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Notes 58.3 (2002) 585-586

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Book Review

Meilensteine der Bach-Interpretation 1750-2000: Eine Werkgeschichte im Wandel

Meilensteine der Bach-Interpretation 1750-2000: Eine Werkgeschichte im Wandel. By Martin Elste. Stuttgart and Weimar: Metzler; Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2000. [xx, 460 p. + CD. ISBN 3-476-01714-1(Metzler);3-7618-1419-4(Bärenreiter). DM 78.]

The precise beginning of the revival of Johann Sebastian Bach's music is impossible to determine, though one generally counts Raphael Georg Kiesewetter's historic performance of 1816 and Felix Mendelssohn's of 1829 among the early catalysts. Bach, more than any other composer, has since become a staple of every classically trained musician. In the 250 years since his death, generation after generation of performers of his music have been conditioned by their times and have responded to myriad contexts, traditions, conventions, innovations, discoveries, and theories. For practices prior to the twentieth century, we are tantalized by written descriptions of performances, just as we are frustrated by the fact the sonic dimension is forever lost to us. This rich and changing performance history has in more recent times been saved on sound recordings, beginning in 1903 with Joseph Joachim's recording on Edison cylinders of excerpts from Bach's works for solo violin.

The present volume by the German musicologist, critic, and "discologist" ("Diskologe"), Martin Elste, is a study of this long and complex history. He confesses at the outset that the book is above all else a personal account, and stresses moreover that it is not so much about "historical" performance practice as it is about "historicizing" performances (p. xviii). He means by this that his intention is not to evaluate past performances of Bach according to today's practices and sensibilties. He instead views those performances as snapshots, as it were, captured moments in the constantly changing landscape of musical values and tastes. Throughout this history of performance, Bach's scores function as fixed texts which, when realized in performance, can be viewed as reflections of historical sensibilities and attitudes toward his music.

The book is divided into two major parts. The first is a systematic discussion of largely historical considerations pertaining to live and recorded performance of Bach. The author touches on an array of topics including modern vs. period instruments, general changes in the performing forces of Bach's music (e.g., the introduction of boys' voices and countertenors), and the transference of Bach's music from the concert hall to recorded media. Curiously enough, rather little is made of the fact that Bach's music was not even conceived for the concert hall. The discussions are always thoughtful if sometimes uneven in terms of depth. On the one hand, even those Bach devotees with only slight interest in the more scholarly issues of historical performance practice would have benefited from a more rigorous engagement of the musicological literature on the subject. There is, for example, no mention of the protracted and often heated debate between Joshua Rifkin and Robert Marshall, a debate which has been so influential in shaping modern, "historically informed" interpretations of Bach's choral music. On the other hand, Elste's commentary on Bach reception as affected by constantly evolving recording technology--from cylinders, to shellac discs, to vinyl recordings, to the latest digital formats--is both illuminating and thought provoking. In the era of digital recording, one is not likely to think of how technology was instrumental in determining what pieces or excerpts could be recorded, whether or not repeated sections were practicable, the effects of interrupting compositions every four and one-half minutes to accommodate turning over or changing the disc, and what all this meant ultimately in terms of the listener's relationship to the music.

Whereas the first part of the book focuses on general topics of performance history, the second part, accounting for roughly two-thirds of the total, concentrates on the works themselves. Under [End Page 585] general categories of vocal, orchestral, chamber and solo genres, Elste discusses individual compositions, tracing as much as possible the performance...


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