Bach On The Accordion? High Plains Trudgery

by David Yearsley, September 16, 2010

An increasing number of drawing-room revolutionar­ies have begun to discuss their strategies to overthrow that despot, the musical score. Rather than treat the notes on the page with slavish admiration, these musicians — Uri Caine’s gloriously rough-and-tumble treatment of Bach’s Goldberg Variation is but one example — use the musical canon not to fire off salutes to the past but launch their own shells to burst brightly across the skies of the Musical Republic for the fascination of those watching and listening down below.

These radicals do not advocate complete destruction of the past and the exclusive use of classical music’s great works as fodder for personal musical explorations and fantasies. Instead they want only to help loosen the grip of the notes so that a bit more air can get down the windpipe of present-day classical music culture.

In this regard, Bach’s position in the history of music is paradoxical. He is held to be the finest improviser of his time, perhaps of the ages. Extemporizing a six-voice fugue for Frederick the Great in 1747 in the Potsdam Palace with many of the greatest musicians of the period standing by is just one example of his prowess. Yet at least one of his contemporaries, a one-eyed former stu­dent named Johann Adolph Scheibe, had the nerve to criticize Bach for specifying every detail of perform­ances, and not leaving room for the creativity of the performer: “Every ornament, every little grace, and everything that one thinks of as belonging to the prov­ince of the performer, Bach expresses completely in notes,” complained Scheibe in 1737.

Bach was both an advocate of the freedom of improvi­sation, even while being a proponent of increased notational regulations. This was the line in the sand between composition and performance, and in the three centuries since it was drawn a towering wall of protec­tion has been erected.

This is not to disparage so many of priceless perform­ances of Bach’s music that pay strict attention to the score — however that ill-defined concept may be understood. But given the reverence with which Bach’s music has so long been treated, one can be forgiven for having high hopes for a recording such as that recently issued by Deutsche Grammaphon with its sticker silver sticker advertising the “astonishing encounter between Bach’s music and Richard Galliano’s accordion.” The rightly celebrated Galliano, a musician of astounding range and creativity, raises the stakes in his letter to he listener inside the front cover of the booklet: “From a purely instrumental point of view; the accordion and badoneon [a south American concertina] … are almost alone today in being able to throw new light on all the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, and infuse it with something new.” This stumbles over its own absurd claim that a new reading of Bach’s music necessarily follows a performance of it on an unlikely instrument. A haunting sonority of Galliano’s gleaming Victoria according does not in itself an interpretation make. As for his further claims in the booklet that he is a pioneer in playing Bach on the accordion, others have already done it with much more verve and persuasive power, as I argued in my earlier tribute to the young master of the instrument, Aleksandr Hrustevich. Indeed, the subway stations of Berlin are full of accordion virtuosos who play Bach better than Galliano, in that they invest it with more daring, imagination, and the right kind of personal­ity — their own.

In the Deutsche Grammaphon publicity video, Gal­liano digs himself even deeper into trouble, when he exhumes that old cliché justifying his use of the acordion by claiming that “the instruments of Bach’s time were certainly not as refined as those today.” In this view Bach writes his B-Minor Orchestral Suite for flute soloist and tells his audience in 1730s Leipzig after the rousing Badinerie that opens Galliano’s new disc: “The music is not much now, but wait another three hundred years till the instruments get really good.” Such defenses of using unlikely instruments for Bach are unnecessary. He was a great practitioner of music adaptation, and in this sense would have been unfazed and unsurprised by Galliano’s interventions in his music. Galliano’s unneeded apology for his efforts are just another version of that tired old Romantic trope of Bach the Prophet composing for future audiences, and having to make do with inferior musical tools of his time. Nor does Galliano need to make the grandiose comparisons of the accordion to the organ, analogies that put in mind the senile admiral in his bath believing his tub to be the North Atlantic and his rubber ducky the Bismarck.

After listening to Galliano’s work with Wynton Mar­salis or Charlie Haden or hearing him add bright layers of ornament and kaleidoscopic harmony to mentor Astor Piazzolla’s tangos one is struck by how low-voltage his Bach is. The above-mentioned Badinerie is impressively accurate in its way, but devoid of breath, even of life. Every note played with the utmost accuracy. One sees the score more than one hears the music.

