On listening to Bach played on the piano

16 07 2010

I used to be a “real” traditionalist. That means that I never would intentionally listen to Bach played on the piano. “There were no pianos in Bach’s time”, I reasoned, “so what was the point of listening to him being played on an instrument he didn’t even know about?” But as in many things in life, I ceased being so much of a dogmatist and by chance listened to some keyboard recordings by Glenn Gould and others of Bach. What can I say? I didn’t “love” them, but I didn’t dislike them either. Now I could care less if the French Suites or a fugue is being played on a harpsichord, piano, or whatever. Perhaps it is because, I have realized that, at least in the aesthetic realm, beauty does not come merely from evoking the past, but from invoking that thing in the past that touched timelessness: absolute Form.

Sometimes being a snob gets in the way of beauty. You just have to let things be.



9 responses

23 07 2010

As far as legitimizing the piano as a classical instrument, that horse is already out of the barn.

Speaking as a musician and musicologist, I would say that while historically informed performance is an interesting area of research (and we are enriched by knowing more about how music was performed before recordings were available), the final test of a musical performance is how well it works as music. I can point to countless recordings of the likes of Herreweghe and Hogwood which sound as though they were played on typewriters. Historically-informed performance is not an end in itself; at best, it’s a modern attempt at recreating a time which is past, and it can never be more than that.

Which is not to say that I like hearing Bach labored over as though it were Chopin, or that I enjoy the sound of Tallis belted out as though it were Verdi. But HIP can all too easily become fetishism and historical re-enactment, and if a work of art can’t affect us in the here and now, we may as well let it slip back into the past and stay there.

Richard Taruskin says this better than I do in Text and Act, by the way.

22 07 2010

The trouble with Bach on a piano is that it legitimizes the piano as a classical instrument. Solo pieces like the Goldberg Variations are fine, but the timbre of the piano is unsuited to sharing the stage with strings. Leave it in the jazz bar and keep it out of concert halls and churches!

20 07 2010

Well, if it comes to that… surely all methods of playing are artificially constructed to some extent, extravagant pedagogic lineages from Beethoven notwithstanding.

Just don’t accompany recits from the passions and cantatas with a piano. Hard to believe Mendelssohn actually did as much with his revival of the S. Matthew…

20 07 2010
Eric John

I used to be “traditionalist” who loved to buy the latest historically informed recordings of Bach, even up to Verdi’s Messa di Requiem. But, I then realized it was nothing but an artificially constructed method of playing. The traditional way of playing Bach is Klemperer, Richter, Gould, et al. They learned from the great conductors and musicians before them who learned from their predecessors. And in Bach’s case from Felix Mendelssohn, who resurrected Bach.

17 07 2010

By contrast,I’ve enjoyed some of Bach’s compositions more on the lute than on classical guitar just because I like acoustics of the lute a little more, not for some “purist” reason that Bach composed for the lute.

17 07 2010
The Western Confucian

I first heard the Goldberg Variations arranged for the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, and have been in love with them ever since.

16 07 2010

And even Stokowski’s arrangement of the Tocatta & Fugue in D minor for full symphony…

16 07 2010

I too think the Goldberg Variations sound better on the piano. But I’ve never been a purist about Bach. For example, I think the orchestral arrangement that Brahms wrote for the Chaccone of the 2nd partita in D minor is the piece that made me fall in love with Bach’s music in the first place.

16 07 2010

I felt as you did… then I realized that I actually liked Goldberg Variations on the piano (at least as played by Gould) better than on the harpsichord.

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