Via the dotCommonweal blog this morning, I ran across a video of Karl Richter leading an orchestra through the Gloria section of Bach’s “Mass in B minor.” I didn’t know who Karl Richter was. I had never heard the music before. I couldn’t hope to identify B minor in a line-up of scales.
But the video was intriguing for its timing. From 1969, the scene was on a bridge between classic and modern. The constrained mood and washed colors dated the images, but the richness of sounds and the very nature of the motion — music first, no movie — brought currency.
Googling some, I found the bridge nature was alive and controversial even at the time of the taping. Richter’s Web bios generally skimped, but concert review after concert review in the Times archives put his work amid much debate. The originalist fight around Bach had begun, aiming to play his music as it was first heard. Smaller ensembles and heirloom instruments were in. Richter’s bigger, more dramatic styling was a misreading, the critics increasingly believed — and as Richter refused to change in the face of their challenge, a willful misreading.
Time and surging musical diversity have since lessened that warfare. Voice of San Diego, one of the country’s great Web-onlys right now, has a piece just this month on the different Bach approaches but uses a dual interview to put them in balance and make them friendly even.
When this video footage came out in 2006, the Post‘s Tim Page hit a similar point. (Google News Archives, I love you.) “… after all,” wrote Page in his lede about the late Richter, “it is rarely necessary to take sides against a conductor who has been silent for a quarter-century.” Working his way through the various Richter releases occurring then, Page got to “Mass in B minor” last. But he found valedictory inside it:
With the exception of the most metaphysical passages, Richter favors steady tempos, which were once considered somewhat faster than normal and now seem almost leisurely. Nevertheless, throughout the music, there is a coiled sense of dramatic impetus that is almost Verdian in its intensity. Bach almost certainly never intended the entire Mass to be sung in a single performance, yet Richter infuses his rendition with a welling and irresistible sense of continuum.
“He saw and he believed!” was the title of the post that led me into the video today, with debate falling to a welling, irresistible sense.