Blogging Pachelbel #2 — Muenchinger/Stuttgart

Had I listened to this recording before the Baumgartner, I would have been scandalized, because this recording makes a cut around the same place as in the Baumgartner, but, as ugly as the Baumgartner recording is, the cuts here do much more violence to the essential nature of the piece.

It seems obvious that the Baumgartner recording is related to this one as both recordings screw around in exactly the same locations. The Baumgartner omits the opening continuo-only statement of the ground — this recording includes it, but instead of going straight into the canon in m. 3, it orchestrates a second statement, before starting the canon in m. 6. I’m not sure what problem was being solved here, but if the Baumgartner was cutting something that was too bare, this recording eases us into the full texture a few voices at a time.

Then there’s the question of the cuts, which happen in the same location, but whereas the Baumgartner carefully maintained the integrity of the canon and just omitted the same 8 measures of the canon in each part, this recording simply jumps from m. 27 to to m. 35 in all the parts at once. This means that the first violin plays the full canon except for 4 of the couplets, but that the 2nd and 3rd violin skip a different 4 couplets! So, while two couplets (mm. 27-30 in v. 1) are never heard, two of the other couplets cut from violin 1 are heard only in the 2nd and 3rd violins. The couplet introduced in v. 1 in m. 31 is heard only in the 2nd and 3rd violins, and the next couplet only in the 3rd violin.

In investigating the historiography of the Canon, one of the things that has struck me is the degree to which popular culture seems to have latched onto the harmonic progression of Pachelbel’s Canon more than the intricately woven contrapuntal texture. For instance, the amazing Canon Rock phenomenon partakes of the harmonic progression and uses the canonic theme as melodic material, and the passages where the canon is in thirds with itself certainly get used as an opportunity to show off guitar virtuosity. But there is never any true canonic imitation.

Most of the keyboard transcriptions are far worse about this, even though a keyboard player ought to be able to recreate a fair amount of contrapuntal texture. It’s clear that the canonic texture is not primarily what people who respond to Pachelbel’s piece by creating their own versions are moved by, since the canonic texture almost never appears in these transcriptions/arrangements. And the general public still loves these pieces, despite the richness in the original that has been bleached out.

I had attributed this to garden-variety musical naïveté, but now that I’ve heard some of these early recordings of Pachelbel’s Canon that were prepared and played by professional Classical musicians who have every capacity for understanding contrapuntal textures, it seems quite obvious to me that the popular imagination is not alone in responding mostly to the harmony and melody. The balances in both the Paillard and Baumgartner recordings, along with this one, tend to highly emphasize one of the lines as the clear MELODY at any point, and it’s this aspect of the musical conception, I think, that leads to such cuts as the one we see here that is completely devestating to the contrapuntal texture.

Now, of course, it doesn’t sound bad, because the canon is designed so that you can pretty much mix and match any of the parts and it will come out all right (that’s the nature of the ground bass, within limits, of course). And, indeed, had I not been watching the score scroll by in Finale while listening, I’m not sure I would have noticed. I certainly did miss the repeated notes in the Baumgartner, but thought they were just made into accompaniment figures so that I had simply missed them. In this case, I would have been less likely to notice, given that it’s the three couplets before the repeated notes that are omitted.

But I can’t help but wonder exactly what it is that leads to these cuts. What is wrong with this passage that it gets taken out in two of these early recordings? I’m pretty much at a loss for an explanation, myself.

Blogging Pachelbel #1 — Baumgartner

I’m skipping Fiedler right now because it’s not available for MP3 download, and the CD won’t arrive for a few days.

This is a stunningly slow recording. It clocks in at 6:16 to begin with (the only slower recording is the Paillard), but that’s without 10 measures that are cut from the performance. First, it skips the first two measures of the bass. It then starts to slow and then slows down some more, exhibiting a woozy-headed, completely unsteady tempo, like molasses. The ugliness of the bass line stands out — it’s too strong for the middle parts, and not in tune enough. The balance is very strange, as though the conductor is afraid of letting the lines come to the fore as Pachelbel wrote them. This badly mucks up the balance so that some of the new canonic entrances are inaudible until the third violin gets its statement. This results in some very weird textures and tends to suppress the figuration in certain voices.

