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Andras Schiff: on playing Bach and the Well-Tempered Clavier

Senza pedale ma con tanti colori
(Without the pedal but with plenty of colours)

Playing J. S. Bach’s keyboard music on the modern piano, pianists are confronted with various fundamental questions. The answers to these are never simple.

For example: what is the “correct” instrument for the Well-Tempered Clavier? The clavichord, the harpsichord, the organ, the pedal-harpsichord?

Is it permitted to play Bach on an instrument that he couldn’t have known? If it isn’t, whose permission do we need to ask?

What is the right tempo and character for a particular prelude or fugue and how do we find it? How wide is the dynamic range in this music and does this vary from instrument to instrument or from venue to venue?

How do we phrase or articulate a certain passage or a fugal subject? Is there need for more ornamentation? For less? For none?

Which edition is the best one?

Each of these questions – and many more – needs to be asked and thought about.  Answering them convincingly  requires experience, intelligence and – to quote C.P.E.Bach – “buon gusto”, good taste. Decisions need to be made and it takes courage to say: this is the way I want to play this piece, knowing that it will not be to everyone’s liking.

One of the biggest problems is the sustaining pedal, and not just in Bach. This ingenious device enables the player to raise the dampers from the strings, allowing them to vibrate freely with any notes being played. Beethoven was the first great composer who specifically asked for its application. In his c-sharp minor sonata Op.27 Nr.2 the entire first movement is to be played “senza sordini”, with raised dampers (with pedal).

The effect is magical, the harmonies are washed together, creating sonorities that are truly revolutionary.

It would be reasonable to assume that pianists would follow what the composer had asked for; after all Beethoven was quite a decent musician and he certainly knew what he wanted. Wishful thinking, since in fact ninety-nine per cent of them fully ignore the creator’s instructions and diligently change the pedal at every change of harmony. WHY? Because, they argue, this effect would have sounded different on Beethoven’s fortepiano than it does on its modern successor. Have these people played on Beethoven’s Broadwood? No, they certainly haven’t but they pretend to know . Well, I beg to differ because I’ve played and recorded on it. The sound, the volume and the mechanics may be different but the actual musical idea is exactly the same. A dissonance remains a dissonance, regardless of the instrument.

What does all this have to do with Bach? Quite a lot. The sustaining pedal was not at his disposal on any of the keyboard instruments of his time. That means that the pieces that he wrote could be played without the use of the pedal which didn’t exist. Consequently, the very same works can also be played on the modern piano, with eight fingers, two thumbs and no feet. (The one exception is the a-minor fugue in Book 1 of the WTC; its final bars can’t be played with two hands alone, this being a composition for the organ. Here the use of the sostenuto pedal – the middle one of the three – is advisable.)

Does this mean that we have to disregard this “crown jewel” of the instrument when playing Bach? Not necessarily.

It can be used intelligently and discreetly to assist the lack of sonority, especially in venues with dry acoustics. However, let’s not underestimate the danger of damage that can be caused by indiscriminate use of the pedal. The piano is not an automobile, where the right foot is permanently on the accelerator pedal. When string players (and singers) use vibrato all the time, on every note, it’s unbearable to listen to. The pedal is to the piano as the vibrato is to string players. Both must be applied with care, control and in moderation.

Clarity is essential with Bach, the purity of counterpoint and voice-leading must be self-evident, never muffled or confused. Thus a discreet use of the pedal is not forbidden as long as these rules are observed. The question remains whether it is beneficial to the music to look for easier solutions. A perfect legato on the piano is an impossibility and one can only create an illusion of achieving it.

To attempt this with the hands alone is much more difficult but it’s well worth trying. Bach certainly didn’t want his music to sound easy, it’s demanding for players and listeners alike.

An eminent pianist colleague of mine recently reprimanded me for my “abstinence”. His argument was that all the great pianists of the past have played Bach with lots of pedal and we must follow their example. To me this reasoning is not very convincing. The late George Malcolm, a great musician, best known as a harpsichordist, taught me to play Bach without pedal and to enjoy the delights of purity.

Once a successful young virtuoso pianist came to him asking if he could play for him Bach’s D-major toccata. Malcolm agreed, the young man took his place at the keyboard, put his right foot on the pedal, raised his arms, and here Malcolm suddenly exclaimed:”Stop!”. “But I haven’t played a note yet!” said the victim. “No, but you were just about going to.”

