It’s Baroque Month over on Bachtrack, with a selection of articles exploring repertoire and those who perform it…..
Long regarded as the most serious and ambitious work for keyboard, the Goldberg Variations display J S Bach’s exceptional knowledge of the many different styles of music of his day, and his own exquisite performing techniques. Originating from a simple idea – a beautiful aria over a ground (repeating) bass – the thirty variations present the history of Baroque music in microcosm: lavish displays of modern, fashionable expressive elements of the high Baroque, with just a hint of Classical idealism, together with magnificent structure and formal beauty. There are dances and canons, riddles and doodles, lightning flashes and filigree arabesques. Not until Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations was a similar work conceived on such a scale from a seemingly simple initial idea.
I was expecting to hear a friend of mine, Charles Tebbs, perform Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’ at the delightful Sutton House Music Society on Sunday evening, but sadly Charles was unwell. A frantic call for a replacement went out on Facebook, which I happened to see and respond to. I am not suggesting for one moment that I “saved” the concert, but serendipitously, Daniel Grimwood whom I suggested as a replacement, was available and stood in at very short notice to perform an all-Bach programme. It is a mark of Daniel’s professionalism that he betrayed not an ounce of unpreparedness. He introduced the programme engagingly, highlighting various aspects of the music and describing the first half of the programme (Bach’s Italian Concerto and the fifth French Suite in G) as being “the jolly music”.
The Italian Concerto was indeed jolly, with precise yet sprightly passagework, crisp articulation and nuanced voicing. Daniel also plays the harpsichord and this is evident in his sensitive touch and terraced dynamics. The middle movement had a sombre grandeur, with an elegantly-turned improvisatory melodic line floating atop the bass. The closing movement poured forth like an exuberant mountain stream, rich in orchestral textures and vibrant contrasts.
More of the same in the Fifth French Suite, whose Sarabande shares the same soundworld as the Aria from the Goldberg Variations, and which Daniel played with grace and delicacy. Other notable features were the most charming and spontaneous ornaments in the repeated sections of the movements. The closing Gigue had the necessary forward propulsion, a dancing column of energy running through the entire movement.
After the interval, the Sixth Partita in sombre E minor. This, as Daniel explained, is Bach’s nearest equivalent for the keyboard to the St John Passion or the B-minor Mass, and is a work of great seriousness, mystery and profound musical thought. The opening Toccata begins with a dramatic “rocket” figure, a rising arpeggio flourish which colours the first section before the music moves into a darkly dramatic four-part fugue. All the movements display vocal textures, particularly the closing Gigue, whose rhythmic anomalies Daniel demonstrated in his introduction. This was an authoritative, thoughtful and vibrant performance, providing a wonderful contrast to the more positive music of the first half.
Sutton House Music Society is based at Sutton House in Hackney, east London, which is owned by the National Trust. Built in 1535, the house holds a fascinating juxtaposition of oak-panelled Tudor rooms, Jacobean wall paintings and Georgian and Victorian interiors, and audience members can enjoy a tour of the houseahead of a concert. The music society attracts both established and up-and-coming artists, performing a wide variety of repertoire, and the 2014/15 season concludes with a concert by the Roskell Piano Trio in music by Mozart, Shostakovich and Schumann. Concerts take place in Wenlock Barn, an early 20th-century addition which was built specially for events such as concerts.
Further information about the concert and the Society here
On a fine mid-September afternoon a group of adult pianists, piano fans and music lovers gathered at Craxton Studios for a recital and talk by acclaimed pianist, teacher and writer Graham Fitch.
Craxton Studios, a beautiful Arts & Crafts house in Hampstead, north London, has an important musical heritage and is therefore the perfect place for concerts and gatherings of musicians. Originally built by the artist George Hillyard Swinstead for his family and as his art studio, the house was bought by Harold Craxton and his wife Essie in 1945 after they and their family were bombed out of their home in St. John’s Wood during the Blitz. Professor Harold Craxton OBE was an eminent and much-loved pianist and teacher (he was a Professor at the Royal Academy of Music), and those of us of a certain age will know his name from ABRSM editions of Beethoven and Co, edited by him and Donald Francis Tovey. The house on Kidderpore Avenue became a meeting place for musicians to come together and the house became a focal point for the artistic and musical milieu of London. This tradition continues today, as the house is used not only for concerts but also rehearsals, auditions and as a film location.
When Harold Craxton died in 1971, a trust was established in his name to support young, extremely talented musicians embarking on a professional career.
