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Mon, Aug. 27th, 2007, 09:09 pm
Johann Sebastian Bach - The Art of Fugue (Excerpts) / Prelude and Fugue on BACH

Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Works: The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080 - Contrapuncti I-IX, XI, XIII and XIV / Prelude and Fugue in Bb Major on the Name BACH, BWV 898
Performer: Glenn Gould (organ and piano)
Label: Sony Classical

The Art of Fugue was always my least favorite of Bach's three big, encyclopedic counterpoint pieces. You know I love The Well-Tempered Clavier, and The Musical Offering sticks in my mind as a piece with a great sense of humor -- though it's been a long time, and I may be confusing my impressions of it with my impressions of Peter Schickele's parody, The Musical Sacrifice (!). Next to those pieces, The Art of Fugue always seemed too somber and academic, with its thirteen and a half pieces all in the same key ("and a half" because Bach died before he finished the last one), and its theme that could probably win a dull rhythm contest. Listening to it again, there are still times when I feel that way, especially in Contrapunctus VI -- ugh, French Overture style! But there are other movements that are fantastic, and that I didn't remember at all.

This CD is a compilation of various recordings. First you have Gould's recording of the first nine "Contrapuncti" on organ in 1962, then a scattershot collection of them on piano, recorded in 1967 and 1981. Since the organ recording is first, I'm tempted to attribute my high-school self's dislike of the piece to my apparently long-term dislike of the instrument, even though Gould doesn't do a lot of the things I've complained about in my recent posts on Bach organ music. I can say for certain that his piano recording of Contrapunctus I is at least seven thousand times better than his organ recording of it. Even Contrapunctus IX, which I used to love in its organ incarnation on the Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould soundtrack -- the first CD I ever had -- now seems to sparkle much more in its other form. But as I think about it, I wonder if it's not the instruments so much as the specific performances. When Gould recorded Contrapunctus I on the piano in 1981, he was more mature as a musician than he was when he recorded it on the organ in 1962. As you know, I love Gould's late recordings, and this one has the same virtue as the others: an attention to detail so fine-grained that it feels like you're looking at the piece through a microscope. He plays it astonishingly slowly, taking four minutes and 51 seconds versus the earlier recording's 2:45. Towards the end of the piece, there's a half cadence, a rest, a single chord, another rest, and then a long cadential phrase. In the later recording, he pauses so long in that first rest that it sounds as if he's simply decided to stop playing. He also hammers out the last minute of the piece with a ferocity you almost never hear in slow music, especially slow Baroque music.

And if it were just a matter of me not liking the organ, why would I prefer the organ version of Contrapunctus IV? They're both good, certainly, but when the piece gets to those endless little falling motifs, Gould uses the organ's stops to make it sound as if the piece is being played by the wind section of an orchestra. The piece also has a wonderful little recurring inflection towards the phrygian mode which reminds me of a piece on one of the first CDs I ever wrote about in this blog: Sebastiàn de Albero's sixth harpsichord sonata.

And then there's Contrapunctus XIV, the unfinished one. The mystique surrounding this piece in the scored-music world is so thick you can practically drink it, and I was so intimidated by the prospect of listening to it that I actually skipped ahead and listened to the Prelude and Fugue on the Name BACH first. For one thing, it's the last thing Bach ever wrote, and he died before he finished it. For another, even unfinished it's twelve minutes long, more than twice the length of any other piece in The Art of Fugue. (That's assuming that the two Contrapuncti missing from this CD, numbers X and XII, are about the same length as their neighbors.) And on top of that, it's gotten hooked into a late-20th-century conceptual mood-texture that I'm having a hard time finding words for, but which might be best represented by the fact that Luciano Berio chose it as the one piece from The Art of Fugue to orchestrate. Berio was a guy who once took the sketches for Schubert's Tenth Symphony -- another piece left unfinished when the composer died -- and filled in the gaps with dreamy, blurry, celesta-filled soundscapes. That is to say, he was someone who loved to play around the edges of music, the places where it drops off into nonexistence -- much like his compatriot Salvatore Sciarrino, who is one of my favorite living composers. It's actually quite appropriate that my copy of the CD is damaged, so that Contrapunctus XIII is full of skips and gaps. But as much as I'd like to find the skips conceptually beautiful, they're just irritating when they show up (just once) in Contrapunctus XIV. This is not a piece to be tampered with. In fact, Gould plays it with a reverence that I've never heard from him anywhere else. Even in that late recording of Goldberg Variations, he's in command, manipulating the music as he sees fit. Here he's hushed, as if the music has ordered him to tread lightly. And finally, the piece's greatest moment: the ending. The music simply stops. There are no missing sections in the middle as there are in Schubert's Tenth; there's a complete contrapuntal braid, cut off like Bach's life, and like Gould's life only six months after he made the recording.

I remember listening to this fugue very early on -- it must have been before I had this recording, because I remember it as being an arrangement by Canadian Brass that I had gotten out of the Needham Public Library. It was so early on, actually, that I didn't really understand what I was listening to. The piece has two different moments where the texture thins out and another fugal exposition begins, making it more like three concatenated fugues than a single one. When I heard the texture drop out as a kid, I thought that I was hearing sections where Bach had only written out one line, intending to fill in the others later but dying before he had a chance. It was only a few months ago, listening to Berio's arrangement, that I realized my mistake.