To me, Bach’s music is not black and white; it’s full of colours. In my imagination  each tonality corresponds to a colour. The WTC with its 24 preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys provides an ideal opportunity for this fanciful fantasy. Let’s imagine that in the beginning there was innocence and therefore C-major (all white keys) is snow-white. The last piece of both books is in b-minor which is the key to death. Compare the fugue of Book 1 to the Kyrie of the b-minor mass. This has to be pitch-black. Between these two poles we have all the other colours, first the yellows, oranges and ochre (between c-minor and d-minor), all the shades of blue (E-flat major to e-minor), the greens (F-major to g-minor), pinks and reds (A-flat major to a-minor), browns (B-flat), grey (B-major) and finally black.

Of course this is a very personal interpretation and each of you may have a different opinion. Nevertheless if some of us happen to believe that music is more than just a series of notes and sounds, then a little bit of fantasy is welcome.

András Schiff
Firenze, May 2012

SOME THOUGHTS ON OUR UPCOMING 12-13 SEASON

 

Today we want to share with you a few thoughts and facts about our recently announced 2012-2013 season:

UP FIRST: On October 5 András Schiff will open the 33rd season with an all-Bach program. In fact, András was one of the first artists who launched the Vancouver Recital Society in 1981. Like so many artists who followed, he made his Canadian debut in Vancouver.

CHEZ NOUS: The earliest performances were presented at the Granville Island Stage, but the Vancouver Playhouse was soon chosen as the ‘home’ for the Vancouver Recital Society. In the upcoming season we will present six afternoon performances at this downtown location.

HOME AWAY FROM HOME: The VRS established its second ‘home’ soon after the opening of the Chan Centre at UBC in the spring of 1997. Now going into our 16th (!) season at this venue, we continue to present four afternoon performances along with four evening performances. Of course, Mr. Schiff adds a very special ninth performance at the Chan Centre.

In total, the 2012-2013 consists of 15 performances of which 10 are scheduled on Sunday afternoons.

THE PRICE IS RIGHT: we are very excited with our new, low “entry” price. For the first time it is possible to select a series of four performances for only $80 – or $20 for each performance.

AH, TO BE YOUNG AGAIN: our young audience members now have greater access then ever before with our Youth Club and Ru35 programs. Throughout the season, tickets can be had for as little as $16.

A POPULARITY CONTEST?: In our recent survey you ranked your favourite composers and, perhaps not surprisingly, Bach, Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin came out on top. Happily, our 2012-2013 artists will give us a lovely dose of these top-rankers. As we have seen, Bach is in the best hands with András Schiff. Schubert is well represented throughout the season, most notably by Paul Lewis whose program is dedicated to the monumental three late piano sonatas. Adding to the Schubert repertoire are Simon Trpceski and Behzod Abduraimov. Behzod also brings us the ever-popular “Appassionata” sonata by that ever-popular composer, Beethoven. Armenian cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan brings Chopin’s Introduction and Polonaise brillante, and pianist Stephen Hough includes Nocturnes on his program.

2012-2013 is shaping up to be a most exciting season. Series tickets are currently offered at exceptional prices with fantastic benefits (complimentary parking passes!). Call our office at 604-602-0363 and we’ll be happy to discuss all our subscription options.

PROGRAM NOTES: KIRILL GERSTEIN


Johann Sebastian Bach
English Suite no. 6 in D minor, BWV 811

Bach’s Partitas, English Suites and French Suites – six of each – collectively rank among the glories of the keyboard literature. Each is a four-part sequence of dance movements, all in the same key but varied by rhythm, tempo and mood: Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Gigue. Each has a different national origin, respectively German, French, Spanish and English/Irish. To this basic framework additional movements, usually of French origin (Minuet, Gavotte, Bourrée, Passepied, etc.) are found between the Sarabande and Gigue. These dance movements are generally in two-part form, with each half repeated. An imposing Prelude introduces each of the Partitas and English Suites.

The moniker “English” Suites is a misnomer. Bach did not so designate them, and even if he had, they are stylistically more French than English in their orientation, taking as their point of departure the keyboard style of French harpsichord music.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, arranged by Ferruccio Busoni
Giga, Bolero e Variazione

Like Franz Liszt two generations before him, Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) spent the earlier part of his career on the concert circuit as one of the most sensational piano virtuosos of his time. Also like Liszt, he arranged and transcribed numerous works for piano solo. In 1909, he published four “books” collectively called An die Jugend (each lasts only four or five minutes) of his freely adapted transcriptions of other composers’ music. The third of these was based on the music of Mozart. The three sections are played without pause. The gigue is derived from Mozart’s Gigue K. 574, the “bolero” is actually a free fantasia on the fandango (a courtly Spanish dance) in the third act of The Marriage of Figaro, while the virtuosic variation is developed from the gigue material.