I first visited Craxton Studios in December 2013 for a concert by pianist Sarah Beth Briggs. I was impressed by the warm atmosphere and particularly the special ambiance and decor of the venue. Concerts are held in the artist’s studio, a large airy room at the back of the house, adorned with paintings, which looks out over the garden. The piano, which was Harold Craxton’s own instrument, is an early 20th-century Blüthner. (There is another grand piano in the small rehearsal studio on the top floor of the house.) The Craxton family still manage the property and it continues as a lively hub for musical activities in London.
‘Notes&Notes’ with Graham Fitch was a new concert concept for the South London Concert Series. I have always found concerts in which the performer introduces the music most interesting, and I find audience members enjoy hearing anecdotes about the music or why particular pieces are important, and as such offer something more personal and interesting than a standard written programme.
Graham’s programme consisted of Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B-flat and the French Suite, No. 5 in G, both popular and accessible works, and Haydn’s Piano Sonata No. 50 in C, Hob. XVI/50, written while the composer was living in London. Graham introduced the music, explaining that Bach was drawing on a tradition of presenting a suite of stylised dances popular at the time (Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gigue etc). He also described his first encounters with this music and his studies with Andras Schiff, who has received high praise for his own intepretations of Bach, and who “gave” Graham the ornaments in the French Suite. Graham also explained that there is no “right way” to play Bach and that a romantic interpretation is as valid any other.
Graham combines a vibrant, colourful sound with an ability to highlight all the different strands of melody, voices and interior architecture in the music, together with subtle use of pedal, sensitive phrasing and restrained rubato. As his introduction to the Haydn Sonata, he explained that Haydn was working with John Broadwood, the London piano maker, and the Sonata shows the composer experimenting with the range of possibilities afforded by an English piano (as opposed to the Viennese instruments which Haydn had previously been used to). Graham’s performance sparkled with wit and humour, while the middle movement had a lovely arching melody, warm and supple.
After the music came the tea party and guests gathered in the dining room to enjoy tea and scones (with clotted cream, of course) and the chance to meet Graham and talk to other pianists and piano fans. There were many friends amongst the audience and the house was full of conversation. Some people even went to try the piano, before the studio was cleared ready for an audition the following day. The general consensus was that this was a really lovely event, combining music, words and conviviality, and we hope to host a similar concert at Craxton Studios next year.
Bach wrote his Inventions as exercises for amateurs and students of the keyboard (including his own sons), as he put it in a preface. The works were intended as an introduction to counterpoint and to demonstrate to the student that both hands could have equal importance in a piece of music.
For many young piano students, these short works are their first contact with Bach’s music and can lead, certainly in my own case, to a lifelong love of Bach’s music, in particular his keyboard music. They offer a wonderful introduction to contrapuntal writing and Bach’s musical wit and inventiveness, and offer valuable insights for further study of works such as the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Partitas and the French and English Suites. In spite of all this, these minor miracles are rarely performed in concert.
Simone Dinnerstein’s new recording for Sony Classical of the Inventions (BWV 772-786) and Sinfonias (BWV 787-801) makes a convincing case for the elevation of these works from student studies to concert pieces, for her reading is anything but dry and academic. While they may be all about form (as distinct from the Partitas and French and English Suites which are dances), Dinnerstein brings vibrant colour and life to these modest works, highlighting their individual characteristics and differences through the sensitive use of tempo, articulation and rubato. Some are sprightly and open-hearted, others introspective and thoughtful. Throughout, her tone is pure and bright, her interpretation honest and unfussy, allowing the beauty of Bach’s writing – and, at times, his modernity – to shine through. In the Sinfonias, with their three-voice writing (sometimes called “three-part inventions”), the sound is richer, more textural, warm but with no loss of clarity. The final Sinfonia, in B minor, is fleeting and witty, with the ghost of a harpsichord in the resonance and strummed sound which Dinnerstein brings to this work. No longer student exercises, Dinnerstein turns these short works into album leaves to be enjoyed and savoured.
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.
Despite the bad weather, the gales, and the cancelled trains, I managed to get into central London yesterday (thanks to the District Line which was fully operational from Richmond) to view the ‘Honoré Daumier: Visions of Paris’ exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts (review to follow), and to hear French pianist Alexandre Tharaud in a lunchtime concert of music by Bach, Schubert and Chopin. I had been much looking forward to this particular Wigmore lunchtime recital because the programme was all music I know well and love.