OK, this post is getting way too long, but I do need to mention two other pieces. First of all, Contrapunctus XI, with its overspilling multiplicity of sections, two of them introduced by deliberately confusing transitions all in rhythmic unison, so that you think "Wait -- is that a chorale?" The last section is so harmonically "advanced" (I hate that word, but it's the best I can think of right now) and so rhythmically insistent that it comes out sounding more like Mendelssohn than Bach. And secondly, the Prelude and Fugue on the Name BACH. An explanation for non-musicians: in German, Bb is called "B" and B is called "H" (don't ask -- long story having to do with the history of flat and natural signs and Medieval theologians thinking that the interval between F and B was Satanic), so Bach's name can actually be turned into a melody, much like Cage's and Abegg's. After the somberness of (most of) The Art of Fugue, it's a relief to listen to a major-mode piece, especially one that has that rare mix of joyousness and tranquility that only Bach can do. File this one in the same category as the first of the Six Little Preludes.

Fri, Aug. 3rd, 2007, 10:36 am
Bach Family - Organ Works (Disc 2)

Composers: Johann Lorenz Bach (1695-1773); Johann Michael Bach (1648-1694); Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750); Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703); Johann Bernhard Bach (1676-1749); Johann Ernst Bach (1722-1777)
Works: Prelude and Fugue in D Major (JLB) / "Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr" (JMB) / "Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein" (JMB) / Chorale with Six Variations on "Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein", BWV Anh. 78 (JSB) / Capriccio in Eb Major, BWV 993 (JSB) / Prelude and Fugue in Eb Major (JCB) / "Warum betrübst du dich, mein Herz" (JCB) / "Wach auf, mein Herz, und singe" (JCB) / "Aus meines Herzens Grunde" (JCB) / Passacaglia in Bb Major (JBB) / Partita on "Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christ" (JBB) / Fantasia and Fugue in F Major (JEB)
Performer: Wilhelm Krumbach (organ)
Label: Teldec Classics

A little less than a year ago, a friend and I put on a concert of our music in New York. There were a lot of performers involved, so in order to save space in the program, we decided that everyone would get only a one-sentence bio. Mine said: "Alex Temple's secret goal is to like all music."

I've become a little more jaded since then. I'm still pretty good at finding something to like even in very problematic pieces, and there's plenty of music that I love despite, or sometimes even because of, its flaws. (In the "because of" category: David Thomas's voice, and the Beatles' wonderfully idiotic "Birthday.") But there's a difference between liking something and loving something, and there's a difference between being seeing a piece's good points and actually thinking it's a good piece. When I start teaching composition, it will serve me very well to be able to find the positive aspects of my students' pieces; that way, my advice will be more "here's how you can bring out what you're trying to do more effectively" and less "you should be trying to do something else" (because what good is the latter to anyone, really?). But does that mean that I'm going to actually like every piece my students bring to me? Is that even necessary? Is it even desirable?

I keep thinking about a friend's definition of the phrase "nice guy": "easy to get on the friendship ladder, hard to get on the romance ladder." I feel that way about people in general, but I'd take it a step further. It's easier to see someone as a friend than as a romantic partner, but it's also easier to see someone as a friendly acquaintance than as a friend, and easier still to see someone as a person with some good qualities. That's how I feel about music, too: it's easy to find good qualities in a piece, but only a subset of those pieces will actually become "friendly acquaintances" -- pieces you'd actually bother to "hang out with" (listen to) more than once. Only a subset of those will become "friends" -- pieces that are really present in your life, that you'd speak highly of and "introduce" (recommend) to other people; and an even smaller subset will become "lovers" -- pieces that can give you chills, alter the way you see the world, and stick with you for years even as your life changes dramatically.

Saying that is easy. The hard part is figuring out what makes a piece fall into one category or another. As with people, I suspect it's partially to do with the piece's "objective" qualities: some people, and some pieces of music, are really just kind of boring, hard to tell apart from the next person or piece. It's also partially to do with compatibility: if you really dig spiky counterpoint, or puns, you're going to be automatically predisposed to "get along well" with spiky contrapuntal pieces, or people who play with words. But that only gets us to the level of "friendly acquaintance." Beyond that there seems to be some irreducible quality that makes certain pieces (and people) stand out above others, that makes certain musical gestures (and personality traits) feel important and unique and specific. I tried to explain this last winter in terms of questions and answers: music that gives you all the answers is less likely to stick with you than music that leaves some of its questions open. But of course, musical passages can only ask questions or give answers in a metaphorical sense -- which means that my "explanation" doesn't really explain anything, because we still don't know why some passages feel "mysterious" or "open-ended" and others don't. It's not just a matter of eschewing cliché, because a conventional gesture can turn into something new if it's used in the right way. The real answer is that I don't know, and I don't really expect to be able to solve the problem that artists have been puzzling over for centuries. What I can say, though, is that as aesthetically magnanimous as I try to be, the best I can do is to make myself enjoy pieces that I initially didn't. Making myself care about music that doesn't initially affect me is a much harder task.

All of which leads me to this CD. The short version of my response to it is, "Yeah, these pieces are nice and enjoyable and well-crafted, but I don't really care about most of them, and I guess there's a reason everyone listens to Johann Sebastian Bach while nobody's ever heard of Johann Michael or Johann Lorenz Bach." I could talk about the jovial monumentalism of Johann Lorenz's D Major Prelude, or the mahogany elegance of Johann Christoph's chorale prelude on "Warum betrübst du dich, mein Herz," and I can't say that there's anything wrong with either piece. If they were written by students in a Baroque-style composition class, I'd give them A's for sure. But would I care if I ever heard them again? Do they mean anything more to me than some guy I once had a fun conversation with at a party? No, not really. That irreducible element is just not there.

