Powerful Emotions in a 1959 Bach recording…why?

A few weeks ago, I have uploaded a remarkable recording of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, (Weihnachtsoratorium) BWV 248, recorded in  1959, by the then Thomaskantor Kurt Thomas. In the introduction I’ve said the almost 60 years old recording was unknown to me but captured my attention in a way few recordings have done. Some of you reached out to me saying that that performance felt very emotional to them and honestly, I share the same feelings. Many parts, but especially the opening movement brings joy, rhythm, dance, adrenaline almost, in a way music rarely does. One particular moment in the first movement of part one illustrates perfectly what I’m talking about.

Listen to the opening of that recording here:

The increasing tension of the descending scales, symbolizing here the heavenly Father sending his Son to Earth, guided by trumpets and followed by the liberating rhythms of drums to celebrate this event, in this recording feels so right. Further on, one would like to dance… Let’s listen to a little bit longer fragment:

Relaxed movement

All of that is achieved within an impressive relaxed movement, that probably many today, under the impulse of so many orchestras who feel the need of playing this music faster and faster, might be taken for “boring”, simply because that kind of enervating, pushing speedy feel is missing. If that’s the case, go back and listen the fragment again and again. You’ll be surprised how fast you’re cured from those newer trends in what we like to call “historical informed performance practice”.

Listening to music should always make you feel relaxed, should always guide you in the feel and emotion of what is happening, without any need for cognitive understanding. Music that passes first through the brain releases only a fraction of the full power it is capable off.

And that full power is present here with Kurt Thomas. There are moments where I almost literally feel my heart glow, in a way that gives energy, makes me smile, makes me feel good. At moments, I cannot sit, but have to stand and dance, open my arms to embrace some of the most magnificent moments I know in the history of music performances.

Why?

All sounds big, which is partly because those feelings are indescribably in words. But the question arises, also to me: why? What happens in this recording, especially in that opening movement of part 1?

If the fragments I gave you are your first encounter with this recording, just pause for a moment and listen to it completely. Just click here to jump to the full recording. Simply let it sound on the background, in the foreground, when you’re working, walking in the house, or sit in the sofa to listen with closed eyes. Doesn’t matter, don’t think, do not compare, just let everything overcome to you. it might be a different Christmas Oratorio than you expect and at times even -also with me- giving elements that you might want to do differently. Don’t forget it is almost 60 years old… Let the music come to you passively and wait, just wait for what will happen. And if nothing happens, listening to it again. If that doesn’t change you, even after even two full sessions, don’t see it as wasted times, since you’ve helped my YouTube stats anyway!

Timing is of the essence!

Let’s focus here just on that one fragment I gave you at the beginning. The reason why -in my opinion- works so incredible right, so liberating, is, partly at least, because of the almost perfect timing of the moment where the ascending scale reach the bottom. It has to do with the brillant musicians, because let’s not forget that it’s not a period instrument that makes the musician nor garantuees a good performance, its the man or the woman behind that instrument, and the Gewandhaus orchestra here is doing a terrific job.

But there is more than that alone. All of the musicians seem to kind of “surf” on what I perceive as a perfect movement, a movement that perfectly balances all elements that are present in the score. it seems to happen all by itself: articulation, accentuation, drive, swung,… as if everything is packed in a gigantic perpetuum mobile.

And movement is the foundation of it all

Movement is the foundation of all performances, no matter what type of music you play. But given all parameters of a performance, articulation, phrasing, accentuation, … in the combination of them all, there is only one movement (or tempo) that is right for that combination, for that moment. Change one element, and you change everything.

And on top of that, you of course have the score, the composer’s own view on the performance of his piece. We often take a score simply for the composition alone, but to me it is much more a reflection of the way the composer wanted his music to be played. Certainly when going back to the early 19th, and 18th century, and certainly when playing music of Bach. Bach was a composer, but a musician first, and if he, as is the case here, used a 3/8 meter, he must have had a reason not to use triplets.

Sounds simply, but put yourself in the position of Bach. Let me give you two fragments of different performances here, one that of Kurt Thomas in 1959 and a recent one by B’Rock under René Jacobs, all top of the top musicians.

Time is right

Not judging here. Just stating that in the Jacobs version one clearly hears triplets. No individual eight notes. So if Jacobs is right in his tempo choice here, Bach was wrong. So if people say tempo is all personal, there is nothing one can know for sure, then they are right as long as they not claim to be part of a movement that enjoys the reflection of coming close to the composer’s own thoughts. Impossible by definition, but not impossible to walk the road for a while.

And, again with all respect for B’Rock and Jacobs, I feel that recording as miles further away from what Bach has written down than that 1959 Thomas performance. Not even talking here on emotion, heart, technical possibilities (just watch the trumpet players…).

It’s time I believe to talk more on movement, on tempo, on notation. Since I’m convinced it will change our view on early music drastically for… the better. Up for more emotion in music! More heart and less brains!!