Bach to Moog (CD review)

Jennifer Pike, violin; Craig Leon, Moog synthesizers and conductor; Sinfonietta Cracovia. Sony 88875052612.

Turn back the clock; we're all young again.

In the mid Sixties Dr. Robert Moog invented the Moog music synthesizer. A couple of years later, American composer and electronic musician Wendy Carlos put the instrument on the map with the best-selling album Switched-On Bach. Now, we go back to the future with Bach to Moog, an updated realization of that landmark release, this time performed by Craig Leon, complete with a newly reconstructed Moog synthesizer and accompanied by violinist Jennifer Pike and a small ensemble of players, the Sinfonietta Cracovia.

As producer, performer, and conductor Leon explains, "I had a discussion with the folks at Moog Music about creating a recording that would coincide with two significant events that they were going to be celebrating. The first was the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Moog Modular synthesizer, which was occurring in 2014-15. The second was the upcoming 10th anniversary of the death of Robert A. 'Bob' Moog, their founder, who was the pioneer who brought the synthesizer to the world's musical stage.

"For the anniversary events, Moog Music manufactured a carefully reconstructed version of the Moog modular 55, which, though not the actual instrument that was used on Switched-On Bach, was very close to the original instrument on the recording. This was the instrument that was to feature on my project and indeed I would be the first person to record with it.

"I was faced with the daunting task of ensuring that the piece was not simply another retro version of the original Switched-On Bach. That was an album that has stood the test of time and remains a classic to this day. Instead I wanted to find a place for the synthesizer as an equal to acoustic instruments in the modern recording environment, both as a solo instrument and as a member of an ensemble. Doing research with theremins and a DI'd string bass as an audio source for processing via the Moog, I felt that string instruments would be the most useful for my purpose.

"The arrangements were written for small string ensemble, solo violin and solo Moog, using Moog as a processor for the acoustic instruments."

Craig Leon
So, is Leon's new release an improvement on its famous precursor? That's hard to answer because it may depend on one's attitude toward the original. Most of the classical-music listeners I knew in the late Sixties viewed Switched-On Bach as a sort of novelty; I mean, if you wanted to hear Bach played by an organ or a harpsichord or an orchestra, that's the way you bought it. But a synthesizer? While it was fun and began to tap the potential of electronic instruments, I'm not too sure a lot of Bach fans took it seriously. After all, not every Bach fan appreciated Stokowski's orchestral arrangements of Bach, either. Bach to Moog may find itself in the same company today. It's fun but obviously far from authentic and probably another novelty.

Here's a lineup of what's on the program:
Violin Partita No. 3 in E Major, Preludio
Violin Sonata No. 4 in C Minor, Siciliano
"Herz Und Mund Und Tat Und Leben"
Toccata and Fugue in D Minor
"Ich Steh Mit Einem Fuß Im Grabe"
Brandenburg Concerto No. 4
Orchestral Suite No. 3: Air
Goldberg Variations: Aria
Fourteen Canons on the Goldberg ground

It's all pretty familiar territory, but only a couple of items duplicate material from Carlos's album. The opening number, the Violin Partita No. 3, sets the tone for the rest of the program. The arrangement is tasteful, and Leon's playing and conducting are basically pretty conventional, with no helter-skelter tempos or exaggerated pauses, lengthening or shortening of notes, or tonal contrasts. Indeed, Leon could just as well be leading a traditional chamber version of Bach, except that we get a healthier amount of electronic music-making along with it.

The famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor sounds for all the world as though Leon is playing it on a typical church organ, so I'm not entirely sure what the point is. Fans of the Moog, of course, will point out that I'm simply untutored in the art of the instrument, and surely they would be correct. The Moog is capable of producing a remarkable variety of tones, so it can duplicate the sound of almost anything you program and play on it. The entire presentation from everyone involved seems energetic and enjoyable, with only the slight buzzing and burbling of the Moog a minor distraction for non-Moog enthusiasts.

Probably my favorite selection on the program, though, was the complete Brandenburg Concerto No. 4. But my reason for liking it may not be a compliment to the Moog because it is the very fact that the electronic sound is less obvious in these tracks than in any of the others. Whatever, I liked it.

Anyway, I found Leon's way with Bach more to more liking than Carlos's, more cultured and refined. And, of course, the addition of the violin solos and chamber accompaniment provides for a fuller, more-complete sound. The main thing is that it's all quite pleasurable, and none of it does any harm to Bach.

Producer and engineer Craig Leon and engineer Piotr Witkowski recorded the music at Bottomwood Recording, Buckinghamshire, UK, and Alvernia Studios, Alvernia, Poland and released the disc in May 2015. It's hard to judge the electronic part of this music as there is no absolute counterpart in the real world with which to compare it. The "sound" of electronically generated music in concert is often a matter of the kind of loudspeakers employed and their placement. Nevertheless, the sound on this disc will not disappoint fans of the Moog instrument or chamber orchestras, as it all sounds very close, very dynamic, and very clear. Yet the sound is not at all bright, steely, metallic, or edgy. In fact, everything appears exceptionally smooth, smoother than the old Carlos album. It's also a very big sound, the ensemble stretching very wide left to right. Expect room-filling sound with strong impact in a fairly warm acoustic setting.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa