Sunday, March 01, 2015

From the Sunday Classics Technology Dept.: When music can sound like THIS . . .


BACH: Cantata No. 82, "Ich habe genug":
iii. Aria, "Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen"

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (May 28, 1925 – May 18, 2012)

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Munich Bach Orchestra, Karl Richter, cond. DG Archiv Produktion, recorded July 1968

by Ken

Awhile ago I shared WNYC's New Tech City's "Bored and Brilliant" project, which was aimed at helping smartphonomaniacs get some control over their habit. Judging from the onsite response the project seems to have stimulated a lot of phone compulsives to (a) recognize their jones and (b) take some steps to overcome it.

One thing I tried to refrain from was getting too judgy, even though I probably am pretty judgmental when it comes to the smartphone compulsion and the related "social media" one. As it happens, perhaps merely by some fluke, I don't seem to have any temptation toward either, and really can't fathom what the attraction is. But I try to be careful about judging others, first under the "There but for the Grace of God" precept, but also in recognition of my own technological compulsions.


Nothing fancy, mind you, just vast quantities of music in just about every audio format known to mankind -- the exceptions I can think of being cylinders and 8-track cartridges -- and, on video, more music plus movies and especially TV. (I somehow feel as if I ought to stick in a modifier for "TV," like "quality TV," to signify that no, I haven't bought the box set of Welcome Back, Kotter. But I've eyed it, and there's a certain part of my past lodged in it.)

But at least I can say pretty honestly that in the case of both my audio and my video compulsions, it's the content rather than the technology that compel me. And for today I'm just going to retell a story I've told before, but this time with musical examples.

The first semi-serious tape recording and playback device I owned was a cassette deck. Soon after I got it, only half knowing what I was doing, come Saturday afternoon I plunked a C-60 into the machine and successfully recorded a half-hour of a Met Parsifal, with Cesare Siepi as Gurnemanz. It wasn't a large step from there to fairly compulsive recording of Met and other actual-performance broadcasts for a lot of years, trailing off only when there didn't seem to be much coming over the air worth the trouble.

And on the playback side I began eyeballing prerecorded cassettes. Naturally, being of a cheap disposition, I gravitated to the cheap ones and quickly built up a stash of budget-priced cassettes. I hesitate to call them "bargains," since I was getting more or less what I paid for. (These were the early years of prerecorded cassettes. Later there would be "budget" cassette labels that delivered some terrific musical rewards.) And so, ever so selectively, and always watching the weekly sales, I invested in some "regular" releases.

This was so early in the cassette world that not all of the major labels were using Dolby-C noise reduction on their releases, and as anyone who's had any experience of trying to use cassettes as a music medium knows, non-Dolbyized cassettes are prone to awfully conspicuous levels of tape hiss. I bring this up because the cassette toward which we're making our way, though from a major label, was from a major label that was till too cheap to pay the Dolby royalty -- and it didn't matter.

Mostly the major-label cassettes I bought were the cassette versions of multi-LP sets where the cassette edition fit the thing on fewer cassettes than LPs, thus bringing the price down to something comparable to that of the LPs. For example, the first form in which I owned the Walküre from the Solti-Decca Ring cycle was on cassette! (Decca-London was definitely using Dolby.) What required five LPs fit comfortably on three cassettes. Not quite once act per cassette, as I might have hoped; the relative brevity of Act I and length of Act II made that impossible, but still, there were fewer intra-act side breaks than on LP.

As to the cassette in question, I still don't know what prompted me to buy it. It exactly duplicated the contents of the LP, which wasn't generous even by LP standards. But it was an LP I didn't have, of a coupling that had become standard since the early days of the LP: Bach's two great cantatas for solo bass and instrumental ensemble, Nos. 56 ("Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen") and 82 ("Ich habe genug"), which were perfect disc-mates and relatively inexpensive to record and almost surefire.

What I bought was the 1968 DG Archiv stereo remake by baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau of one of his most famous early recordings, a coupling of the two Bach solo-bass cantatas from 1951. The 1951 recording had been conducted by one of the most active baroque specialists of the '50s and '60s, Karl Ristenpart; the remake was conducted by Archiv Produktion's Bach mainstays of the '60s and '70s, Karl Richter, with his Munich Bach Orchestra. There was also a Munich Bach Chorus, which participated in the vast quantity of Bach -- all of the large-scale choral works plus most of the 200-plus cantatas -- but of course the chorus wasn't needed for these solo-voice cantatas.

Fischer-Dieskau was 26 when he made the 1951 recording, and 17 tears later he was 43, still a pretty good age for a baritone, though you never know when the vocal cracks are going to start showing. (He would make yet another recording of this coupling, in 1983, at age 58.) The memory I want to share is of listening to those 1968 Bach cantatas, and suddenly realizing that, tape his notiwithstanding, I wasn't listening to the medium, I was being swept away by the music. If a cassette can sound like that, I remember thinking in my state of revelation, then it's a medium for music.

What we heard at the top of this post is an mp3 dub, not from that cassette, which has somehow been lost to the ages, but from an LP, so the LP surface noise can serve as a stand-in for the cassette's tape hiss. I don't remember the last time I listened to the performance, and I was naturally a bit nervous, considering the weight I was going to be loading on the shoulders of these 1968 Bach performances. Imagine my surprise, not to mention relief, upon making my dub of the central aria of Cantata No. 82, "Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen," to find that the performance doesn't merely "hold up," it's stunning

As I've said a number of times in the course of these Sunday Classics posts, I am far from an unabashed fan of Fischer-Dieskau, but in the course of these posts we've heard some pretty stunning performances from him. (I myself have listened more times than I can count to the mp3 dub I made from LP of his 1960-ish recording of Schumann's "Widmung" with pianist Jörg Demus." Wow!)

"Schlummert ein" is not just sensationally well sung here, but sensationally well conducted by Karl Richter, whose reputation has taken a nosedive since his glory days, I assume because of the "authentic performance" movement, which has taught us that the baroque era produced nothing but music that was quaint and trivial, devoid of content or any kind of emotional substance.

Strangely, it's the 1951 Fischer-Dieskau Bach cantata coupling that has the enduring reputation -- it can be found online now, whereas the 1968 remake can't, as far as I could tell. Certainly the 1951 performance is prettily sung, but to my ears it pales in comparison with the 1968 one.

I've actually been making some clips of a bunch of performances of "Schlummert ein," so it's not impossible that we'll be returning to the subject. Meanwhile here are the three Fischer-Dieskau recordings.

BACH: Cantata No. 82, "Ich habe genug":
iii. Aria, "Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen"

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Karl Ristenpart Chamber Orchestra, Karl Ristenpart, cond. DG Archiv Produktion, recorded in Berlin, June 20-22, 1951

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Munich Bach Orchestra, Karl Richter, cond. DG Archiv Produktion, recorded July 1968

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Bach-Collegium Stuttgart, Helmuth Rilling cond. Hänssler Classic, recorded July 1983

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