But to me the most shocking discovery was that this performances entirely cuts the two couplets of repeated notes and the two couplets before that (mm. 27-34). At 3:06 in the recording:

  • v. 1 cuts from m. 27 to m. 35
  • v. 2 cuts from 29 to 37
  • v. 3 cuts from 31 to 39

This is my favorite part! And I thought all string players loved playing repeated notes under a single bow! It’s one of the loveliest sounds strings can have, a heartbeat-like pulsing that is quite lovely. But this recording sacrifices it to no end that I can imagine.

The ending is grandiose beyond belief, and just unpleasant. It’s as though the conductor misread the composer as Wagner.

Except that Wagner had better taste, and a much more finely tuned sense of historical musical style.

Blogging Pachelbel

I’ve been obsessed the last few weeks with the history of Pachelbel’s Canon. I got interested because my viol consort had originally planned to do Purcell’s Three Parts on a Ground (Z. 731), which is for the exact same instrumentation, and I thought we should get the Pachelbel under our belts while we were at it. For various reasons we decided not to do either piece, but I’d gotten fascinated by the historiography of the Canon. This weekend I started buying every MP3 version of it I could find that was a serious attempt to present the Canon, and not variations on the Canon’s chaconne bass.

I’ve figured out the timings for all the ones I have and the average beats per minute (BPM), and now I’ve just started listening through them to get a sense of how the different performances differ. I’d started taking notes, but I realized it would make more sense to just blog the whole process as I go along, and do it one performance per blog post.

Here’s the list of the recordings I’m looking at, in roughly chronological order (it’s tough to say on some of them since they are re-issues of re-issues and don’t have the original release dates so far as I can tell):

[Editorial Note: Since originally posting this, I've come up with additional information on recording dates. I've updated a few major items here, but will not get back to this project until the weekend, when I should have significant revisions based on additional information received very gratefully from many helpful correspondents.]

Ensemble/Performer Version Est. Date
Fiedler Sinfonietta Orchestral ?1940s, R1991
Baumgartner, Festival Strings, Lucerne Orchestral, 8mm. cut 1966, R1968, R1969, R1976, R1978, R1981, R1984, R1986, R1991
Münchinger/Stuttgart Orchestral, 8mm. cut 1967, R1978, R1989
Paillard 1968 Orchestral arr. 1968, R1979, R1984
Ettore Stratta Orchestral, 8mm. cut 1970s, many re-releases, lastest R2002 (is this the Ordinary People version?)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestral arr. with winds and brass, non-original bass line, incomplete in all downloadable versions (fadeout after c. 2:30) ?1970s, R2008
London Philharmonic Orchestral ?1970s, R2008
101 Strings Orchestral ?1970s, R2008
Gerhardt/National Philharmonic Orchestral ?1970s-80s, R2007
Vienna Baroque Ensemble Orchestral ?1970s-80s, R2009
New Bach Collegium Orchestral (tutti/solo?) ?1980s, R1989, R1999, R2009
Hogwood Original 1981 (1983?) R1994-95
Musica Antiqua Köln/Goebel Original 1981, R1995
London Baroque Original 1981 R1998 R2005
Leppard Orchestral 1981-82 (83?) R1988
Slatkin Orchestral 1982-83 (84?), R2008
I Musici Orchestral 1983, R1990
English Concert Original 1986 (1985?)
Taverner Players Original 1988, R1993, R1996, R2004-05, R2006-07
Paillard 1989 Orchestral arr. 1991 (recorded in 1989), R1995
London Chamber Orchestra Orchestral 1989 R1994
Orpheus Orchestral 1990
Manze Original 1993
Royal Philharmonic/Carney Orchestral 2009 [new release?]

That’s a lot of recordings to review, but so far, it’s been fairly fascinating, discovering all the surprises, the parallel octaves and fifths, the shocking cuts, the ridiculous tempos (both fast and slow). Fun stuff!

Next post in this series: Blogging Pachelbel #1 — Baumgartner