Should performers try to capture the composer’s original vision for a piece? As an audience, do we expect them to? It’s a complicated question if the composer is still alive. It becomes a scholarly question if, say, we’re talking about Bach.
A couple of weeks ago I met John Cannon, a gifted and insightful organist, and our conversation turned from John Cage and maintaining a piece’s integrity to a war horse in the organ canon: J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue (BWV 565). Should this piece be played as we imagine Bach intended, in the traditional Baroque style, adhering to all original notation as closely as possible? Or is it rather an organic, living work of music, open to each performer’s artistic interpretation?
It’s a question that Dallas audiences bickered over in January after a concert at the Meyerson Symphony Center, when Cameron Carpenter—an organist with an edgy reputation to say the least—performed a recital program made up almost entirely of Bach. Scott Cantrell, the music critic for The Dallas Morning News, called it “bizarre” and “grotesque,” citing Carpenter’s liberal interpretations as “ugly” and “inappropriate.” Arguments ranged widely, attacking both Carpenter and Cantrell without any clear winner naturally. Who can say, after all these centuries of wondering, what is universally pleasing and objectively beautiful? The better question is about integrity: should Carpenter have shown a little more reverence to the composer’s original intentions?
When it comes to Bach, Cannon falls on the opposite end of the spectrum from Carpenter. He sent me a sneak peak of his forthcoming CD, which is set to be released on the Raven label by the end of 2015. There’s a reverence to each note, as though each were carefully planned. But this doesn’t mean there’s not passion, too, in Cannon’s performance, which communicates a deep spirituality.
Cannon, who currently works as the organist and choirmaster at Christ Episcopal Church in Cooperstown, NY, recorded the CD on Colorado State University’s 1968 Casavant Frères organ. When it was installed, the Casavant was the largest mechanical action organ built in the 17th and 18th century style of North German organs at a university in the United States. The fact that the organ does not have an expression pedal hardly hinders Cannon’s poignant delivery of the more romantic pieces.
On the CD, Bach’s Sechs Schübler Chorales (a collection of six organ chorales that are transcriptions from his cantatas) and Concerto in A minor (BWV 593) seamlessly complement Georg Muffat’s Toccata Prima from Apparatus musico-organisticus and Mendelssohn’s Sonata No. 3 in A major—an organ classic. In addition to the old masters, Cannon plays Andrew Clarke’s Chorale Partita on Ein feste Burg—a set of eight variations that ring out and wind around the opening phrase colorfully. Bright when need be, reflective and quiet at other moments, Cannon’s style is versatile and technically sound.
But the standout on this CD is Jehan Alain’s Postlude pour l’office de complies. Composed in 1930 with the Office of Compline in mind—a service sung at night by nuns bathed in candlelight—the Postlude bespeaks memory as much as hallowedness. Cannon notes that Alain sought to prolong the feeling of the ceremony by using the free rhythm of the Gregorian chant—irregular divisions within bars and rhythmic independence with berceuse-esque accompaniment. Cannon points out a sense of rhythmic liberty here, as a result, and it comes across serenely in his performance.
Of course every performance will always be unique. There’s also no way to ask Bach what he intended—and if we could, even he might remember a piece differently from when he first composed it. I tend to give license to the performer. A work of art is out of the artist’s hands the moment they finish it. But there’s something refreshing, too, in hearing music as it might have sounded hundreds of years ago, or even just a century. Certainly, on this CD Cannon makes a strong argument for hearing Bach, simply as Bach.
Look out for the CD’s release later this year on the Raven Label.