Not that it's there in everything Johann Sebastian ever wrote, either! His variations on "Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein" are actually less engaging than the two pieces I mentioned above: for the most part they're downright boring, just endless formulaic sixteenth-note figurations with the chorale tune as cantus firmus. And yet one of the disc's most surprising, original moments, one of the few that I feel a need to keep in my life, is in this same piece. After two variations of bland generica, J.S. throws in a totally insane chromatic variation, with inner parts slithering queasily up and down by half steps while the chorale melody sits there, serene, motionless and unaffected. The very fact that it's inspiring me to use this kind of language feels like it's evidence that there's something special here.

Two other pieces really stood out for me. One is Johann Berhnard's Bb Major Passacaglia, which at first reminded me of Pachelbel's Canon -- a repeating four-bar harmonic progression, with slightly sentimental minor chords in a major-mode context, and a remarkably inventive series of variations on top. So far so good: a respectable piece that I'd probably forget about. But then, right at the end, Bernhard expands the four-bar phrase to an eight-bar one, and the second group modulates into a very juicy minor. It's the first time in four and a half minutes that we've heard anything but the same endlessly-repeated chord cycle, and it's both startling and very satisfying. It might not even be worth it to sit through the first four minutes if weren't for this payoff -- but the fact that there is a payoff is a sign that the composer actually had a reason for writing the piece, and not just "my congregation needs me to play something before the service" either.

The other piece that grabbed my ear was Johann Ernst's F Major Fantasia. Johann Ernst is of a younger generation than the other composers here: born in 1722, he's a contemporary of Johann Sebastian's most famous son Carl Philipp Emanual Bach. His style is similar to C.P.E.'s, too: a product of the late-18th-century obsession with sentimentality and harmonic convolution, the Fantasia is rhapsodic, bitingly chromatic, willfully eccentric, and oddly reminiscent of Beethoven. It announces its intentions from the very beginning, when an F major arpeggio is followed by a big, loud, low, nasty Eb. Now, it may be that this piece caught my attention simply because it's so different from the other pieces on the CD. Maybe if I heard it alongside a big pile of music by C.P.E. Bach, it would seem like just another generic instance of the empfindsamer Stil. But the fugue that follows is good enough and distinctive enough, from its snaky chromatic theme to its solid, traditionally Bachian sequential development, that I suspect that Johann Ernst Bach is just better than a lot of his similarly obscure relatives. I feel that way especially when I compare his chromatic, Baroque-style fugue to that of Johann Christoph -- the latter being a rhythmically tedious piece whose use of chromaticism seems obvious and uninspired.

I still haven't answered the big questions I started out with, and as I said, I don't know that it's possible to. But I think I have pointed to a few specific details that make certain pieces stand out, and that's worth something, anyway. And now, back to the most famous member of Bach family, and my possibly damaged recording of The Art of Fugue. See you next post!

Tue, Jul. 31st, 2007, 02:19 pm
Bach Family - Organ Works (Disc 1)

Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Works: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565 / Fantasia and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 904 / Prelude and Fugue in C Major, BWV 547 / "Great" Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 542
Performer: Wilhelm Krumbach (organ)
Label: Teldec Classics

I actually bought this double CD because of Disc 2, which consists of pieces by various uncles, nephews and cousins of Bach's (literally all named Johann something). I know I listened to them at some point, but I can't remember anything about them or whether they're any good, and I'm pretty excited to listen again and find out. In the meantime, though, there's Disc 1, which is another collection of Preludes, Fantasias and Fugues by our friend Johann Sebastian.

Two of the four pieces on the CD, the D Minor Toccata and Fugue and the G Minor Fantasia and Fugue, also appear on Biggs's CD, giving me a perfect opportunity to compare the two organists' styles. Krumbach's playing sometimes has the same "shouty" quality as Sialm's, so I expected to prefer Biggs unequivocally. It turned out, though, that Krumbach's style has some advantages. First, he's rhythmically freer than Biggs in the fast passagework; and second, his loudest chords are WAY LOUDER -- like, knock-a-hole-in-the-floor loud. His playing of the D Minor Toccata and the more "improvisatory" sections of the G Minor Fantasia are accordingly more intense and more powerful. Biggs is no wuss, but it's hard to compete, intensity-wise, with an organist who's willing to hold a diminished seventh chord in one hand while resolving to the tonic in the other. (Even when Bach doesn't write that suspension himself, that is!)

In other pieces, though, Krumbach's style doesn't work at all. The G Minor Fugue is dense, inexorable and rhythmically unvarying, and this recording confirms what I said in my last post: it needs the timbral variety that Biggs gives it, or it becomes impossible to sit through. The C Major Prelude and Fugue, likewise, come out monolithic and tiring to the ear. I went back and listened to a bit of the Sialm CD for the sake of comparison, and I did find that I prefer Krumbach's monolithic tracks to hers -- but I actually think that has more to do with the specific pieces on each CD than with the two organists' styles. The D Minor Toccata and Fugue (a different one, BWV 538) on Sialm's CD is simply a boring piece, and a boring piece combined with a monolithic playing style is totally intolerable. The C Major Prelude and Fugue have a lot more variety and invention in them, and a varied and inventive piece combined with a monolithic playing style is still somewhat enjoyable, even if it's tiring to listen to after a while.

