Sunday, August 8, 2010

Scherchen, Rössel Majdan Bach Cantatas for Contralto

With this post I begin a project to make available as many of the Bach cantatas lead by Hermann Scherchen as I have that are not otherwise available. Although the solo singers in some of the recordings to follow are not particularly to my taste, these three cantatas for solo contralto feature the wonderful Hilde Roessel-Magdan.

Scherchen’s Bach has always been controversial, even in its day, and it has become increasingly so to those raised on original instrument performances of the composer. I will say no more than that I find it musically convincing most of the time. Its old fashioned musical values transcend transient, contemporary notions of authenticity as a musical value in itself. Moreover, we would be foolish to think that current performance technique is the final word in the evolution of instrumental and vocal practice. As one of the first conductors to record a large series of the most famous cantatas, Scherchen captured a new and appreciative audience for these glorious works and helped open the way for recordings of the complete set. They should be known for their historical importance, if for no other reason (though, as I said, I believe there are many other solid reasons to listen to them).

The three contralto cantatas in question (Nos. 53, 54, and 170) are some of the most sublime music the master wrote. They are (or were) also available in a glorious recording by Maureen Forrester with Antonio Janigro conducting the Solisti de Zagreb, which I will post if I find it is not available. Those wishing a more modern vocal technique and a more stylish accompaniment might want to acquire it.

I am posting what I can of Scherchen’s recordings of these works for those who enjoy this older, and individual (it is Scherchen, after all) way of performing Bach. I will not defend my taste, nor Scherchen’s musicianship. Those who share my enjoyment of these records and this conductor will likely be happy to see them digitized and made available; those who do not like them should be warned that no comments denigrating them will convince me. I know the arguments against them and am aware of the various shortcomings attributed to them, and I am convinced that their strengths far outweigh them, where they even exist. But feel free to comment as you wish within the bounds of courteous discourse.

Texts and translations of 54 and 170 can be found here:

The translation and text of No. 53 can be found here:

Link to all files


  1. I do not know these recordings but will follow them with curiosity, interest and an open ear. Many thanks for making them available.

  2. Stephen: Thanks for stopping by. No one performs Bach like this anymore, and I would not expect them too. I do feel, however, that there is a great deal of musical value and interest in these and other older performances of Bach -- some of the violin concertos with Adolph Busch, for instance, or Klemperer's magisterial recording of the B minor mass, to name just two. I do not feel that the musical integrity and value of a performance becomes "superceded", even if performance practice changes. The idea is alien to my view of time, history, art, and of judgement as a faculty that assesses value but does not assign it. Perhaps it is the residual Platonist in me, but I think the musical ideas brought to fruition in a great performance have permanent value despite changes in scholarship and fashion. Whether one likes the performance or not is another matter, of course.

  3. Daniel: Merci. J'ai amélioré le texte un peu, mais il reste conforme au préable.

    gpdl2000: And Bravo to Maestro Scherchen!

  4. Larry, Posting Hermann Scherchen's recordings of Scherchen's Bach, so far as I (admittedly a "died in the wool" fan) is posting Bach, period! This is the way, for my ears, and always has been for decades, and I am not about to change. This does not mean that other conductors' way with Bach, even if Scherchen makes them take second (third, etc.) place after Scherchen, is not genuinely Bach, but Scherchen was TOPS! I may have a degree in Music History, but the Nomenklatura and Apparatchik of Musicology NEVER will persuade me that "Historically Informed [i.e. deformed] Performance" is the only permissible and ultimately justifiable approach to the music of J.S. Bach (or of Handel, Corelli, et alia, either). Any approach that vaunts H.I.P. yet reduces Bach to trivia or "background music" has to be fatally flawed.

    Thanks! Remember: Scherchen's Bach = Bach!

    Pax, Jerry Parker

  5. Jerry: I cannot follow you into the (you have to admit) slightly fanatical territory of "Scherchen's Bach = Bach". That statement (and I believe you know it) is wildly hyperbolic. You know how fond I am of these performances, and you know, too, that I am not a big fan of original instrument performance. But there is some very nice Bach on modern instruments by Antonio Janigro, Menuhin, Neville Marriner, Gönnenwein, and many others. Klemperer's recording of the B minor mass is the one that I usually put on when I want to hear that work.

    And even though I am not a big fan of most original instrument performance, I do want to remain welcoming and courteous to my visitors who think otherwise. After all, not everyone who does not share my tastes, or yours, is a damnable cretin with a musically iniquitous soul.

    Scherchen's Bach is lovely for what it is, not in opposition to the Bach of someone else. It stands on its own as a magnificent and devoted achievement of enduring worth; but it is not the end of history, or even the end of well played Bach. At some point, maybe toward the end of this project, I want to post an essay about Bach, Hermann Scherchen, and Baroque performance practice. It will take some work.

