Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Composer series: J.S. Bach

Growing up surrounded by people deeply involved in Baroque and Renaissance music, I've been aware of the reverence many musicians feel towards Bach for as long as I can remember. But it's only relatively recently that I have come to truly appreciate Bach myself.

All my life I've heard people saying things about Bach like 'His music encompasses the universe,' and 'The whole of life is summed up in his music,' and...well, you get the gist.

And I just couldn't relate. When I started to have piano lessons and began learning works by Bach, I began to hear even more of this sort of thing. And although I know it wasn't the case, at the time I felt like everyone expected me to understand Bach in the same way they did. I couldn't, so I had trouble interpreting his works, and ended up feeling that I didn't actually like Bach very much.

By the time I'd learnt a work, I would have come to absolutely loathe it just from having played it too much. So I would start playing the piece ten times faster than normal speed, just because I could, and because it alleviated the boredom. Eventually I would drop that piece altogether. When I played Bach at Eisteddffords, the adjudicators never approved of my interpretation, and I always felt a little bit silly getting up on stage and playing a 1-minute, relatively simple movement of a Partita while all the other competitors were playing Rachmaninoff and Debussy preludes and other, um, difficult music.

It wasn't very encouraging.

I can't really pinpoint when my 'Bach epiphany' occurred, but I think it was probably when I started learning the Capriccio from Partita 2 in the middle of 2011. I'd wanted to learn the Capriccio for a long time because it's a piece my piano teacher always plays (from memory) when he's trying out a keyboard instrument, and I liked it.
I found the Capriccio quite technically challenging at first, and I think it was the technicality that made me realise what it was I wanted to express when I played Bach. I have a collection of Glenn Gould's recordings which I started listening to more frequently around this time, and Gould's incredibly precise, mechanical playing was another thing that really changed the way I viewed Bach. (Gould is truly an inspiration - I now aspire to a similar sound myself, although I don't aim for my interpretation to be identical to his.)

So - to summarise how I've come to appreciate Bach: he brought the complexity of music to a high point which I don't think has ever been surpassed, and technicality and complexity is, to me, one of the most beautiful things in music. I've heard people say that Bach is 'mathematical' like it's a bad thing, but I love Bach for exactly that reason. (I might add though, that except in music, I hate maths...which is kind of odd now I think about it!)

At the moment, I'm in the middle of learning the first keyboard Partita, planning to learn the second, and at the end of this month I'll be in a performance of Bach's incredible, stunning, amazing, complex, beautiful, dramatic (I don't have enough adjectives!) St John Passion, singing as an alto in the Melbourne Bach Choir. I can't wait!

Finally, as promised when I started this series of posts, here are links to Youtube recordings of some of my favorite Bach works. I had trouble finding some of these pieces, and as a result I've had to leave out a few movements I would otherwise have included.

Sinfonia 1 
Invention & Sinfonia 13
Sinfonia 15 (I love these outtakes...Gould is such a perfectionist. I would have linked to the final recording but couldn't find it)
Keyboard Partita 1 - Corrente (this recording is incomplete but I can't find another version.)
 - Allemande
 - Giga
Keyboard Partita 2 - Capriccio (this recording is also incomplete)
 - Allemande
St John Passion - Opening chorus
St John Passion - some of my other favorite parts
St John Passion - more of my favorite parts (inc. the 'chromatic' choruses)
Christmas Oratorio - Fallt mit Danken 
Christmas Oratorio - Ehre sei dir gott

PS: A while ago I read an amazing biography of Glenn Gould, which completely changed and, I think, enhanced my appreciation of him as a musician. You can find it here.  Although this has nothing to do with Bach directly, I think it might be interesting to some pianists :)

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