Oliver Knussen
Ophelia’s Last Dance

Ophelia’s Last Dance is a nine-minute work commissioned for Kirill Gerstein by The Gilmore International Keyboard Festival in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The pianist gave the world premiere there on May 3, 2010. When he gave the New York premiere a few days later, Allan Kozinn wrote in the New York Times that “it begins with a dash of light-textured sparkle and a gently chromatic line, and as it grows more emotionally charged, its language veers toward neo-Romanticism rather than the harmonic density of Mr. Knussen’s earlier music.”

This piece is an expansion of an idea that dates back to 1974 and was initially intended to become part of Knussen’s Third Symphony, which occupied him throughout the 1970s. Fragments then went into his Ophelia Dances, Book I (1975) for chamber ensemble, and finally found their way into the present work for solo piano, thus “continuing the dance in various ways,” as the composer says.

Carl Maria von Weber
Invitation to the Dance, Op. 65

Weber composed his brilliant Aufforderung zum Tanze (Invitation to the Dance) as a solo piano piece in 1819. It may well have been the first concert waltz (one conceived specifically for listening rather than for dancing), but its popularity was ensured through choreographic interpretation, beginning with Berlioz’ orchestration for the Paris Opera in 1841. The “invitation” portion lasts only a small fraction of the entire work. According to Weber’s own explanation, the invitation by the gentleman is made to the lady in the opening passage, followed by her demure responses and eventual acceptance. The dance is a series of contrasting waltzes, during which the dancers declare their love. At the end he thanks her. They part. Silence.

Schubert-Liszt
Soirées de Vienne no. 6: Valse-Caprice d’après Schubert (Allegro con spirit)

Schubert wrote an enormous number of little dance pieces for piano – waltzes, galops, Ländler, Deutsche, écossaises and minuets – to the tune of nearly four hundred. From this vast treasure trove Liszt chose nine waltzes and filtered them through the alembic of his own musical personality, calling them Soirées de Vienne, or Valse-Caprices. Biographer Bryce Morrison notes that Liszt was attracted to Schubert’s waltzes because of “their mix of both subtle and direct qualities,” which resulted in Liszt “tinting their exuberance and melancholy with a stylized command peculiarly his own.” Liszt was obviously fond of these works, first published in 1852, as he performed them often. The sixth is by far the most popular of the Soirées, with its sturdy opening theme, its echt Viennese lilt and its numerous passages of scintillating filigree decorating Schubert’s charming melodic lines.

Robert Schumann
Carnaval, Op. 9

Preambule
Pierrot
Arlequin – Valse noble
Eusebius
Florestan
Coquette
Replique
Papillons
Lettres dansantes
Chiarina
Chopin
Estrella
Reconnaissance – Pantalon et Columbine –
Valse allemande
Paganini
Aveu
Promenade
Pause
March des Davidsbundler contre les Philistins

Carnaval consists of 22 musical vignettes all constructed from three tiny motifs whose notes are derived from the name of a little German town, Asch. (Today it is As, just over the border in the Czech Republic, near Bayreuth, Germany). This was where Schumann’s current flame, Ernestine von Fricken, came from. Schumann met Ernestine at the Leipzig home of the piano teacher, Friedrich Wieck, with whom she lodged and studied piano. Matters progressed to the point where Schumann and Ernestine became engaged in December of 1834. That month he began writing the music that became Carnaval.

As any student of music history knows, Schumann jilted Ernestine in favor of Wieck’s daughter Clara. But for the moment, the 24-year-old composer was infatuated with Ernestine. He discovered that the four letters of Ernestine’s birthplace, Asch, were also in his own. (In German terms, S=Es (E-flat), and H=B-natural.) The coincidence seemed to Schumann like fate knocking at the door. He loved puzzles, ciphers and numerical symbolism. This provided just the stimulus he needed to begin a new, large-scale composition. Schumann arranged the Asch motto into two additional variants – S-C-H-A and AS-C-H (As=A-flat) – and later inserted all three mottos into the score between the eighth and ninth numbers (between “Réplique” and “Papillons”) as double whole notes, calling them “Sphinxes,” meant only to be seen, not heard. Every piece in Carnaval except the “Préambule” is based on an ASCH motif, which usually appears at the opening and is then developed in ways both obvious and obscure.