    Sorry, old pal, I think that even enthusiasm -- especially enthusiasm! -- needs a little cold water thrown at it now and again.

  6. Larry,

    Well, I did intend, indeed and explicitly, what I wrote as hyperbole! I had thought of belabouring the issue with some more words, to this effect, so I'll do it now, to clear up any confusion!:

    Yes, Scherchen's Bach = Bach

    So, for that matter does (referring to these musicians for now as conductors, not as soloists):

    Pablo Casals' Bach = Bach;
    Yehudi Menuhin's Bach = Bach;
    Antonio Janigro's Bach = Bach;
    Otto Klemperer's Bach = Bach;
    Fritz Lehmann's Bach = Bach;

    and I could go on to name many other worthies.
    However, Scherchen stands highest, to my mind (and I am far from being alone in this assessment), in such an august assembly of performers.

    The point is that musicians like Scherchen, Janigro, Lehmann, et alia approach Bach as music (in all of its constituent compositional and expressive elements), not as style, as musical lines on which to hang ornamentation (realised to one only acceptable scheme), materials and technic (bow curve, string length and guttedness, old bore dimensions, etc.), and so forth.

    The "Historically Informed Performance" crowd, with (thank God!) some few exceptions, puts everything above the essence the music, as if suchlike were of paramount importance, in the works of Bach, Handel, Corelli, Veracini, et alia. That is an inversion of priorities and makes for instant obsolescence (and certainly just that in the long term) because it is so irrelevant to what really matters foremost in the music of Bach, Handel, and of other composers of their times.

    Sorry to have been so categorical that I made myself misunderstood. I was trying to be a bit provocative! One has to awake the H.I.P. dullards from their noxious slumbers.

    Pax, Jerry Parker

  7. Please, no more name calling. One can be passionate without it.

  8. Larry,

    For sure! Those who have an hankering for H.I.P. have every right to hear Bach as those practitioners deliver it. Fortunately, we can hear Bach as we can be "passionate [ab]out it", too. Chacun à son goût---.

    Pax, Jerry

  9. Nearly 40 years ago, when I was beginning an immersion in Bach's cantatas, a record store on Eight Street in Greenwich Village recommended I buy Aafje Heynis' recording of BWV 170, then available only on a 10-inch Phillips French import. To this day, that performance is the standard to which I have held all others (many of which have graded well using this test). As one who was "reared" on Klemperer and the like, I found these Scherchen interpretations wonderful. But hearing von Otter and Dessay sing Bach is also extraordinarily moving. Bach just keeps on bringing out the best in the world's best singers of any time.

  10. I must say that Rossl-Majden's singing here is so smooth, so authoritative. Very beautiful recording Larry.


  11. Et bien, c'est un post qui fait réagir.
    Je le télécharge et je verrai.
    Merci !

  12. Lawrence,

    thank you for these transfers. I have not heard this LP for a long time. Hildegard Roessel-Majdan was a justly famous concerto contralto. Her 'Buehnenausprache' is pefect: few can match her in arias and no one in the recitatives. She also made records with another great and underrated Bach conductor, Felix Prohaska: I cannot get her voice in BWV 161 out of my ears.

    I value Aafje Heynis recording of BWV 170, and I also own the Deller/Leonhardt version but they do not eclipse this Scherchen/Roess(e)l-Majdan recording. And her BWV 54 is a marvel.

    Speaking of Antonio Janigro, does anyone know a link to Bach solo suites Nos. 4 & 5 with him? Janigro was not only an excellent conductor but a great cellist as well. I was unable to locate these two suites with him on CD/LP.

  13. Sturla: I cannot follow you into the performance of Alfred Deller; though he is quite musical, the voice is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me. It is a visceral aversion that I have never overcome. However your comment and that of David Federman make me want to hunt up the Asfje Heynis recording, with which I am unfamiliar.

    I don't know where to find the two Janigro recordings you are looking for, though Squirrel at Serenata in Vano ( has posted the 2nd and 6th suite with Janigro.

  14. Though that harpsichord does make me smile, I take no stand on the performance practice issues. This is a lovely, magical recording and Roessl-Majdan is magnificent. I look forward to the next installments and your commentary should it appear. Thanks and best wishes.

  15. David and Sturla, Thanks for Asfje Heynis, who is one of those fine singers, like the baritone Mack Harrell, who really deserve more attention than they received, even "back then" when they were at their best. Mack Harrell did make at least one Bach cantata recording on LP that I have; the fact that he sings it in English does not bother me, but it might affect others differently! Harrell was blessed with a better voice than Heynis, but both were exquisite artists, as Roessl-Majdan was, too.

  16. Tigerload: Thanks for your comments. The harpsichord in this performance does seem a little quaint, but Scherchen was striving for a kind of authenticity too, though we might today find those attempts more poignant than anything. I do love the performance, though.

