Renowned teacher and pianist Graham Fitch gave a masterclass to the Brighton EPTA group on the keyboard music of J S Bach. The class took place at the home of one of the members and proved both instructive and convivial.
Bach’s output for the keyboard is vast and offers the pianist many challenges, both technical and artistic. The class hardly the scratched the surface of Bach’s oeuvre with the performance of four pieces, but these were all excellent examples of Bach’s keyboard writing and provided much useful food for thought for performers and observers.
These notes are by no means comprehensive, merely a record of what I perceived to be the salient points which emerged through the study of two Preludes & Fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier, a Toccata and the Prelude from the First Partita.
Prelude & Fugue No. 1 in C major (WTC Book 1)
- Use the harmonic structure of the music to shape phrases and to give emotional depth/lightness. Practising the RH figures as block chords can help this.
- Be aware that the expressive range of this Prelude comes from within the music itself through, for example, the use of major or minor harmonies, dissonance and suspensions.
- Create a sense of ‘breathing’ in the music, an ebb and flow within phrases.
- Use of techniques such as over-holding and finger pedal can increase sonority and richness of sound without additional use of sustain pedal.
- Feel fully connected to the bottom of the keys when playing the RH semiquavers to create a rich, authoritative sound.
- Be aware that the P&F were intended to be performed together. Anticipate the Fugue from the closing cadence of the Prelude and create a connection between to the two works.
- Highlight the way the music rises through the register to create a sense of climax and dying back.
- This fugue has a distinctly ‘processional’ flavour – feel the sense of the music ‘arriving’ at cadences, in particular in the final quarter, and maintain a sense of energy, before a quieter closing cadence.
The study of this Prelude & Fugue led to some general discussion about playing Bach expressively, with Graham suggesting that one should not shy way from playing Bach’s music with expression. Too many of us feel we should play in a more restrained way, and yet Bach writes much scope for expression into his music, through the use of devices described above.
Toccata in E minor BWV 914
The Toccata is related to the Fantasy or Fantasia, and contains improvisatory sections as well as the strict toccata elements (usually rapid passagework).
- Create a sense of freedom and improvisation in the opening measures
- Walking bass – highlight the sounds with different types of attack
- Aim for consistency of articulation
- Keep the semiquavers vibrant and mimic bowed strings in the articulation
- Create a sense of energy which runs through the entire section
- As in the P&F, use the harmonic changes to shape the phrases and create a rise and fall in the music
Prelude from Partita No. 1 in B flat
- Ornaments should be on the beat, and it’s important to maintain a sense of the underlying rhythm. Practise without ornaments
- Be aware of the rising intervals in the opening measures – 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, octave – and use these to shape the phrase and create a climax
- Overhold the semiquavers for greater cantabile sound
- F major section – allow the secondary vocal lines to sing out and create filigree in LH.
- Create a sense of grandeur in the G minor section and at the end.
- Again, use the harmonies to inform phrasing and to add expression.
Prelude & Fugue in F minor BWV 857 (WTC Book 1)
- Create a sense of the opening crotchets supporting the upper parts
- Lighten the semiquavers in the LH lower register so that the texture doesn’t become too thick.
One of the most dramatic fugues – spiritual and tragic. Highlight each entry and exploit the grandeur of this piece, particularly the beautiful F major closing cadence.