Johann Sebastian Bach
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Bach Performances Show An Ultra-Lively Trend Toward Rising Tempos In Classical
The world of Johann Sebastian Bach recordings took a decided new turn on Oct. 26 with the Deutsche Grammophon and Decca release of their Bach 333 box set. The 333 years since Johann's birth in 1685, during classical music's Baroque period, have passed like clockwork but scholars working on the collection noted that Bach performance tempos have been speeding up.
The box set Bach 333 covers "90 years of evolving Bach performance traditions" and includes 222 CDs comprising 280 hours of recordings, as well as accompanying video, books and interactive digital media. The labels released a comparison of several recordings in the collection, of Bach's Double Violin Concerto, demonstrating a decided uptempo trend. This led Rolling Stone to reference a 2016 Max Martin quote that "Pop music follows the evolution of society in general: Everything moves faster."
In 1961, the composition's three movements took more than 17 minutes to complete, but by 1978, it was recorded in less than 16 minutes. Still faster, a 2016 recording managed the piece in an ultra-lively 12 and a half minutes, plus 4 seconds. Reactions to this data have observers wondering how soon those 4 seconds will disappear as fast-paced post-millennium lifestyles might make quicker seem better.
Bach scholar and managing director of London's Barbican Centre, Sir Nicholas Kenyon has provided work-by-work commentary to the Bach 333 collection and opined that there has been a "basic change in taste from the rather weighty concert style of previous years towards something that is more light, airy and flexible."
Kenyon believes these faster tempos also work well with the composers Handel and Mozart. But if the reward for good work is more work, then the reward for gathering interesting data is creating an appetite to gather more of it. Perhaps the faster-is-better sensibility could be key to new audiences becoming amazed by the riches of the classical repertoire.