    Jerry: I have that Mack Harrel record you mention, and was looking at it the other day, in fact. I believe it is with the Robert Shaw Chorale.

    At the moment I'm recording some Roger Voisin baroque trumpet music onto my hard drive for Fred at Random Classics, a Bostonian and trumpet player.

  17. Oh! One hundred six downloads of this post in the week it has been up, so I guess there is an audience for Scherchen's Bach, as I had no doubt there would be!

  18. Scherchen surely deserves 106 downloads and more (BTW he made at least two recordings of BWV 106 - 'Gottes Zeit etc etc'). Thank you once again, Lawrence.

    Re: Alfred Deller's performance of the alto part in BWV 170. This is not his best achievement - he is not quite in his element in Bach, but this was also a very early experiment with a male alto in Bach's cantatas.

    Mack Harrell had a magnificent voice: vocal fans surely know that he sang and recorded Wozzeck in the Mitropoulos production. His voice is also heard in part IV of Rachmaninov's 'Bells' with Ormandy.

    Do you have him in BWV 56?

  19. Sturla:
    Strange you should mention Gottes Zeit; it is the next cantata in line. I was going to include it with this post, but I discovered a flaw in the sound file that requires that it be re-recorded.

    As for #106: These contralto cantatas have been downloaded 120 times so far, a very gratifying response to the post.

    I have the Wozzeck recording with Mack Harrell that you mention, and treasure it, along with the Ormandy/ Rachmaninov piece, which I have not listened to for some time. Thanks for reminding me of it. And I have the recording of Harrell with Robert Shaw of the Cantata 56. I am very fond of Mack Harrell and would happily listen to him sing "Yankee Doodle", just to hear the voice.

    I have just never been able to develop any taste for Alfred Deller. There are better and more musically knowledgeable people than I who admire him greatly; I just cannot get past the voice, which grates on me. I confess, though, that countertenors, and what I perceive as their capon like squawks, in general leave me cold. A blind spot? Undoubtedly.

    Thanks so much for your interest in the blog and your informed and valuable comments.

  20. Larry and Sturla,

    I'm with you, Larry, on so-called "countertenors" of Deller's kind, which really are no more than falsettists. It is true that English choral music used falsettists (though not as soloists) along with boys singing the same parts, but the use of falsettists in German, French, or Italian music (as choristers or as soloists) is simply inappropriate. It was natural voices, adult or boys, without resort to the vocal trick of falsetto, which sang this continental European music and still should sing it today. There are male voices who can sing high-lying music naturally (e.g. in many white Gospel music quartets), but their use in classical music has lessened since the early decades of the 20th century.

    However, in the last ten to fifteen years, there have started to be falsettists who really can sing with pleasant (sometimes even beautiful) sound. That helps to compensate for the misuse of this voice type in so many early music performances. My favourite of these is our Québec treasure, Daniel Taylor. I have heard him live a couple of times, including very early in his career, and you should know that this lad really can sing that high-lying music in natural voice, without always resorting to falsetto. He can make blends and transitions of natural voice, falsetto, and voix mixte, in a way that is utterly materful. Alas, he usually just sings it all falsetto nowadays, to please the "H.I.P." constituency, which, perversely, actually prefers falsetto! There's no accounting for taste, is there?

    The great Allan Fast, also Canadian (alas, deceased, tragically young), could sing anything, however high the composer set the music, completely in natural voice. The result was devastatingly powerful and chillingly beautiful. I had the privilege of helping him some early in his career, while he still was an undergraduate music student at the University of Western Ontario. I wish that there were more like him!

    Pax, Jerry Parker

  21. Good to see that there still human beings who value essence and spirituality above style.
    I lived in Holland twice for half a year in 1970 and again in 1980.At the time I drew a gruesome parallel between the Brownshirts in the early 30s in Germany and the beginnings of HIP in Holland.
    I can safely state that most of the musicians who came to Holland in the early 70s and early 80s were the rejects of the so called "classical" world.
    But,back to Scherchen.His performances bring out the best of Bach,his singers,and mankind's potential for good.
    Many of his recordings of Bach's music were marred by less than mediocre instrumentalists in the various orchestras that participated in the recordings.Some of the singers are shrieky,some are marvelous.I am listening as I write to a reel tape of the B Minor Mass-which is my preferred recording of this work(in addition to the one with Enescu and Ferrier).I was glad to see F. Lehmann's mentioned here.too.

  22. In case anybody is not yet aware of it, the Aafje Heynis recording of BWV 170 is not only available on a Philips Eloquence CD, but can be heard on YouTube.

  23. Imagine my surprise ending up here at vinyl fatigue, as I sit in a Miami hotel listening to Roessel-Magdan chugging down the track of of the first movement of bwv53 on my Galaxy Note tablet. What power she had! I started collecting the Bach cantata works around 1981 and the Scherchen recordings are among the most treasured in my collection. Who cares about fashion!