 The autobiographical element of Carnaval goes further. Characters from Schumann’s life – both real and imagined – are portrayed, including his wife-to-be Clara (“Chiarina”), Estrella (“Ernestine”), Chopin and Paganini. Then there are the two aspects of Schumann’s musical personality: the quiet dreamer as reflected in Eusebius, and the passionate intensity of Florestan. Figures from the commedia dell’arte of Italian carnivals make appearances: Pierrot, Arlequin, Pantalon and Columbine. Other images of a masked ball at carnival time (the pre-Lenten season) make fleeting appearances. The final number portrays the rout of cultural philistines by the band of David, marching defiantly in 3/4 metre.

Program notes by Robert Markow, 2012.

LEILA GETZ: WHY I LOVE ANDRAS SCHIFF


Yesterday I watched a video on the VRS YouTube channel featuring pianist Shai Wosner playing the concluding portion of Schumann’s “Carnaval”. I enjoyed it very much. As the video concluded, another video on the YouTube sidebar caught my eye: András Schiff playing the Andantino from Schubert’s Sonata in A Major, D959. I clicked on it and was transfixed and transported by the majesty and sheer magic of his playing. That video, in turn, led to another, much earlier performance of András playing the Goldberg Variations of Bach. Again, a performance so compelling that I had to immerse myself in it to the end. If you have a moment, go to the Vancouver Recital Society YouTube channel, click on the András Schiff playlist, sit back and enjoy!

I have a confession here. Along with Murray Perahia, András Schiff has been right up there on my list of most special pianists. There is something about the way that András sits, upright, and almost motionless at the keyboard as he weaves his spell. How incredibly lucky we are to be hearing him on May 14 at the Chan Centre with the equally remarkable baritone, Christian Gerhaher, and again at the Chan Centre on October 5 for the opening concert of our 12-13 Season, playing Book 1 of Bach’s “Well Tempered Klavier”. These will be concerts to linger in the memory for a lifetime.

I GUARANTEE it!

Leila Getz

Murray Perahia…reminiscences

Murray Perahia first came onto my radar in 1972 when he won the Leeds International Piano Competition. I knew Murray’s playing through his recordings but didn’t have the opportunity to hear him live for the first time until 1983, when on a visit to London I was able to attend a recital he gave at the Royal Festival Hall. It was one of the most memorable concert experiences of my life. I was with a friend with whom I had studied music at university in South Africa, and the two of us left the hall speechless. We didn’t speak to one another until we had crossed the bridge over the Thames, to catch our Tube.

Two years later (the VRS was 5 years old) Murray Perahia played a recital in Portland on a small, but wonderful piano series. How envious was I when I found out that the only way the series was able to present Mr. Perahia was through the generosity of one of their subscribers who was a Murray Perahia fan, and was determined to get him to Portland at any cost.

Finally, three years later I plucked up the courage to engage Murray Perahia. Regrettably, he had to cancel as he came down with the flu in New York City. We found out only the afternoon before the concert, as we had been moving offices (pre cellphone days) and his manager couldn’t reach us as our telephone and fax lines hadn’t been installed. First call on the new phone number was “terribly sorry to have to tell you…”

He played his first performance for us the following year at the Orpheum and has returned to our series several times since. I have had the immense pleasure of having him practice in my home, and so has our sponsor, Martha Lou Henley. On one occasion he needed a break and went for a walk. I was panic stricken when he hadn’t returned after an hour and a quarter. Fortunately, back in those days the VRS office was located in the basement of my home, so I was able to leave the house to search for him. I did find him wandering around the side streets of Shaughnessy.

On another occasion he came to Vancouver for a concert at the time of the famous summit. We had booked him into the Four Seasons Hotel, which we then had to cancel as the Summit leaders had taken over the hotel. We re-located him to the Waterfront Hotel and let his management know. Somewhere between his management and his diary there was a ‘disconnect’. I waited at the airport for five hours, calling every hotel in town every 30 minutes to see if he had checked in. Bingo! Finally, the Wedgwood Hotel said that they had just found a room for a Mr. Perahia who hadn’t had a previous reservation but had been insistent that there had been! I asked them to send someone up to lock his door and not let him out until I arrived!

Each and every concert by Murray Perahia is a revelation and a deeply moving experience. I am so thankful that I have been a concert presenter at a time when Murray Perahia is at his prime.

Leila Getz, C.M., O.B.C., D.F.A.

Artistic Director

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