But as I said, I do like Krumbach's playing sometimes -- not only in the Toccata and the Fantasia, but also in the pieces where he does choose to vary things timbrally, like the A Minor Fugue and the D Minor Fugue. The D Minor Fugue in particular is full of registral shifts. While I was listening to it this time, I realized how unusual it is to hear a fugue with a long monophonic passage in the middle. I suspect Bach did that specifically so that while one hand was playing, the other would be free to push in and pull out stops. And Krumbach takes full advantage of that free hand, creating a sense of shifting phrase lengths by changing the timbre sometimes on the downbeat and sometimes on beat four of the (4/4) bar.

And now: Bach's obscure relatives!

Sat, Jul. 28th, 2007, 12:08 pm
Johann Sebastian Bach - Organ Works (Biggs)

Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Works: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565 / Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 582 / Pastorale in F Major, BWV 590 / "Great" Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 542 / Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543 / Prelude and Fugue in B Minor, BWV 544 / Prelude and Fugue in C Major, BWV 545
Performer: E. Power Biggs (organ)
Label: Sony Classical

I found a little piece of paper tucked into this CD when I pulled it out for this project the other day. It's an advertisement for a card that gives you half-price fares on transportation, and the text of it is in German. I know I didn't get it in Berlin this summer, which means it must be from the previous time that I was in a German-speaking country -- namely a family trip to Switzerland when I was 13, almost 14. In other words, this is the first time I've listened to the CD in ten years. Incidentally, I'm certain that the reason I saved this ad is because of the sample card on the back. It shows a fictional woman named Jasmin Burgermeister who looks remarkably like Gillian Anderson, and I undoubtedly saved it because I thought she was cute. Somehow pictures of attractive women seemed to have an almost talismanic power when I was 13, especially because I wasn't usually that into the celebrities that everyone else thought were hot.

Anyway, that really has nothing to do with Bach organ music. So: After an anonymous commenter objected to my last post, I started wondering if I was being too hard on Esther Sialm. Early in this project, I wrote about giving everything second chances and how being a music critic was "poisonous." Here I was so impatient that I dismissed Sialm's CD pretty much instantly. (Of course I'd listened to it before, but not much, and not recently.) Had I abandoned my own principles? Was I unfair?

As it turns out, I think the answer is "not really." Listening to E. Power Biggs' playing on this CD has made it very clear to me that I was right about Sialm's problems. Biggs, unlike Sialm, constantly uses timbral contrasts to clarify and reinforce the structures of the pieces he's playing, and when I hear him do that, I can tell that there's simply no other way to make these pieces work. I'm thinking in particular of a wonderful bit in the G Minor Fugue where he suddenly switches to a watery, almost calliope-like setting just as Bach drops the bottom voices out. (Or more likely, he's already playing the upper voices on a manual with that setting, and it only becomes audible when the bottom voice drops out. Either way there's a timbral contrast to go with the textural one.) I can't think of a single piece on the Sialm CD where light and heavy registrations are used within the same piece, except the too-slow "Gigue" Fugue. Admittedly, there may be something I'm forgetting, and maybe I should listen again. And admittedly, I was unnecessarily harsh and sarcastic in my last post. But listening to that CD was a chore, and listening to this CD is exciting. That's meaningful, especially since I'm digging this one despite not even really being in an organ-music kind of mood.

Of course, I don't like every piece on here equally. In particular, I find it hard to say interested in the long, somber B Minor Prelude and Fugue. But what I want to talk about now are the highlights.

1. The G Minor Fantasia. It's got insane chromatic modulations. It's got massive piled-up dissonances made all the more weighty by the organ's ability to sustain a note indefinitely. There's one part that sounds to me like THE MACHINATIONS OF AN EVIL SOCIETY, with a creeping bassline made even more creeping by Biggs's choice of stops -- it almost sounds like there's a delay or a fade-in at the beginning of each note, although I'm not sure how that's possible. There's also a part where the music expands outward, dominant 7th chord resolving to minor tonic and then minor tonic moving out chromatically to become a new dominant 7th chord, over and over again, seemingly forever, like the music is TAKING OVER THE WORLD. YES. The accompanying Fugue is pretty solid too, and I'd forgotten about it completely until I heard it again yesterday. I remember now: it's called the "Great" Fugue to distinguish it with the "Little" Fugue in the same key, which has the distinction of being the first piece of scored music I liked ever.

2. The first movement of the F Major Pastorale. Its odd use of dominant 7th chords -- tracing scale degrees 2-3-4-3-2 -- accidentally anticipates certain blues and early rock-n-roll figurations, and there's a part where a single note flashes in and out in the treble, as part of some accompaniment figure, and that reminds me of the Dismemberment Plan's blinking guitar tones in songs like "This Is The Life" and "Gyroscope." The recording is so close in on Biggs that you can hear him pressing the keys.

3. The Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Yes, the famous Halloween one -- it turns out that if you play it with a bit of gravitas rather than blasting the shit out of it, it's a really good piece. And it was a brilliant move on Bach's part to start the Fugue with a theme so closely related to parts of the Toccata (notes moving mostly stepwise, alternating quickly with a repeated A). The first time I (re-)listened to it, I didn't even realize the Fugue had started yet, and I was thinking, "Man, this Toccata is way longer than I remembered!"

