Expression and meaning in Bach performance and reception : an examination of the B minor Mass on record
- This dissertation investigates developments in the performance of J. S. Bach’s music in the second half of the 20th century, as reflected in recordings of the Mass in B Minor, BWV 232. It places particular emphasis on issues relating to concepts of expression through performance. Between the 1950s and the 1980s, most Bach performers shared a partial consensus as to what constitutes expression in performance (e.g., intense sound; wide dynamic range; rubato). Arguments against the application of such techniques to Bach’s works were often linked with the view that his music is more “objective” than later repertoires; or, alternatively, that expressive elements in Bach’s music are self-sufficient, and should be not be intensified in performance. Historically-informed performance (HIP), from the late 1960s onwards, has been characterised by greater attention to the inflection of local details (i.e., individual figures and motifs). In terms of expressive intensity, this led to contradictory results. On the one hand, several HIP performances were characterised by a narrow overall dynamic range, light textures, fast tempi and few contrasts; these performances were often considered lightweight. On the other hand, HIP also promoted renewed interest in the practical application of Baroque theories of musical rhetoric, inspiring performances which projected varied intensity within movements. More recently, traditional means of expression have enjoyed renewed prominence. Ostensibly “romantic” features such as broad legati, long-range crescendi and diminuendi, and organic shaping of movements as wholes have been increasingly adopted by HIP musicians. In order to substantiate the narrative outlined above, the significance of the evidence preserved in sound recordings had to be checked against other sources of information. This dissertation is divided into two main parts. The first part focuses on specific “schools” of prominent Bach performers. Complete recordings of the Mass are examined in relation to the biographical and intellectual backgrounds of the main representatives of these schools, their verbally-expressed views on Bach’s music and on their own role as performers, and their style as documented in recordings of other works. The second part examines the performance history of specific movements within the Mass, comparing the interpretations preserved in sound recordings with relevant verbal analyses and commentaries. The dissertation as a whole therefore combines the resources of reception and performance studies. Beyond its specific historical conclusions concerning Bach performance in the post-war era, it also provides specific insights into Bach’s music, its meaning and its role in contemporary culture.