 28 2013 03:21 PM
Daniel Polowetzky from NYC

Although possibly a non sequitur, the quality of the engineering and recording also determines which recordings I enjoy and purchase. I favor Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert, for example, on period instruments, because the recordings are well produced.

Performances of similar quality, badly recorded, would waste my time and money. In the end, how I will spend my $20.00 depends on multiple factors.

Mar. 28 2013 11:14 AM
Constantine from New York

To add another wrinkle to the question (hope you don't mind wrinkled questions), it is of course perfectly possible for a "wrong" performance to be musically compelling, just as it is possible for a "correct" performance to be dull (and vice versa, of course). I've heard some deliberately and shamelessly anachronistic performances that worked beautifully.

Mar. 27 2013 10:37 PM

Andrew B's incisive summary of the sensible center in period-vs-modern [posted Mar. 22 2013 01:44 PM] would do well as the last word on this topic, but I will try to add a little.

I listen mostly to HIPP performances and am grateful to the HIPP movement for rescuing Bach from muddy solemnity by restoring clarity and brisk tempos. But it is historically UNinformed to presume that Bach preferred the natural trumpet over the valved trumpet, the harpsichord over the modern piano, and so on. Bach and his contemporaries never had the opportunity to form such preferences. They wrote for the instruments available to them.

Anybody who wants to play baroque music should be aware of baroque practices and of any differences between baroque instruments and whatever is at hand. Awareness of what has happened later may ALSO be helpful in working up a performance that moves a modern audience.

Mar. 27 2013 09:35 PM

Responding to Mr. McGowan. While I agree that stylistic interpretation is paramount in the performance, there is quite a good deal of variation in what might be considered "correct" performance of things like dotting. It is just as stylistically inappropriate to double-dot every single dotted rhythm as to never double-dot. The character and "affect" of the piece, whether it is in a "French" style or an "Italian" style, whether there is text involved all contribute to the interpretation of a dotted rhythm. Read what Reinhard Goebbels had to say when he re-recorded the Ouvertures. Just as no two eighth-notes are equal, no two dots are equal!

Mar. 27 2013 05:40 PM
Neil McGowan from Moscow, Russia

Although I would personally prefer a performance on historically appropriate instruments, this is a long, long way from the only, or even principle concern.

What goes wrong when uninformed non-specialists perform Bach (on whatever instruments) is the STYLISTIC INTERPRETATION.

For example, a French Overture (all of Bach's French Suites begin with one) should be rhythmically interpreted differently. The dotted notes should be double-dotted. Lines of equal quavers (eighth-notes) are supposed to be disbalanced (the C18th term was 'inegales', or 'uneven') so that the first and third of a group of four become extended, and the second and fourth are shortened. Not enough to become triplets - it's a very subtle difference.

The point being that people who do not habitually play Bach - as players of historical instruments do - rarely, if ever, know this information AT ALL. And so they play Bach the way they play Borodin or Brahms... which is completely wrong.

We KNOW it is wrong, because JS Bach's own son, CPE Bach, wrote a MASSIVE manual about the correct performance of music in his time, in which he explained these issues in great detail.

We KNOW it is wrong, from period description. For example, when Handel went to Italy, he was offered a chance to write some new music for a rich aristocrat who was Corelli's patron. Young Handel realised the awful mistake it would be to present Italian music alongside Corelli's music - an ugly social scene. So instead he wrote a French suite, in a different style, to avoid setting himself against Europe's leading composer of that generation. But when the Italian musicans came to rehearse Handel's Italian music - they couldn't play it. Handel - never a patient man! - grew irate. Finally he seized the concertmaster's violin, and played over the opening of the piece, with the correct French bowing and phrasing. "NOW do you see?" said Handel. Later he must have realised he'd been rude to the Leader, and asked if he planned staying to listen to Corelli? "Yes, I stay. Corelli - it is me. I am Corelli." the violinist replied.

The point being that even in the era of Bach and Handel, it was entirely possible for the most highly-qualified players NOT TO KNOW HOW TO PLAY the written dots, BECAUSE CORRECT STYLISTIC PLAYING required familiarity which a complex set of unwritten rules.