The C Minor Passacaglia is phenomenally impressive too, of course. The fact that Bach can get eight minutes of material out of a single endlessly looping bassline is remarkable, even if he does move it out of the bass sometimes. My appreciation for that piece is more intellectual than visceral, though, and listening to a Fugue based on that same bassline right afterwards is a bit much.

Sun, Jul. 22nd, 2007, 01:30 pm
Johann Sebastian Bach - Organ Works (Sialm)

Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Works: Fantasy in G Major, BWV 527 / Canzona in D Minor, BWV 588 / "Gigue" Fugue in G Major, BWV 577 / Nunn komm' der Heiden Heiland, BWV 659 / Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 538 / Allein Gott in der Höh' sei Ehr, BWV 663 / Von Gott will ich nicht lassen, BWV 658 / Prelude in Eb Major, BWV 552 / Trio in C Minor, BWV 585 / Fugue in Eb Major, BWV 552
Performer: Esther Sialm (organ)
Label: Aurophon



OK, snark aside, this really is a pretty mediocre recording. Some of that is really Bach's fault: the G Minor Fantasy and D Minor Fugue in particular seem to cyle around the same harmonies endlessly. I'm not sure why Sialm picked these particular pieces for the CD -- they're such a random selection, with a few chorales, a few fugues, a trio, a fantasy and so on, that they don't seem to be part of any systematic "complete works" project -- but she certainly could have chosen better ones. Even given that, though, I'm not at all a fan of her playing. Some pieces that sound potentially interesting, like the Eb Major Prelude with its unexpected shifts to the parallel minor, dissolve into undifferentiated blobs due to her choice of stops. And her rendition of the "Gigue" Fugue is downright awful -- way, way too slow, totally lacking in the dance-like energy a gigue is supposed to have. The timbral changes I mentioned above are pretty much the only good thing about it.

That said, there are a few pieces where she scales things back, and they're quite a bit better than the rest. In two of the chorales, "Allein Gott in der Höh' sei Ehr" and "Von Gott will ich nicht lassen," she plays most of the lines with a smooth, dark timbre but one of them with a sharp, nasal, triangular timbre. It sounds more like a synthesizer than an organ (and I think I could probably recreate it using Reason), and in the latter piece in particular it brings out a really nice chromatic line.

In the other chorale, "Nun komm' der Heiden Heiland," she does something that I actually think is wonderful. Again she uses a bright, nasal-sounding setting for one of the voices (though this one isn't quite as electronic-sounding as the others), and this time she uses it for a voice that's only present some of the time, while she uses the smooth, dark setting for the voices that are always present. The result is that the dark timbre becomes the background and the bright one becomes the foreground, and to my ears they separate as if in three-dimensional space, a shiny yellow curved pipe hovering in front of mahogany panels. It reminds me of The Unanswered Question, maybe the paradigm of multilayered music in the twentieth century. I didn't think I'd ever wind up saying that about a Bach piece.

Still, most of the CD is pretty hard to get through. I'm withholding judgment about the instrument itself until I get to the next one. It's played by E. Power Biggs, who not only has the best porn-star name of any musician ever, but is also a major world-class organist. I remember liking his playing when I was 12; we'll see what I think now.

Thu, Jul. 19th, 2007, 11:20 am
Johann Sebastian Bach - Orgelbüchlein

Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Work: Orgelbüchlein, BWV 599-644
Performer: Simon Preston (organ)
Label: Deutsche Grammophon

My favorite thing about this CD is the final chord of each piece. I don't mean that in a "...cause it feels so good when it stops" way; I actually love the sound of these chords for acoustic reasons. Here's why. At any point in a Bach chorale prelude, there's at least one part moving; the final chords are thus the only point at which all parts are at rest, allowing you to really focus on the sound of the organ itself. What you hear when you do is beat patterns created by the tuning of the instrument, and they're almost never in the same tempo as the piece that you've just listened to (though I have heard a story about an organists picking a tempo on that sort of acoustic basis). Then, after the organist lets go of the keys, you hear the chord fading out -- and it takes a while to do so, since organs are always recorded in large rooms with a lot of reverb. Do this 45 times on a single CD and you get the strange feeling that you're listening to an alternating series of normal Bach choral preludes and timbre-oriented avant-garde miniatures.

I'm not sure why the preludes themselves don't grab my attention in the same way. I remember sitting in my composition teacher's living room in high school, listening to him play them on the piano, and I thought I remembered finding them beautiful. I could be getting confused with the time he played the Bb Minor Prelude from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, which is undoubtedly beautiful. I suspect, though, that my problem has to do with the organ itself -- an instrument I have some big problems with.

Because notes on an organ don't decay like notes on a piano or harpsichord do, it's ideal for hearing counterpoint clearly. A dissonance is always sustained at full volume until the very moment it's resolved, which can be astonishingly beautiful. But at the same time, organs are always placed in huge rooms with terrible acoustics; I remember seeing a concert of organ music in Haarlem last summer and being almost unable to tell what was going on, just because there was so much reverb. That's not so much a problem on this CD, but there is another acoustic problem. The only way to make the organ louder is to pull out more stops, which is to say, to add more timbres. Any loud passage is thus a composite of a huge number of timbres, and without the spatial separation that helps clarify the sound of an orchestra. When I listen to an organ with all the stops pulled out, it almost always sounds to me like mush.

