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Pass on the Torch

img  Tobias

How far can you go to emulate your heroes? We’re not just talking about 15-year olds filling every square mm of wall space with Eminem pictures. In the popular “Playback Shows” of the 80s, people dressed up, moved and sang like their idols, while there are, apparently, still folks out there following every footstep Elvis ever took (and wearing the same apparel). Still, there are far subtler mechanisms at work, when artists slowly assimilate certain characteristics of the personae behind the music. Bach and Byrd seem to be two good examples of composers with a strong gravitational pull – and two releases on the French “Alpha”-Label only go to confound this suspicion.

We seriously doubt that Johann Sebastian Bach needs any introduction on these pages (or anywhere else for that matter). While Mozart is the synonym for “genius” on the streets, Bach personifies this term among musicians – there hasn’t been a single generation since his death who has not continued to spread the word about his work. The 20th Century has been an especially fruitful era, with his pieces being widely distributed within Europe through extremely affordable box sets and, of course, the meeting with another mythical creature, Glenn Gould. Less legendary, but just as effective, has been the continous stream of dedication from a man, whose life has become associated with Bach for about 50 years now: Gustav Leonhardt. The Dutch harpsichordist, organ player and conductor has changed the entire public perception of his beloved composer by his prominent and entirely undogmatic role in the original practise movement. To Leonhardt (in stark contrast to some of today’s dogged scholars), it was clear that some parameters of interpretation would always be left to the instrumentalist – whether or not Bach was being played too fast, was not a question or an issue to him. But it did matter, what prompted him to write a certain piece, what “function” this composition might have had and on what kind of instrument it had been played at the time. Leonhardt wanted to stay as close to the original intentions as was realistically possible and without the use of speculation. He also wanted to stay as close to Bach as possible.

While his early colleague and friend Nicolas Harnoncourt went on to develop a fiery passion for Mozart, Gustav recorded to what now stands as one of the biggest Bach-discographies of all times. He also turned into an expert on the man’s life and in 1967 their lives merged for a short instance: Leonhardt starred as Bach in the movie "Diary of Anna Magdalena Bach". Last year, however, Leonhardt  made a name for himself with a disc celebrating the keyboard literature of another famous composer: William Byrd. Which brings us to our second emulation-candidate, Bertrand Cuiller.

But first a little bit about Byrd, whose fame, like that of Guillaume Dufay (whom we wrote a feature about just a few days ago), has taken a slight dip in the last few centuries. If you should ask a musical historian, however, you will find that his star is still shining brightly on the Classical walk of fame. Internet information source puts it thus: “It would be impossible to over-estimate his (...) influence on the music of England, the Low Countries, and Germany.” Right then. They also inform us that “Byrd is considered by many the greatest English composer of any age, and indeed his substantial volume of high quality compositions in every genre of the time makes it easy to consider him the greatest composer of the Renaissance - his versatility and genius outshining those of Palestrina and Lassus in a self-evident way.” Pretty impressive, eh? For sure, Byrds repertoire has regained current value and connected with new audiences – another case of “old is the new modern”.

This latter term certainly makes sense when associated with the Alpha label. Alpha, together with their Spanish colleagues of Glossa, may well be the biggest sensation to hit the Classical/Mediaeval/Renaissance scene for a long time. In the course of just a few years, they have become one of the leading record companies around, selling records by the bucketloads and yet retaining a distictly own character and higest quality standards. Their mission was diametrically opposed to the general mood of the late 90s, when they started to establishe their brand. At the time, it seemed like it was enough to simply dig up an unknown name and an unknown piece, to have it performed and pressed and earn some easy cash. To Alpha, there was a zone between the obscure and the obvious, which they exploited in a brilliant and suprising fashion. It seemed only natural for them to approach Gustav Leonhardt for a recording of some of Byrd’s keyboard works. The disc had an increbile impact, which can still be felt today – it has just earned a Midem Classical Award.

Because of this success, it seemed just as natural that the album should have a follow-up. This time around, Alpha managed to win young harpsichordist Bertrand Cuiller for “Pescodd Time”. Again, critical acclaim has been overwhelming. What is so remarkable about this story is that Cuiller seemed to have appeared out of the blue. His biography is quickly told: His mother tought him to play, he studied and grauated from college and made a name for himself through some excitingly programmed recitals. This is his only his debut and highlights both him and the man whose music he is presenting. “Pescodd Time” follows in the footsteps of the first Byrd-installment and can be seen as a direct continuation of Leonhardts interpretations, who has hereby passed the torch to a younger generation.

Once again, the music comes across is witty, uplifting, surprising and devoid of all the usual heavyness and headache-inducing seriousness. These are positive and energetic pieces from a corner of the musical map, which has long indulged in too much intellectual discourse and too little sensual enjoyment. While Cuiller is no stranger to this world and its mechanisms, we found it interesting that some of the features on his homepage have a strong retro-feeling to them, which might stem from a desire to go back in time: There is no English translation available, no MP3-downloads, no typical picture gallery and, especially, no email contact. His agent is only available by mail or phone. Talking about “old school”...

Admittedly, this does not put him on par with some of the rather extreme examples of idolatry mentioned in the first paragraph. But it does point to a certain mindset that cares more for the beauty of the music and the vision of its creator than the multimedia presentation that has become almost commonplace nowadays. If they should ever decide to turn a movie on William Byrd, Bertrand Cuiller might be a wise choice for the leading role.

Homepage: Alpha Records
Homepage: Bertrand Cuiller
Homepage: William Byrd at

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