Yet over and above this - Baroque instruments make different sounds, with different volumes. Bach paired a recorder against a trumpet and a violin in his Brandenburg concertos. I recently saw a self-proclaimed 'expert' say that Bach was a moron, the combination doesn't work, and the only way out is for the trumpeter to 'blast the recorder away".


Mar. 27 2013 11:01 AM

I love the sound of Bach when played on "period" instruments. I hate, though, the polarization that comes with this territory.

First, those who dismiss "original instrument" Bach and assume that Bach would have liked to hear his music played on modern pianos and with a modern symphony orchestra are merely imposing their personal tastes onto the mind of a genius who lived in a completely different sound world. If "more modern" is better, than why not synthesizers with electric guitar and bass, with singers on auto tune? What many of us "HIPP" (historically informed performance practice) devotees dislike in the way Bach was played by orchestras and soloists throughout the first two-thirds of the 20th Century was that it imposed a 19th-Century stylistic approach to the music of an 18th-Century composer; not just in terms of instruments used, but in terms of phrasing, articulation, ornamentation, and tempo (and even pitch). In the same way that stripping away layers of paint and "improvements" to old buildings brought us an appreciation of earlier styles, those who sought a more historically-informed approach to music performance tried to capture the context that made Bach's music so exciting and rich (especially the improvisatory character of much of his work--after all, much of his music contains mere hints as to its composer's intentions, with respect to ornaments and figured bass).

At the same time, it is ludicrous to suggest that one can recreate a Bach performance so that it is a 100%-to-the-letter reproduction of its original performance, as if it had been captured on video. Much of Bach's music was written for the moment, and it might puzzle Bach, if he were to time-travel to our present day, that we are performing his music at all! The original context of many of his works are specific to a particular occasion, such as a church service, that many would hardly attend today. It is important to remember, also, that when Bach recycled music, he always changed something (such as when he transcribed a concerto for one instrument to another) and didn't simply repeat what he had done before. Also, the circumstances of many of the performances of his works (such as the weekly cantatas) were probably quite haphazard--a cantata written on a Monday for next Sunday would probably not be copied out for the performing musicians until Thursday or Friday, leaving little time for rehearsal. It is easy to imagine that the performance quality of some of Bach's works would not pass muster with today's audiences.

So let's hear it for the "original instrument" pioneers as well as the modern symphony orchestras who are coming back to Bach but with new ears and eyes supplied by their historically-informed colleagues.

Mar. 26 2013 02:04 PM

If Bach had had indoor plumbing, he would have used it. Even a bicycle instead of walking to Lüneburg. But it is intriguing to hear original instruments "once in a while."

Mar. 26 2013 12:52 PM
Mike Duncan from Canada

Here's my 2 cents....
If you were able to perfect time travel and could bring Bach to our time and then showed him a modern symphony orchestra, what do you think he would say? I'm betting that he would just laugh at "period performance" groups and wonder why they weren't playing his music with the big band?
And honestly, with so many thin, out of tune period instrument groups striving for "authentic" performances, how can you tell who is right? Music is a sensual art form and to have it performed exclusively on such thread bare instrumental forces reduces Bach's intentions to mere impotent mewlings.

Mar. 26 2013 04:56 AM

Period -instrument players especially in reference to Bach can often be equated with hot air .

Mar. 25 2013 11:30 PM

I prefer Bach on period instruments, but enjoy him (as he likely would have himself) in any form.

Mar. 25 2013 08:17 PM
Dan Sheffield from Ilion, NY

My own thought is that Bach should be primarily performed on period instruments, but at the same time, there should never be a totalitarian elitest view against large-scale orchestral attempts either. As the article suggested, many came to appreciate Bach through Stokowski's orchestrations (think "Fantasia"). My own son did. It seems that these things can be a bit cyclic although I suspect that we'll never get away from the entrenched norm of "authenticity" in place since at least the 1970's such as Christopher Hogwood's Academy of Ancient Music, etc.
I only discovered Debussy through my older brother's mid-1970's LP of analog synthesizer interpretations by Isao Tomita.... hardly an example of purism and orthodoxy. And I return to that album often and don't have a single qualm that it's not played on an Erard piano from the late 1800's.
"Better" and "appropriate" to categorize period instrument performances should never ever mean "always".

