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?