Does Bach Need 'Rescuing' from Period Instruments?

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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.

Guests:

  • 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.