Mar. 25 2013 04:12 PM
Tim22 from NYC

I think it's great that the "period performance" movement has gotten so many fans, and has gotten people thinking about performance practice in serious, scholarly ways. It is an exciting trend and it's only getting more popular.

I think it's also great that orchestras and choirs still perform Bach with big ensembles in ways that people have gotten used to. Remember that "performance practice" is just as valid a concept if you're talking about the 1850s or 1950s as the 1750s. There's nothing wrong with enjoying the St. Matthew Passion with 40 instruments and 60 singers. I don't doubt that if Bach could have afforded that many musicians he would have had a go at it too.

The "passe" way of performing Bach is not a threat to period performance but I wonder if the opposite is the case. Proponents of "authentic" performance can be so judgmental about "standard" performances. I have personally heard well-known conductors use words like "ridiculous" and "pathetic" to describe Bach performances done by standard ensembles. The same judgmental attitude is often applied to choirs singing renaissance music with anything other than one voice per part.

There is a long tradition of music without explicit performing instructions being played in a variety of ways. If an ensemble can tackle this music sensitively with large performing forces, more power to them.

Mar. 25 2013 03:26 PM

Bach's music transcends the medium. Even though I prefer Bach's music (and baroque music in general) performed on period instruments and according to historically informed practices, I also enjoy a good performance of Bach's music by a modern orchestra or a modern solo instrument (I grew up listening to J.P. Rampal, Pierre Pierlot, Heinz Holliger, Karl Richter, I Musici, when the period instrument movement did not exist). I must, however, draw a line when it comes to replacing the harpsichord with the piano, either as as solo instrument or in an orchestra. The harpsichord is NOT an imperfect piano: it is a completely different instrument and musically, historically and culturally it is just more suitable than the piano for the performance of Bach's music and in general of music of the baroque era. The assumption by some people that Bach would have liked his works performed on a piano is arbitrary. When Bach composed his works for keyboard, he most certainly had a harpsichord in mind, not a piano, which did not yet exist. In fact, historians report that Bach had the opportunity to test some early pianos and that he did not show any enthusiasm for them. I have similar antipathy for the replacement of recorders with transverse flutes and of viola da gambas with cellos. Our modern ears must adapt to the the way certain music was originally conceived, not the other way around.

Mar. 25 2013 03:23 PM
Anziano from Brooklyn, NY

There is nothing I enjoy more than comparing different interpretations of a musical work. I must have listened to Bach's Mass in B Minor dozens of times, and while theoretically only one approach (the closest to what Bach himself had imagined) is correct, I doubt that the aesthetics of art have much to do with such "laws." The Mass is gorgeous in over-the-top, no-holds-barred assault by Jochum or Karajan, and becomes pure music, perhaps at some cost to its message; and it is strikingly effective as a message in the stark version of Parrott - why not enjoy them both?
As for WQXR playing every ounce of Bach without respite, I must agree with Peter Feldman, although I would not use his language. I love Bach and I hang on for dear life to WQXR - the last classical station standing in NYC - but the program is overwhelming. It was not a good idea. Should have taken a cue from "Mostly Mozart," guys. "Mostly" - not "only." Besides, dredging out every little bit a composer has ever created is no guarantee of quality, which should come first. Every genius has authored something he/she would probably not even want to hear played if alive. Bach is no exception.

Mar. 25 2013 02:56 PM
Peter Feldman from New York City

It does not matter period or modern instruments, playing Bach music continuously 24 hours for 10 days is very boring and very STUPID from WQXR because listeners will move to other radio stations.

Mar. 24 2013 07:46 PM

I've always loved those lavish Bach orchestral transcriptions of Stokowski and Ormandy and speaking of transcriptions, over the years have played many fine arrangements for concert band as well. As a non-keyboard musician, the concert band is a wonderful venue for introducing Bach to young minds who may never have the opportunity otherwise to experience the intricacies and complexities of the composer.

Mar. 24 2013 07:38 PM

Personally, I have always loved to hear Bach performed on period instruments. But limit performances of his music to period instruments? No way. His music transcends time and performance boundaries. After more than 3 centuries, his music still has something to say. Every time I hear it, play it (I'm an organist), or sing it, I find something new.

