Comparison of Bach Cantata Recordings: Richter and Gardiner
Just a few generations ago, Bach's Cantatas had seemed to silence; but "since that time, in the intervening four decades, there has been an explosion of interest in this neglected music, borne out by numerous recording projects" (Lehman & White 508). Although the Cantatas were written generations ago, their music is still relevant in today's cultural environment. Bach's brilliance is allowed to shine on, and has become flexible in the various interpretations of his works. Karl Richter and John Eliot Gardiner are two composers that have made modern recordings of Bach's Cantatas from much different stylistic vantage points. The two recordings are compared here in order to understand the variety that they have brought to Bach's much older works.
There has been a recent jolt of interest in Bach's Cantina's within the last century or so. Here, the research suggests that "we live in a golden age of cantata recordings. And despite the current state of the music industry and the world economy, this momentum seems likely to continue, exemplified by the interesting variety of new recordings" under way (Lehman & White 508). In the last century, as recording devices have become more specialized and clear, several composers have returned to Bach to breathe new life into the volumes of his Cantatas. This interest has been allowed to translate into some amazing performances and recordings, each having their own unique flavor and flare to them. Richter and Gardiner are just two examples of new recordings of Bach's Cantatas; yet, their differences help illustrate the variety and fluid nature of how modern recordings have been interpreting Bach's styles and tones.
Karl Richter's recordings were set decades ago. They are an older version of the Cantina recordings, where the old styles still rein a heavy influence over Richter's interpretation of the music (Lehman & White 508). Richter is known for his more classical style, although he does take some clear modernist artistic licenses in these recordings. He is often referred to as being one of the members of the "old Bach guild" (Ritter 1). Essentially, Richter was trying to stay true to the period in which the Cantatas were actually written. This often means he made choices in his composition that stood out in a more modern context. His choices of instruments and styles all reflected a very dedicated period piece. As such, "it is the closest to the spirit of the music" (Popescu 1). In this sense, he presents a very romantic interpretation of Bach's works. His reference for Bach's older style makes the recordings incredibly romantic and nostalgic of an era long past in classical music history. Richter's "basso continuo is completely late-romantic in style and execution" (Popescu 1). Still, research on his works highlight the idea that Richter's recordings "were fairly advanced" (Ritter 1). In this, he managed to blend a more traditional interpretation with the latest innovations in music technology and practice during his era. He has a sense of "intensity and focus on bringing out the human feelings in vocal Bach works" (Antila 1). His works speak to the human soul on a much more dramatic and deep level. Richter especially brings a sense of mystical devotion that is absent from most period recordings" (Ritter 1). This mysticism is present even when listening to the recordings today.
The particular dynamics of Richter's work show further differences when compared to Gardiner. The style of the two composers is clearly different in their structural approach as well as their general thematic undertones. Richter was known for his huge performances. His orchestra was often packed with many more instruments and singers that Bach's original score had asked for (Popescu 1). Richter's recordings highlight a higher pitch. There is much more violin vibrato in Richter than seen in Gardiner. This helps set a lighter tone that banks of the higher pitch of the harmonies present in his recordings. Additionally, the Jazz oboe is greatly extended within Richter's recordings as well. The way Richter structured his works help carry a sense of clarity within them. Essentially, "his dynamics are very well chosen (dramatic or mellow whenever the score demands it), his tempi tend towards slower side but seldom drag (which is good since it reveals hidden treasures in the music)" (Popescu 1). His choice of orchestra helps carry this notion of high drama set with a lulling sense of peace and tranquility, as the score permits. Yet, critics claim that Richter has a very steady speed about his performances in these recordings (Quinn 1). It sets a thick, syrupy tone that keeps a general sense of consistency throughout the recording. Richter also often used a female solo voice with an all boys choir (Quinn 1). This set aside a difference between his own works and Gardiner, who was more reliant on female vocalists in a tangent from Bach's original score. Overall, Richter presents a very romantic piece, one that does harkens back to the originality of Bach's brilliance.
On the other hand, there is John Eliot Gardiner. He is much more modern in the approach to represent Bach to a new millennium. Gardiner's Munich Bach choir recordings were conducted in 2000, during the anniversary year of Bach's original Cantatas (Lehman & White). As of 2009, Gardiner was style working on completing a complete Cantina cycle (Lehman & White 510). This sets a new age for Bach in an era of innovations in technology and style, which is clearly reflected in the clarity and choices Gardiner, made for his recording. Overall, this is clearly a much more modern interpretation. This is one of the biggest differences between the recordings of Gardiner and Richter. Still, "Gardiner has recorded only the church cantatas, so it is not an exact competitor" (Ritter 1). This reflects a sense that the two are both presenting different viewpoints but still in respect for one another's influences. Still, despite their obvious differences in terms of style and musical range, the two composers do share a common bond within the presentation of the Cantatas they recorded. Gardiner must have been influenced by Karl Richter, as many modern composers had grown up listening to Richter's recordings (Ritter 1). From this aspect, this insinuates that Gardiner may be influenced from older Cantina recordings, like the ones produced by Richter himself.
However, Gardiner's modernist interpretation really sticks out. Here, the research suggests that "as time goes on, the periods instruments have softened, interpretations have become less rigid and more musical, and the players go at this stuff like they were born to do so" (Ritter 1). Essentially, Gardiner took an influence and modernized it by allowing the music to speak for itself, rather than over trying to stay true to the period instruments and style that was present in Bach's day but irrelevant in the more modern conception of classical music. Gardiner presents a much more fluid and flexible interpretation of Bach's Cantatas. Thus, "his sound varies from location to location, but is always vivid; sometimes more congested or closed in depending on where he and his group happen to be" (Ritter 1). In this, it is clear that Gardiner presents a more fluid image of the Cantatas, one that is not so restricted by the need to stay absolutely true to the period.
Overall, Gardiner presents much different dynamics in comparison to the earlier Richter recordings discussed previously. In his more modern recordings, he presents a much faster tempo (Lehman & White 509). In many instances, the tempo Gardiner is known for in his recordings is almost dance-like. The rhythm speeds up dramatically, much more so than in the case of Richter's earlier recordings. Thus, his "tempi range between extremes with strong predominance on the fast side" (Popescu 1). Although…