Günther Ramin (1951): More than worth our time to look back, listen and … enjoy!
Bach Cantates BWV 36 + 57 :
Thomanerchor / Gewandhaus Orchestra
Today’s recording leads us back to Leipzig early 1950’s, where the by then Thomas Cantor Günter Ramin worked on the recording of the cantatas of his famous predecessor Johann Sebastian Bach.
Now, before I give you some context of Günter Ramin’s life, let me try to summarize in two words why these recordings are worth your time and why we still would want to listen to them today. Let me start by honestly saying to you that Ramin to me only was a very far distanced name before I dived into the lives of Karl Richter and Helmut Walcha, two great musicians that I only discovered when listening again to vinyl discs and who were Ramin’s students.
So we are here in the generation so to say before Richter and Straube, however Karl Richter performs some of the harpsichord accompaniments in these recordings. So why are they important to listen to.
Some echos -in tempo choice- of Bach’s playing?
Well, because, once you’ve overcome your initial shock on some tempi that are considerable slower than you might have been used to hear produce by many contemporary baroque orchestras, listen to the recording again with the idea that there is a very good chance that those Ramin tempi might in fact be very close to what originally is meant by Bach.
Keep in mind this has been recorded 70 years ago! And you and I have changed
Now, before you start throwing tomatoes at your computer screen here, allow me to give some nuances here. First, a tempo choice, original or not -nobody can really know- does not guarantee a good performance. In the two cantates I share with you today (more will be shared in the future), there are some very very nice movements to be heard, that just have all that is needed to make you feel happy. Sometimes I’d say the music could use a little bit more of contrast, dynamics, accentuation, all elements that, in those tempi would make an enormous impact.
Echos of Bach’s performances… really?
Secondly: I, me, myself am saying this. No secret telephone line to Bach. But to me, it was a big, big, big surprise to hear a Bach performance that -for most parts, not all of them- I could explain the relationship between the chosen tempi and the notation. So a normal C or common time, with normal (tempo ordinario) notation between 60 and 80 for the quarter note. And no rush of the musicians, no need to built up any tension to the next count other than the natural tension between the heavy and the weak beat. This is something you still can hear today, of course, but in these recordings, it is present in a way I have not often heard. And yes, I believe that might be very close to what could have been 18th century practice.
Ramin probably just applied the tradition in which he was formed
Thirdly: chances are big Ramin did not study all of this. Chances are big he performed this music from within a tradition. A tradition that still might have partly been present in the Leipziger Thomas Kirche. And a tradition that might have come to him through the 19th century. A century, a tradition, that in the big revival of the early music, from this sixties on, not only have been rejected as by definition ‘not baroque’, but that has been taken unconsciously often as a model to go for the opposite solutions.
Accept some of the obvious differences
And fourthly, of course there are aspects that you will hear, that obviously are more 19th century, perhaps even more early 20th century than we kind of know about 18th century practices. Choice of instruments, use of rubato, vibrato, etc. But use of instruments to me, a big and rightfully so, focus of the Early Music Movement, to me is less important than the movement of a music piece, of which the tempo is the measurable element. It is the foundation to everything else. And the Ramin tempi, well, they might be very worth for us to study.
Some quick aspects of Ramin’s life
Heavy introduction… let’s turn the page onto Ramin’s life:
He was born in 1898 and died rather young in 1956. Successor of Karl Straube as Thomaskantor and followed by Kurt Thomas in 1956. Remember Kurt Thomas in the recording of the Christmas Oratorium we had recently.
Ramin sang already at age 12 in the choir of the Thomas Church, so that might have had a huge influence on his later career and musical choices. Further on, he studied organ with Karl Straube, and even collaborated with Max Reger, who in fact partly discovered him.
Ramin had a rich career as a conductor, with concert tours as far as to South Africa. He was a remarkable personality and I suggest that over time, we share his other cantates on the channel as well.
Don’t be surprised to hear a somewhat dated sound. This for sure is not the original 1950+ disc, but a reissue, but overall, once you adapt to the sound, it sounds remarkably well in fact. The fifthies gave us many really nice recordings, mostly in mono, which on its own is very relaxing listening to. But in major settings like this, with many people, things became a little trickier. Multitrack recording was something only the Beatles would start experimenting with and take it to the next level, but also amplification was something that really would become better in the sixties and seventies. As the tape itself that saw a gigiantic evolution, certainly on the field of signal noice ratio. It’s probably that element the most that signs for the biggest difference in sound.