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Freedom/ The Aulos Ensemble plays Johan Sebastian Bach

The MHS Review 401, VOL. 12, NO.5 • 1988

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David M. Greene


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Even though I know all there is to be known about the stuff whereof I write in these pages, I am basically a modest guy and make it a point to glance over the notes submitted with it. Thus it was that the other evening, preparatory to settling in with these recordings, I sat down (actual­ly I wallowed on the bed) to read the liner notes submitted in xeroxed typescript. Now to be sure I see the names of per­formers on the worksheets, but until I get down to the actual business of listening, I must confess that I don't pay much atten­tion. Hence all that "Aulos Ensemble" con­veyed to me was that it was one of those Old Music outfits that MHS records from time to time.

But I had not got very far into the notes when I found myself saying, "By golly, these are good!" As I went on a bit further, I said, "This must be Richard Taruskin, because no one else is this good.'' Then I remembered that Mr. Taruskin is the mov­ing spirit behind Autos. Taruskin also writes for an ambitious but struggling review called Opus (not after the penguin in "Bloom County"). Opus is a refuge for some of the best record reviewers and music writers in this benighted nation. But I have to say that when it arrives in the mail, I automatically seek out Taruskin first. How refreshing to find someone who is not only authoritative, but who ex­presses himself with real style and who avoids the usual blather.

Autos has given us previously some generous helpings of Telemann and Handel; now they offer us Bach. Consider­ing the amount of attention that is given him lately, you will be wondering why. As you will see from the facing page, the two compact discs/cassettes/records are oc­cupied by a number of miscellaneous sonatas, which, if you're a Bach nut, you probably already have in spades.

Well, first of all there's the matter of Authentic Performance Practice. The Aulos people have the instruments and they have the techniques (as they believe them to be). They, to coin a phrase, go for baroque. They, as the notes to one of their earlier records say, have "been spreading the word.'' So if you want your Bach as Bach supposedly heard it, here 'tis (sort of: see below). (If you want to duplicate the con­ditions under which Bach heard it, turn off your central heating, your water, and your electricity for starters.)

But wait a mo'! I have sensed from the testiness of certain reviewers that Authenticity is beginning to run dry in some quarters. Now here comes Taruskin suggesting that something is missing. Getting as close as is possible to what the composer intended has its drawbacks. It turns the music into museum pieces--impeccably restored, beautifully mounted, cleaned to a luster, but museum pieces all the same. Bach was less respectful of his own work "Individual movements slipped in and out of conjunction; media were interchangeable and adaptable (even vocal to instrumental and vice versa); masses paraphrased cantatas and oratorios parodied bawdy ditties ... .It becomes clear that the status of a piece of written music was by no means as definitive in Bach's day as it is in ours." Do you sense where this is leading?

Yep. Authenticity, to be really authentic is freedom. What Aulos has done here, is present most of these works as Bach (as far as we know) never wrote them. Admittedly they have not gone very far: they have something like the composer's sanction for what they have done. For example, the first selection is a sonata in G for flute, viola da gamba and harpsichord. Now the gamba sonata in that key has a counterpart in S. 1039, a sonata for two flutes and continuo. So why not combine them? Do you object? Aulos offers in defense a trio sonata in G for flute, violin and continuo. This is known to be "inauthentic," i.e. Bach didn't write all of it. What he did was take the continuo part from the Violin Sonata, S. 1021 and, as an exercise, have a pupil (probably his son Emanuel) construct other parts on it.

Do you know the G minor Oboe Sonata'? No? What has come down to us is the keyboard part of the B minor Flute Sonata, transposed to a key that is unsuited to the flute. So why not? Etc. And Taruskin refuses to apologize. Rather, he says, he looks forward to the day when we can "revel with impunity in the music we love to play" and "the revival of Early Music will have truly come of age." I patiently await the Second Coming of Leopold Stokowski.

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