The 1950s were tumultuous years. Americans discovered psychotherapy and having a nervous breakdown was fashionable. Cars grew exuberant tailfins. Sputnik orbited visibly overhead. Everybody was taking essentially pointless IQ tests. The Cold War was on and students were made to lie down in neat rows in school hallways so they could survive a nuclear attack from the Soviets. (No wonder they needed shrinks.) Most Americans owned TVs for the first time. You could doubtless add to that list.
Classical LPs arrived. Were they positive or negative? Of course they were positive, because people could listen to classical music in nice big 30-minute chunks instead of the six-minute peashooter sound bites that they got on 78s.
Thanks to the LP, we could hear artists like Arthur Rubenstein, Mischa Elman, Lotte Lehmann, and others. I remember listening to an LP recording of The Rite of Spring – my first exposure to the work. The Rite of Spring would have been a pointless if it had been chopped up into six-minute chunks and released on 78s.
But although LPs were wonderful for late Romantic some post-Romantic music too, they distorted Baroque music in damaging ways that are still being felt today.
“Baroque” meant a lot of things in those days. Stokowski’s monumental and skillful arrangement of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in G Minor,” for example, was a ton of fun, but had about as much to do with Baroque music as miniature golf has to do with the PGA Tour.
Based on what was being released on LPs in those days, many people seemed to conclude that Baroque’s two composers worth watching were Bach and Vivaldi. Recordings of their works in those days were mostly big and mushy, played by big orchestras. Somehow the value of Bach could be aurally decoded somewhat from big pillowy recordings – especially recordings of the Mass in B Minor and other big choral works performed by huge choruses and jumbo orchestras. But Vivaldi just didn’t make any aural sense. Only in recent years do we have any recordings that cut to the leaner essence of what Vivaldi is really all about.
Recordings of Corelli’s Concerti Grossi, played by big orchestras, were distorted and mostly useless. So too with most of the music of the French Baroque. I remember buying some early LPs of suites of ballet music by Rameau, Lully, and Couperin, for example, and dismissing those composers as uninteresting. Only in recent years, again, have recordings of their works, played with some historical accuracy, been able to convey the energy and vitality.
There were exceptions, of course. I remember buying some early Archiv LPs of works by composers like Lassus and Purcell, for example, that came pretty close to offering what we today would call “historically informed” performances. But I’d posit the view that the most valid recordings of Baroque music from the 1950s were found only on records of works that perforce had to be performed by soloists or small ensembles.
I’m talking about the recordings of harpsichord works by Bach and others that Wanda Landowska made. Also, the performances of Bach’s lute suites that guitarist Andre Segovia recorded. Those recordings hold up today and still tell us valid things about Bach, because they had to be recorded by one player.
Here’s what is apparently the only available video of Landowska playing Bach on her preferred, rather huge and piano-like Pleyel harpsichord.
And here’s a video of Segovia playing Bach.
Some vocal recordings from those days also came fairly close to conveying the intentions of Baroque composers. I’m thinking of the terrific recordings made by the countertenors Russell Oberlin and Alfred Deller of the works of Purcell, John Blow and earlier British composers like Dowland.
Here’s countertenor Russell Oberlin singing a cantata by Alessandro Scarlatti.
What if Different Baroque Composers Had Been Recorded First in the 1950s?
It all makes me wonder. What if record labels had decided to release recordings of Rameau and Telemann instead of Bach and Vivaldi? Would casual lovers of classical today think of Rameau and Telemann as the most important composers of the Baroque era? Which they could have been, by the way.
You can’t rewrite history, but you can think about it.