I’m not imploring Galliano to go off on his own thing, to depart from the hallowed score and pursue his own improvisations based on Bach’s music, though that would indeed be far more fun and illuminating. The idea, doubtless vetted by Deutsche Grammaphon is to present a Bach as true to his received historical image not only as a sign of respect, but also as a way of highlighting the erudition and seriousness of the accordionist engagement with this canonic music.

In his jazz work, Galliano’s notes forsake absolute regularity for the intangible and envlivening quality known as swing. His lines dance and feint not only in their melodic profile, but the variety of their metrical ebb and flow. Listen to him decorate a jazz standard like As Time Goes By or ornament a piece of Piazzolla and you will hear an unsurpassed master of musical embroidery. Why then when he puts his fork into that charred chest­nut, the Air on the G String from another of Bach’s Orchestral Suites, does Galliano not add a single extra note to the repeated of the sections, as was the custom in the 18th century, even in compositions Bach had already written out ornaments for. The brilliantly inventive and expressive Galliano disappears behind the by-now-bor­ing succession of notes on the page. The hollow, friable nature of the free red does have an evocative, yearning quality, both fragile and insistent, but one the musical interpretation is so deferential to a “masterpiece” that quality, too, becomes cloying.

Backed by a quintet of string players, who them­selves lack much fire, Galliano makes his way through three of Bach’s concertos. Galliano nails every note with admirable accuracy. The flesh is not weak, but the spirit is. The ghost is gone and only the perfect machine remains. Galliano’s inexorable unyielding rhythmic pre­dictability flattens out the exquisite pastoral scenery of the slow movement of Bach’s violin concerto in A minor, a n Arcadian landscape The superficial poignancy of the accordion’s sound only shows how Galliano’s def­erence to Bach has distorts the poised, almost painful, beauty of this movement. Then there are the inevitable associations between free-reeds, common to harmonica and accordion (on the badinerie he plays an accordina, a keyed harmonica) Westerns. I the slow movement of the Violin Concerto these become impossible to suppress, and the Arcadian elegance with the distant threat of storm clouds becomes instead High Plains trudgery.

Galliano’s solo transcriptions are even more plod­ding. The well-trodden Prelude to the first Cello Suite, is the stuff of West Wing episodes and car commercials, but even the machinations of pop culture have not sapped the piece of vitality. Here again, though Galliano slogs along without letting his instrument ever taking a breath, the accordion not requiring such human incon­veniences. The Allemande to the Flute Partita in A Minor is even more badly marred by the lack of nuance. Galliano hits each note with a mercilessly uniform attack. There are a few moments of rubato but that doesn’t do much to alleviate the sameness of note-after-note. Whereas the Cello prelude didn’t breathe enough, the Allemande breathes too much, and after a few bars sound like a panting dog. Still, the wistful final note of this track is an exquisite moment, not only because of the relief of space at last opening up, but the way the sound resists and rejoices in its own evaporation.

Galliano has a solid conservatory background in the­ory, harmony, and counterpoint, and Bach closing piece is a display of those credential: the first Contrapunctus from the Art of Fugue. Galliano schleps through the dense polyphony with a suffocating sense of obligation, the continuous legato submerging the sense of rhetorical persuasion and well-judged argument that is at the core of this piece. If the music can’t breathe, neither can the listener.

Galliano concludes the CD with his own short hom­age to Bach, a piece entitled simply Aria. Its opening has something of the Prelude in B Minor, BWV 544 for organ in it, with a bold opening gesture towards a disso­nance between upper and lower voice. The piece shares a penchant for the turgid with some of Bach’s work, and I suspect that Galliano’s Aria takes its antique pretensions just a tad seriously. But what is immediately apparent at this late juncture on the CD, is that Galliano performs his own piece energy and interpretative spark utterly lacking up to this point, proving how devastatingly deferential the preceding Bach readings had been.

In contrast to the sticker on the front of the CD prom­ising an astonishing encounter between Galliano and Bach, what is most surprising about the recording is how tame and tepid the playing is. Before the next outing Galliano needs to swear a disloyalty to the Great Com­poser, and let himself and the music free. ¥¥

(David Yearsley teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London,” has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu.)

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