And that's not all! Although the organ is associated mainly with religious music, you can't create any kind of dynamic nuances on it, which means it almost always sounds cold and objective -- unless it sounds enormous and overwhelming, but then, as I said, it's usually mush. There's a moment in "O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde gross" that the CD's liner notes describe as "one of the most affecting major triads (Cb) in all music." While I do find the passage harmonically shocking, I'm not even slightly moved by it. When I hear Bach do something similar on the piano (the end of the Ab Major Prelude from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II), or with a choir (the end of the "Confiteor" from the B-Minor Mass), it hits me very hard -- but not here.

Come to think of it, pretty much the only time I can ever remember being emotionally moved by an organ is when it's sounded eerie -- I remember in particular the first time I ever heard Bach's "Little" Fugue in G Minor, and I still associate it with walking through the spooky darkened halls of Brookline High School, where I was taking a music appreciation class in the evenings. I get that effect mainly from the organ's quieter, "rounder" stops, and I think it's no coincidence that my favorite pieces on here, like "Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ" and "Das alte Jahr vergangen ist," are the ones that Preston plays using stops that sound like oboes and recorders. But even there I feel like I'm "cheating," because part of what moves me is not the music itself but the things it reminds me of -- the electronic organ that I started composing on when I was 11, the real organ that I took a few lessons on at my piano camp when I was 13.

Preston's choice of stops may be a big factor in all this, of course. If he played the whole set with recorder-y sounding stops, I might like it better (though I might also find it boring). It's been a very long time since I listened to any organ music, and I'll be curious to see how I'm struck by other players' use of the instrument over the course of the next few CDs. I should also say: it may also be a problem that I don't know the Lutheran chorales that Bach based these preludes on. The liner notes suggest that the music is often based on something in the words of the chorales, which of course I'm not hearing. But I suspect that the organ is simply not an instrument I "get." We'll see.

Mon, Jul. 16th, 2007, 04:52 pm
Johann Sebastian Bach - The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II

Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Work: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, BWV 870-893
Performer: Edwin Fischer (piano)
Label: Naxos Historical

Well, hello again. First of all, I want to thank ellemennopi for asking me when I was going to start this project up again, because there's very little that makes me want to blog more than knowing that my readers are actually reading. Second, I want to thank my life for providing me with a few months of relatively unscheduled time between my return from Berlin (where all my time was taken up by German, composition, and social craziness) a few days ago and my move to New York (where all my time will be taken up by composition and having a job) in the fall. And finally, I'd like to thank my brain for finally not being burnt out on Bach anymore. It's about time!

So, The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II. I've idolized this piece so much that it's hard to actually say something about it, but I'll give it a try. First of all, I want to say that, aside from the pieces I've played -- all of which I'm thoroughly sick of -- I haven't really listened to The Well-Tempered Clavier in any detail since high school. What I'm realizing now is that my understanding of fugues back then was actually very shallow. I was really just interested in the expositions -- that is, the opening sections in which the voices enter one by one with the same melody. Coming back to pieces that I thought I knew, I'm discovering things that I didn't remember at all. The F# Minor Fugue, for example, has a secondary theme that comes in partway through, a sad, stately, sighing motif, which I'd completely forgotten existed. And when Bach has that theme run simultaneously with the fugue's main theme later on ... well, that sort of thing is exactly what makes the piece great, and if I didn't take note of it in high school, what was I listening to?

Edwin Fischer knows how to emphasize these great moments, and he knows how to do it with great subtlety. As I mentioned last post, he's essentially a Romantic pianist (these recordings were made in 1935 and '36); he's got a mysterious, luminous, transcendent quality to his playing, and he often brings out particular passages not by making them louder but by making them softer. There's a part halfway through the C Major Fugue, for example, where the main theme comes in in the bass, lower in register than we've heard it before. Until that moment, Fischer consistently plays the main theme staccato, but here he suddenly plays it legato, and since it's in the bass, that change smooths out the entire texture. He does something similar in the E Minor Fugue: when the music moves into a major mode a quarter of the way in, he suddenly gets much quieter and more legato. In both cases a simple structural feature inexplicably becomes something transcendent. (But then, you could say that about Bach in general.)

Another thing that Fischer does, which would probably get him condemned as self-indulgent and historically inauthentic if he were performing now, is mess with tempos a lot. In particular, he sometimes starts a piece slow and gradually accelerates -- and I have to say, it really, really works. It's especially powerful in the G# Minor Fugue, which in his rendition reminds me a lot of the fugue from Beethoven's Op. 110 piano sonata (yeah yeah, I know everything reminds me of Beethoven). I listened to it with my dad yesterday and at some point I remarked, "This piece could go on forever and you wouldn't mind."

I also need to mention the Ab Major Prelude. I don't even really know what to say about it, but it's just astonishingly, impossibly beautiful. It's got a nostalgic, tender beauty that feels very post-Baroque to me, even though I've said that so many times during this project that I really should just incorporate nostalgia into my conception of Bach's style rather than consistently seeing it as a deviation.