Limiting Bach performances to period instruments would be relegating his legacy to antique/museum status. When his music was performed in his day, it was on "contemporary instruments of that time. Music in his day was played on the instruments available. What's wrong with applying that concept to the instruments available now? I can't, say, refuse to play a Bach prelude and fugue on a Hammond organ, if that's what's available to me.

And then we'd have to turn our "Bachs" on playing his music on the piano, rather than the clavichord. And the implications are far reaching. For the sake of being true to his time, we'd have to get rid of women singing in the choir, and -- Lord help us! -- have to castrate adolescent boys. So let's stick with the mix that provides such a wonderful musical buffet: old and new. I think J.S. would want it that way.

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Mar. 24 2013 12:24 PM
Daniel Polowetzky from NYC

I think the period instrument versus modern instrument question should be cast not in terms of chronology but in terms of instrument design.

A Stradivarius made in 1704 is considered a modern instrument because of its design whereas another instrument made at the same time, of a different design, is considered "period".

What to make of a performance of Bach violin concertos played on a 1704 Stradivarius, The Sleeping Beauty, with little vibrato as occurred at Avery Fisher Hall this evening featuring Isabelle Faust?

Mar. 23 2013 11:12 PM
Ken Laufer from New York City

Bach is always the greatest....played on period or modern instruments. But I find it interesting to think that we really cannot know how fast they took things then..the metronome had not been invented yet. What really was "Allegro", etc. etc. in Bach's day? When you hear a very fast tempo, is it 21st century Bach? Or did they play it that fast back then? We'll never know!

Mar. 23 2013 09:29 PM
Jo from Bowery

I also found the "Always" played on period instruments a bit harsh for the way I feel about any Baroque music played on the instruments for which it was written. I generally feel that Bach is unnaturally raised above & separated from his contemporaries, many of whose music is equally fantastic, ground-breaking etc and who don't get the same broad attention. I think it is cavalier to just say that it doesn't matter what instruments Early Music is played on. I don't think ALL period performances are great - you have to have great musicians playing it, who really understand the spirit of the composer & his times(very few women, unfortunately). For some reason I do feel that the Goldberg Variations are an exception, I think partially for the brilliance of Glenn Gould and now Ms. Dinnerstein. However, I would really ask the radio programmers and their audience to consider the overall sound quality of first-rate period performances, and limit modern performances to a discrete area.
I started listening to Early Music at the time of its 2nd 20th Century revival around 1960. It was such a revelation to hear the period instrument performances of the Krainis & Waverly Consorts and of course NY Pro Musica, that it spoilied me for any attempts that players of modern instruments make, to interpret the music. And now we have the likes of Jordi Savaal, Fabio Biondi & William Christie to send us soaring with the magnificent catalogue of gems !
Viva Bach, but also Viva Handel, Rameau, Couperin, the Scarlatti's and so many others! Happy Listening all, when we have 10 days of Early Music on the air.

Mar. 23 2013 05:23 PM
George Fernandez from Warwick, NY

I think there is a place for both types of performances, or even all, including transferring to other instruments.

If you want to hear a performance that approximates how it sounded back then -- period instruments. If you want to hear performances that take advantage of more modern and capable instruments or even other modes -- modern instruments. I don't think the Grandfather would mind. To think so, disavows the possibility that he would be excited about new and more capable or different instruments. I'm sure there are examples of his appreciating innovations of his times. The WTC is one.

Mar. 23 2013 12:47 PM
Max from US

I enjoy Bach period, whether played on period instruments or not. Some things are lost to history forever. Better Bach than no Bach. Besides, what about Shakespeare's english? If the exact accent of his english were known precisely and spoken today in an effort to be "authentic", would audiences understand him?

Mar. 22 2013 08:20 PM
Robert St.Onge from Cochiti Lake,NM

If the performers know why they are playing the notes, adding ornamentation, using rubato, etc.,then the performance will be musical. If they are just playing notes because that's what written on the page, adding ornamentation because someone says so,using (or not using) rubato, etc., then the performance will be "sound and fury signifying nothing." That is the only rule for performing anything!

