How fast did Bach play and conduct his own music? We have no real evidence. Scholars have been arguing over this for a long time but unless someone invents a time machine, we are not likely to know. There are some general guidelines, but they give no specifics we can use for a particular piece. The metronome was invented by a fellow named Johann Maelzel in 1815 and was immediately latched onto by Beethoven and others to indicate exactly what tempo was desired. At the beginning of the score the exact number of beats per minute was indicated: ♪ = 60 for example. But the bloom was soon off the rose. Beethoven is reported to have said that the metronome marking is only good for the first four bars, after that you are on your own. Brahms said "I am of the opinion that metronome marks go for nothing. As far as I know, all composers have, as I, retracted their metronome marks in later years."
For Bach, who died in 1750, we have no metronome markings, of course. In the world of performance the temptation for virtuosos is always to just push the tempo a bit faster. It might just win the competition. But I doubt this does Bach or the audience any favors. I'm not the only one who thinks so. Here is a quote from composer Jan Swafford writing in Slate a few years ago:
We're seeing the Vivaldi-ization of Bach: gloom banished, minimal variety, implacably crisp, bouncy. And the slim 'n' speedy virus has infected good conductors. When the well-reviewed 1989 John Eliot Gardiner recording of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" appeared, as a Gardiner fan I ran to get it. This time the great chorus of lamentation that begins the "Passion" was indeed an occasion of mourning: I'd blown 20 bucks. Gardiner takes the chorus of lamentation at near-gigue tempo. Jesus is crucified, his performance cries. Let's dance!I'm tempted to start a "slow music" movement analogous to the "slow food" movement. Get your tasty, all-natural, slow-simmered Bach right here!
Of all the different Bach performances I compared, the one that really stood out was by a Hungarian violinist named Kristóf Baráti. Click on the link to go to a Wikipedia article on him. Here he is playing the Siciliano from the G minor solo violin sonata:
Nothing too fast about that tempo! Good grief, why would anyone want to rush through music like this? Here's one:
But the real sins are committed with the fast movements. Here is the Presto from the same sonata played by Barati:
Pretty fast, but he has such control that it succeeds. Here is Grumiaux playing the same movement. The Presto starts at 2:25:
The problem I have with both of these is that there are some subtle rhythmic shifts going on that tend to just whistle by without the listener grasping them. I would really like to hear them. Here is Rachel Podger, the presto starts at 3:04:
That is a very credible performance, but even with some nice gestures, it still seems fast to me. This is a very complex piece and I doubt anyone in the audience is going to doze off if we just slow it down a bit. Do you? Let me end by going back to Kristof Barati. His performance of the Chaconne from the D minor Partita is just the kind of tempo I'm talking about. Unfortunately, Blogger refuses to find the clip so I can't embed it. But here are the links:
Barati, Chaconne, Part 1
Barati, Chaconne, Part 2