Now, story time: a few weeks ago, I went through a brief depressive spell in which I was totally unengaged by any music at all except what I was writing. When I came out of it, I found that my experience of music was hyper-concentrated. I'm normally a very distracted person, and I've suspected for a while that 100%-perfectly-attentive listening, which some critics (most notably Adorno) consider to be the only legitimate way to listen to music, is an ideal condition that you can't expect to achieve with any real frequency. I also think it's not as necessary to strive for as it was in Adorno's time, because now that we have recordings, we can listen to pieces as many times as we want and get to know them gradually. I honestly prefer my first listen to a piece to be a survey, so that I can get a sense of the general form that things fit into before trying to fit those things into it. But after I came out of this bad spell, I found that my listening had become crystal-clear. I was listening to Arvo Pärt's Pari Intervallo, and because I was following it so closely, I suddenly understood his music for the first time: it's all about voice leading, about dissonances that could exist in Baroque music, but which lack the resolution that they would have in that style. I could almost see each note moving to the next one.

Well, my listening hasn't been quite so precise in the last couple of days, since I've just returned from Europe and am pretty jetlagged, but I did just experience a similar revelation about Bach's style. This may be incredibly obvious to every other serious student of scored music, I don't know, but I figure it's worth saying anyway. As background, let me first mention an article I once read about Schoenberg by musicologist Carl Dahlhaus. According to Dahlhaus, Schoenberg saw Austro-German music as following a progression, from Mozart through Beethoven and Wagner to himself. As time went on, formulaic, generic, and repetitive music was gradually eliminated from Austro-German composition, in favor of a constantly self-renewing syntax in which unique new material was generated at every moment. (If I remember right, this is also something Adorno said.) There's certainly some truth to that analysis, but Dahlhaus never addressed music before Mozart's time. What I realized yesterday was that Bach's music is actually all about the contrast between formualic, repetitive music (mostly in the form of sequences -- passages in which the same material is repeatedly transposed), and dense, non-repetitive, constantly self-reinventing music. This struck me most clearly during the Eb Major Prelude, when all of a sudden I heard the music snap into clarity and wondered, "Why was it less clear a second ago?" I've mentioned this distinction before, in the context of some movements in Bach's suites (Allemandes, Courantes) being more abstract and non-repetitive than others (Gigues, Bourrées, Gavottes, Minuets), but I hadn't thought about the two types of music coexisting in one piece.

As a final note, I'd like to mention that while I was in Berlin, I took a conducting course. The teacher often had one of us conduct while the others sang various instrumental parts from the score, and I found that my sight-singing ability is really not what it should be. I can sing top lines easily, but when I've got a middle part, I frequently get confused. So while listening to The Well-Tempered Clavier Book II, I've been singing along with the fugues' middle voices, and while I'm still not great at it, it's a lot of fun. I especially enjoy doing it in the E Major Fugue -- a simple, mostly diatonic piece with long note-values, which I assume is meant as a tribute to the stile antico of the late 16th century. Every time the note I'm singing is a fifth above the bass I get a warm vibratey feeling. And in high school I found Bach's "retro" pieces boring. What was I thinking?

Tue, Nov. 28th, 2006, 10:44 pm
Johann Sebastian Bach - The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I

Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Work: The Well-Tempered Clavier, BWV 846-869
Performer: Edwin Fischer (piano)
Label: Naxos Historical

I've been trying to figure out for the last few days what I could possibly say that would do The Well-Tempered Clavier justice. This is a huge and dense work, and even though I've been listening to it since I first got interested in music, I still feel like I've only scratched the surface. Not only that, but until recently I didn't even have a recording of it that I liked. I've never been able to listen to Gould's: I feel like he blows through a lot of it as if he's bored and wants to get it over with. My dad has an LP set by Jörg Demus which I remember liking a lot when I was younger -- very lucid and straightforward -- but he hasn't had a chance to make CDs out of them yet, and I don't think they've ever been commercially rereleased. In high school I had CDs of Book I played by Keith Jarrett, who I found dull, and Book II played by Andras Schiff, who I found annoyingly eccentric. And actually, that brings me to the kind of weird story of how I wound up with this recording. At some point during a move between college and my parent's house, my Jarrett and Schiff The Well-Tempered Clavier CDs disappeared. I kept thinking that they'd turn up somewhere unexpected, as lost CDs often do, but it never happened; and so when The Well-Tempered Clavier started looming on the wholecollection horizon last summer, I decided to look around for a recording that I actually liked to replace them. I think I discovered this one via the clips on the iTunes music store; I can't remember exactly. But the funny part is that I discovered it right before a family trip to the Netherlands, and because I was expecting to be so prolific in this journal, I actually ordered Fischer's Well-Tempered Clavier CDs from a German distributor so that I could receive them in the Netherlands without paying an arm and a leg for shipping. Needless to say, I had no idea that I wouldn't wind up writing about them until November.

Anyway, I really do like this recording a lot, in general. It's actually the first recording of the piece ever made, from I think 1935 (I don't have the CD box on me at the moment), and it sounds very much like a product of its time, complete with terrible sound quality and beautiful tone. Fischer is a Romantic, but not of the sort who would try to schmaltz up Bach and turn him into Chopin; instead he plays the pieces straightforwardly but with a luminescence that I can only describe as "mystical." Unsurprisingly, then, the pieces he gets the most out of are the ones he can play tenderly and with a slight glow of unreality -- the C# Major Prelude, the F# Major Fugue, the B Major Prelude. When he tries to be lively and virtuosic, it sometimes dissolves into mild chaos (the Bb Major Prelude), and when he tries to be stately and intense, he sometimes comes off as heavy-handed (the G Minor Fugue). Still, it's a recording of the WTC Book I that I can enjoy pretty much all of, and that alone is something special. I still want to get a few more recordings and compile an ideal Well-Tempered Clavier from each pianist's best movements, but who knows when I'll have time to do that.