Mar. 22 2013 05:44 PM
Frank Benedict from Madison NJ

Based on Mozart's comments on the orchestras of his time, playing his music in the historically accurate manner would require that the musicians play out of tune.

Mar. 22 2013 05:23 PM
Victor from Oldwick, New Jersey

The comments already received have been great reading. Having had experience with both baroque and modern-instrument performances, I enjoy both, but prefer the flexibility and sonorousness of the modern strings. I would not want a piano instead of the harpsichord continuo or the organ. Modern performances of the B minor usually have a little of both. Listening to Bach on almost any instrument is a wonderful experience. I just played for myself the Guarneri's recording of the Art of the Fugue, for example. Bach didn't compose it with a string quartet in mind, but it works magnificently.

Mar. 22 2013 05:14 PM
Thomas Bias from Flanders, NJ

Bach himself would NOT have favored playing his music only on "period instruments." He was an innovator: he invented the "well-tempered clavier"—a way of tuning the keyboard instrument so that it could be played in any key and not need re-tuning from one key to another. During his lifetime the houses of Stradivari and Guarneri were re-inventing stringed instruments in Cremona. Near the end of his life, Bach played a command recital in Berlin for King Frederick the Great on a keyboard instrument that could play soft and loud depending on the player's touch: the newly-invented pianoforte. Music changed a great deal during Bach's lifetime, and musically Bach was often quite conservative—certainly his sons thought so! But that did not apply to the instruments he played. That being said, I love the sound of a harpsichord, a tracker organ, a gut-stringed violin, and a good countertenor. To everything there is a season...

Mar. 22 2013 04:31 PM
Richard of Roosevelt Island from New York, NY

It certainly was historic practice to play music on anything that was at hand. I can't imagine Bach objecting to his music being played and enjoyed on the instruments of today.

Mar. 22 2013 03:00 PM
Andrew B. from Lower Merion, PA

Very glad to see that the overwhelming majority is open-minded to hearing Bach on different instruments. Otherwise,

--if you were a purist, you would miss out on Bach recordings of say Glenn Gould, Vladimir Feltsman, Sviatoslav Richter, Murray Perahia, Andras Schiff, Arthur Grumiaux, Hilary Hahn, Julia Fischer, Heinrich Schiff, Emanuel Pahud, etc.

--if you were a modernist, you would pass over Wanda Landowska, Andrew Manze, Christopher Hogwood, Ton Koopman, Monica Huggett, Anner Bylsma, etc.

If you took either position, you'd be missing out on a lot of great performances, and I'd be very sorry for you.

Mar. 22 2013 01:44 PM
Andrew B. from Lower Merion, PA

I have a major quibble with the first choice "Always: Bach's music should be played in a historically correct manner."

The question posed was about the era of instruments used, not the approach. I think it is the duty of every performer, regardless of instrument used, to try to divine the composer's intent by studying the specific piece of music in the context of the period and the composer's overall output. Only after doing that, can a performer make an informed choice to diverge from what might be a historically-accurate viewpoint.

But the question and this answer choice is not fair at all. Just because Bach is played on modern instruments does not mean that the performance is not historically informed or historically accurate. For example, many performers will attempt to get a "period" sound/style out of a modern keyboard (Coming to mind: Dubrovka Tomsic, Wolfgang Rubsam). They will use historically accurate ornamentation, a different touch, and no sustaining pedal. While these performers may be using modern instruments, their performance is still to a large degree if not historically accurate, then at least very historically informed.

Stokowski's Bach transcriptions are at the other end of the spectrum.

In fact, I think it is possible to argue that the use of modern instruments by a highly trained performer could yield a more historically-accurate performance in a case where certain dynamic range or other sounds features weren't available on prior instruments but are clearly the intent of the composer. I think this is very much the case with the music of Scarlatti, Mozart, Beethoven and some other early romantics, not so much Bach.

Mar. 22 2013 01:32 PM
Nedra Gillette

Simone Dinnerstein has made Bach come alive for me as no other pianist ever has. While I appreciate performances on period instruments, the beauty of her work at the piano is far more exciting for me. Maybe that's because of the 20 years I spent at the keyboard earlier in my life, but her renditions always make me stop what I'm doing just for the thrill of listening. Thanks for sharing her recordings with increasing frequency!

