Four Ways of Performing Bach

This is an easy (and somewhat startling) comparison. Big symphony orchestras have largely abandoned music of the Baroque as the Early Music movement of the late 20th Century pared down the forces used to perform it in an attempt to more accurately reflect the way the music would have been heard when it was composed. We’re now accustomed to the lighter, more transparent textures of this era. But there are still big differences in approach to this music, as you will hear in the excerpts below.

Here are four versions of the first movement of Bach’s Brandeburg Concerto No.3. The first three are by Early Music specialists, though the performances are separated by decades and reflect changing thinking about this music. The fourth is by the Berlin Philharmonic, led by Herbert von Karajan. Note the different tempos. Also the difference in clarity and transparency. There’s also something different about the pacing that’s different. Try a simple experiment – try moving your arms to these excerpts. Is the way you’re moving different from one to the other. Exaggerate the movement and figure out what your body is telling you about these performances. How is the energy different? How about three words to describe each performance. Be as specific as you can be.

Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music

Nicholas Harnoncourt and Concentus Musicus Wien

Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra

Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic

The Full Set


  1. Still listening, but right off, after the others, the Berlin Phil sounds like murky soup. The Koopman seems to go at the fastest clip, with the Hogwood right behind (though my ear must deceive me on the Harnoncourt, as I see it clocks in at the same length. The Koopman and Hogwood are for my ears, the better, both crisp and clean, though I feel the Koopman is racing on a bit too much. I remember the first time I heard Gardiner do the Beethoven Symphonies–they came so alive, compared to others, and I realized later, when I went back to listen to the recording I had of the Ninth, that, aside from all the other differences, the music was going at a much faster clip.

  2. Guillermo Hinojosa says:

    Hogwood: the different voices are clear. You can hear them individually.
    Harnoncourt: all the voices are mixed. You cannot tell one from the other.
    Koopman: Fast, not clear enough.
    Von Karajan: disappoints me in this one. Sounds Maestoso.

  3. Hogwood – clear individual voices
    Harnoncourt – seems lower in register, slower, somehow sluggish
    Koopman – seems higher in register, fast
    Von Karajan – very round sounding, slow, somehow meets my expectations of what Baroque music would sound like

  4. Kathleen James says:

    Hippity-hop, harpsichord-heavy
    Balanced, light, sonorous
    Frenetic, fast, light
    Ponderous,deep, swaying

  5. This was only easy in that it was clear that there was a difference in energy among the excerpts: it’s much harder to say how, even now that I’ve waved my arms around (I’d forgotten how much fun that is).
    1. ebullient, curious, lively
    2. refined, stately, earnest
    3. precise, brisk, springy
    4. ringing, smooth, Christmassy

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