Anyway, I tend to prefer Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier to Book I, so in a sense I feel like I'm just waiting for the really juicy stuff around the corner. I'm sure I'm doing the piece an injustice by thinking that way, but I can't help it, especially because I'm anxious to get this project moving again now that I'm only very busy rather than maniacally busy. And I can say that there are a few pieces in Book I that feel formulaic, which was my original reason for preferring Book II. This is especially true of the G Minor Prelude and Fugue, which, actually, were the pieces that originally led me to that conclusion. Still, there's a lot of great stuff here, and since I have a habit of starting at the beginning even though the piece is too long to really listen to in a single sitting, I've never gotten to know a lot of the great stuff that's towards the end.

Which brings me to another thing I want to talk about in this post: a weird experience I just had with the B Minor Fugue, the very last piece in the Book. There are a few factors that accidentally combined to make this happen:
1. There's a recurring passage in the fugue in which the lower parts drop out, leaving just two, in dialogue, in the ethereal high register. This is nearly identical to a moment in the fugue from Beethoven's Op. 131 String Quartet -- not only does the texture drop out in the same way, but if I'm remembering right, the two higher parts play the same exact melody. I assume this is not a coincidence (and I've written before about Bach pieces that Beethoven seems to have been paying deliberate homage to).
2. This is one of two very early 20th-century piano recordings I've listened to extensively. The other is Artur Schnabel's recording of the late Beethoven piano sonatas. Schnabel shares both Fischer's luminous tone and his occasional sloppiness (actually, Schnabel is much sloppier), and the recording quality is similarly bad.
3. Because Fischer is of the generation he is, he has no qualms about occasionally doubling Bach's left-hand parts at the octave. He does this at one point in the B Major fugue, resulting in a texture that's pretty similar to that of the fugue in Beethoven's Op. 110 Piano Sonata.

Add up 1, 2 and 3, and what do you get? No, not 6! You get me feeling very strongly for a moment like I was actually listening to Beethoven. Kind of a strange experience, but a beautiful one.

Anyway, I could keep going all night, so I'll just mention one other thing that I didn't notice until recently: this piece is full of internal cross-references. When the E Minor Prelude breaks into double-time halfway through, it quotes the C Minor Prelude almost exactly. I never noticed that before! And not only does the A Major Fugue have a theme whose first two measures are rhythmically identical to those of the C Minor Fugue's theme (something I noticed ages ago), but the two pieces end the same way: with a long pedal point, a lot of diminished chords, and a whole series of Picardy thirds. And, of course, the same rhythm, since the endings are based on the rhythmically-mostly-identical fugue themes. Who knew? I also think that if you reduced the G Major Fugue theme to its most important notes, you'd get almost the same thing as if you did the same to the E Minor Fugue from Book II -- and I mean without transposing anything, which means that the "corresponding" notes all serve different harmonic functions. I'm not sure about that, though.

P.S. I feel like this post comes off kind of joyless. My experience of listening to the piece certainly isn't joyless, even if a few pieces here and there are a little formulaic. I'm just kind of tired and don't feel like writing in all caps with exclamation points after every sentence. Edwin Fischer is more of an "ahhhhh" pianist than a "!!!!!" pianist, anyway.

Sat, Sep. 16th, 2006, 01:25 pm
Johann Sebastian Bach - Goldberg Variations (Gould 1981)

Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Works: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Performer: Glenn Gould (piano) - 1981 version
Label: CBS

Well, my prediction was right: the 51-minute 1981 recording doesn't feel too long, even though the 38-minute 1955 recording kind of does. And my initial impression of the later recording has been confirmed: this is a performance in which nothing is taken for granted. That's true starting from the very first variation: Gould bashes out the left hand as if he's stabbing the piano, and that may not sound good on paper, but damn, does it ever work on CD. As for the Aria that these variations are variations of... well, let me put it this way. When I only had the 1955 recording, I used to think of the Aria as an archetype of calm: I remember saying a few times that it was the only piece I could imagine listening to the morning after one of Yale's gloriously exhausting all-night new music marathons. I also used it as a symbol of calm in a banishing ritual I designed a couple of years ago. (Long story.) But now it leaves me a little unengaged in that recording, and the version of it in the 1981 recording actually sounds more like my memory of the 1955 one than the 1955 one itself does. I think this phenomenon is totally fascinating, but I've already written a whole post about it, so I won't say any more here. (You should go read that other post, though -- I think it's one of the best things I've done in this journal.)

The overall feeling is: I've been looking at this piece through a magnifying glass and just got a glimpse through a microscope. It's like the spaces between the notes have gotten bigger in every dimension. The problem is that I now feel like I don't really know the piece. That's especially true because after another listen, I realized that what I wrote about the canon at the ninth in my previous post is totally inaccurate -- it not only doesn't keep rising at the beginning, but the statements of the canon's theme alternate between the hands, whereas I remembered them as happening more or less simultaneously in both hands. I remembered them that way right after listening to it. Was it because my image of the piece was too "zoomed out"? Maybe -- though it's weird, because when I listened to the 1955 recording this morning, I could remember some of the variations easily, almost note-for-note, from all the times I'd listened to the piece in middle and high school, while others sounded pretty unfamiliar. At any rate, I now feel like I have to get to know the piece all over again. Not that I won't enjoy it -- it's just a question of finding the time to do it.

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