Mar. 22 2013 12:08 PM
Greg Wates from NY, Bronx for 30 years

The problem with performing musicians is that they are not creative. They live on the past and make their money on the past. They are like rabbits that breed each other until there are too many of them. I think this entire question is stupid and the performance has to be musical. After listening to 360 some musicians play the violin and not Bach, they play the piano and make it into a march and do not play Bach. Bach is music not an instrument.

The modern music community is so full of it I cannot believe what is going on.

Greg Henry Waters
Composer a real creative artist.

Mar. 22 2013 11:22 AM
Mona Good Waitzman from Hicksville, NY

It is not the instrument that imbues a performance with life, it is the musician. My husband, the flutist Daniel Waitzman, is a master of both modern and "authentic" instruments; but the most significant thing he has expressed to me is that a musician must think of himself as an equal collaborator with the composer in the realization of a piece. It is the responsibility of the true musician to bring to bear his own musical intuition, artistry, imagination, and taste. Old style and modern instruments each have their own qualities, limitations, and advantages. Bach's music, having largely a spiritual intent, was composed, as Daniel has expressed it, "for the ear of God", or put otherwise, "for the perfect listener". This naturally leads to an ideal of perfection. String players, inasmuch as their instruments, whether modern or ancient, allow full control of pitch and dynamics, will have a different view than flutists, for whom the old instruments are woefully deficient in being able to play in tune or with a full range of dynamics. If a phrase builds to a crescendo and the note at the peak can only be produced as a soft and muffled tone and maybe a little sharp, the intent of the composer is not well served. There occur prominent passages in the music of Bach that are inaudible on the baroque flute. Such passages are found constantly in the music of Bach, and in that of his contemporaries as well; and the deficiencies of the baroque flute were widely recognized even in Bach's day. While the color of the sound of a baroque flute is appealing, so is that of a modern flute. Surely Bach would have appreciated a well-tempered flute, on which every note could be played according to the dynamic levels implied by the music itself, rather than according to a rigid pattern of timbre and volume imposed by the lack of a dedicated tone-hole for every note of the scale. Daniel has written extensively and eloquently about this topic. Listeners may find most interesting his recently-published Amazon Kindle book, entitled Up from Authenticity, or How I Learned to Love the Metal Flute, here:

Mar. 22 2013 10:05 AM

Ed from Kissimmee.

Much of the orchestral pieces work "okay", however I draw the line on harpsichord being played on the piano. They only resemble each other in thar they both have a keyboard. Ditto accompanying with/ a piano. I also don't like listening to the organization works on a too romantic instruments.

Mar. 21 2013 09:52 PM
Frank Lewellin from Grammercy

I don't mind Bach on modern instruments but if I hear Gesualdo or Palestrina or another Renaissance composer played by an orchestra, I'd be less convinced. The more peripheral the repertoire the more care is needed in how you preserve it and bring it to life. Even Monteverdi needs some period practice.

Mar. 21 2013 07:42 PM

I love the historical instruments for the sharpness and clarity of the sound, and the sense of echoes in a beautiful space. Or an even better comparison, like Aurora Borealis on a dark, cold night. But Bach is great no matter what the instruments. I would actually be interested in hearing modern music written for period instruments because the sound is so interesting.

Mar. 21 2013 07:08 PM
L. Lubin from Fort Lee, NJ

I'll take my Bach any way I can it.

I grew up with big-orchestra baroque. I grooved on "Switched On Bach" as a teen. I had the first 'original instrument' Brandenburgs (Leonhardt/Collegium Aureum. I mellowed out to Jacques Lussier's jazz arrangements. I've even boogied to steel drum Bach on a Caribbean beach.
Loved them all.

I've worked with musicologists specializing in period practice, few of whom agreed about much. That was during the first growth spurt of the period practice movement in the 90s. (There were even a few performers who played as badly as they could stand to, thinking musicians 'back then' didn't play as well as we do now. Those I could do without.)

Sure, its interesting to hear the music as much the way as Bach heard it as possible. But JSB was an opportunist: he adapted his music to whatever instruments were at hand. I see, or rather hear, no reason why we shouldn't do the same.

Mar. 21 2013 04:57 PM
Andrew from

As a huge fan of historically-informed ensembles, I think it's helpful to not think of them as recapturing how the music did/should sound, but simply adding another approach to this great composer's music. As Ms. Dinnerstein points out in the discussion, it's more a matter of their energy than their scholarship. Historically-informed approaches should be one of many approaches to the music, which may or may not be to everyone's taste, but wouldn't we rather have options?

Mar. 21 2013 04:13 PM
Pat from Franklin Square, long Island

Yeah, Michael--a nice, balanced point of view! Personally, I like Bach played period instruments because the structure of the music and relationships of the parts can be so clearly articulated. That said, great performances on modern instruments are also wonderfully satisfying and I agree that Bach himself would probably have no real problem with transcriptions and interpretations. Anyway, when it's Bach what's not to like? Kudos to WQXR--the music here is always terrific but for the next 10 days I think i've gone to heaven!

Mar. 21 2013 04:10 PM
Herman Joseph

It depends on the performer. I prefer performers who bring expressiveness and intensity to baroque music without undue distortions but have authority. For instance I can listen to Malcolm, Valenti, Landowska and Tureck with equal enjoyment. --- Of the modern Bach interpreters Schiff, Perahia Hewitt and Dinnerstein.---- The same goes for composers like Scarlatti and Soler==it depends who is playing -I have the complete Scarlatti sonatas on harpsichord but Tipo on the piano for me is sensational --that does not negate the harpsichordists--Landowska orchestrates baroque keyboard music on her harpsichord. It is very exciting to hear her play Scarlatti, Bach, Handel and Haydn --both piano and harpsichord. However many dismiss Landowska and they are throwing away a musical creative mind.

Mar. 21 2013 12:27 PM
Bernie from UWS

I think @Bruce is being a little harsh. The period instrumentalists are trying to get closer to how composers of the baroque period heard music. They had different standards of beauty back then. The best period groups today know how to take the old period approach and inject some fire into it with faster tempos, more intensity, etc. That to me is the best of both worlds.

Listening to Dinnerstein, she seems awfully confident about how she wants to play Bach, and never mind what the historical research says. Oh well, everyone is entitled their style. Let the record-buyers decide!!

Mar. 21 2013 07:06 AM

I agree for both. J.S. Bach loved arranging his music for so many different ensembles. The types and even amount of instruments was nowhere near as important to him as the counterpoint and harmony in the notes he wrote down. Period instruments are wonderful for that traditional Baroque sound, but modern instruments are also wonderful and really work well - especially for Bach's music (who was practically a Romantic himself!). As long as it is done right, with the proper amount of expression and musical phrasing - then I'm sure Bach would love it!

P.S. (I've heard plenty of modern AND period recordings that don't do Bach's Music justice)

Mar. 21 2013 12:14 AM

While I usually agree with Mr. Kamsler's position, if a period instrument performance is good and interesting, I can listen to it with great enjoyment. But I find some period instrument partisans to have a kind of goose-stepping mentality about 'authentic performance practice' that drove me away from an appreciating of Bach and his contemporaries that haunts me to this day. If an orchestra wants to really cause an uproar, though, why not program an entire evening of Bach transcriptions by Elgar, Respighi, Holst, Schoenberg, etc. I'd bet the concert hall would be packed to overflowing with enthusiastic and supportive, chief among them.

Mar. 20 2013 05:16 PM
Constantine from New York

I of course only wanted that to go through once. Will the powers that be please delete one of them (and this one)? Thanks.

Mar. 20 2013 04:43 PM
Constantine from New York

I don't think period instruments is the only way to go, but it should certainly remain a way. What bothers me is that there seem to be those in both camps who are bound and determined to stamp out the other.

Mar. 20 2013 04:35 PM
Bruce Kamsler from Chicago

Hurrah for the orchestras reclaiming Bach! Way too many of the so-called period instrument performances are just RELENTLESS, VULGAR, OBNOXIOUS and BAD. May the period instruments be laid to rest in glass musuem cases where they belong. May the music of Bach enjoy its rightful place in orchestras, and for that matter, I prefer Bach on the piano and not some tinny sounded harpischord.

Mar. 20 2013 03:17 PM

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