There is perhaps a lesson in here, for the concert was a disappointment, and it made me wonder whether I should, in future, select concerts which do not feature music I know well……
It would be foolish of me to attempt to review harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani’s magical Wigmore Hall recital in detail, as I have neither the knowledge of the mechanics of the instrument nor familiarity with the repertoire to do justice his performance. I “dabbled” with the harpsichord while at school, playing continuo in a Baroque group, and now I occasionally play a friend’s instrument, more to attempt to understand some of Bach’s writing in pieces I am learning on the piano, than any serious commitment to the instrument. For years, I felt it was best left to early music and Baroque specialists.
I grew up listening to my parents’ LPs of Glenn Gould’s recordings of the Goldberg Variations, and believed these were the benchmark against which all other interpretations of this mighty work should be set. However, in 2011, after reading about the young Iranian harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani on Norman Lebrecht’s blog, I decided to take the plunge and review a harpsichord recital. In July 2011, at London’s elegant Cadogan Hall, a double debut took place: Mahan’s Proms debut and the first time ever a solo harpsichord recital was presented at the Proms. I called my review “Spellbound by Bach” because for the full hour of the concert that is the state in which Mahan’s playing put us. Credited with bringing the harpsichord “out of the closet”, Mahan’s approach captivated and enthralled. He made the instrument – and the music – appear modern, newly-wrought.
So, when I and the friend who owns the harpsichord rocked up at the Wigmore on Friday night I knew we were in for an exceptional evening of music.
The pieces by Byrd drew inspiration from dances and songs, some toe-tapping and rousing, others stately and elegant, and religious texts, written by a composer living in a country poised on the cusp of change, as England sloughed off the Middle Ages and stepped confidently into the Renaissance. Some of the works were delicate, fleeting, poignant, others proud and courtly. All were beautifully presented, Mahan highlighting the subtleties of sound and touch possible on the instrument. During a pause in the performance, Mahan talked engagingly about Byrd’s importance in the canon of English music, and the forward-pull of his compositional vision. I was struck, not for the first time on hearing Mahan, at the range of tone, colours and moods he was able to achieve with the instrument.
After the interval, a selection works by Bach from the ‘Musical Offering’, a collection of canons and fugues and musical “riddles” which Bach composed in response to a challenge from Frederick the Great (and to whom they are dedicated). A three-part fugue and a six-part fugure (Ricercars) and a “Canon in tones” showed Bach at his most esoteric, teasing and “modern”, which set the scene nicely for, what was, for me, the highlight of the evening – the complete harpsichord music of Gyorgi Ligeti, which recalls Renaissance and Baroque models (the Passacaglia and Chaconne).
Again, Mahan introduced the works, explaining that in the Soviet Eastern Bloc, the harpsichord and early music were considered dangerously reactionary and composers and musicians were not permitted to write for or play the harpsichord. (Interestingly, a number of key modern composers and champions of the harpsichord are from former Eastern Bloc countries.) Mahan then explained that the second harpsichord on the stage was a rather special instrument, a modern harpsichord with nine pedals, a kind of “prepared piano” of the harpsichord world, capable of some extraordinary, other-worldly, sounds – amply demonstrated by Mahan in his performance of the works by Ligeti.
The Passacaglia Ungherese was redolent of the falling figures and ground basses of the music of Bach and his contemporaries; by contrast, Continuum was a fleeting sonic flurry, its strange sound-world recalling an alarm, breaking glass, an angry mosquito. (Ligeti used the harpsichord for this piece because the rapid speed would be almost impossible to achieve on the heavier action of piano.) To close, Mahan played Ligeti’s Hungarian Rock, a tour de force of rhythm and sonic textures suggesting the plucked sound of a modern guitar. The basis of the work is a Chaconne, a set of variations over a pounding, repeating chord pattern (the basis for much jazz and rock music). It was an energetic – and energising – close to a stunning and unusual programme.
For an encore, a short work by Purcell: simple, elegant, perfect. Afterwards, we queued up the stairs to the green room of the Wigmore to congratulate Mahan on a truly miraculous evening of music making.
Mahan argues the case for a modern appreciation of the harpischord and its repertoire far better than I can. Read his guest blog for Gramophone here
Just five minutes from Waterloo Station is the splendid 1901 Arts Club, an elegant venue that seeks to recreate the “salon culture” of 19th-century Europe. The building, a former schoolmaster’s house built in 1901, retains its late Victorian exterior, while inside the richly-decorated rooms suggest a private home. There is a comfortable upstairs sitting room and bar, and an intimate recital area downstairs, with a medium-sized Steinway piano set against a backdrop of gold swags and tails. The staff are welcoming and friendly, and the whole ambience is that of a private concert in your own home. It made for a very unique experience of the first book of J S Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, performed by Japanese pianist Kimiko Ishizaka.
Ms Ishizaka is on a mission to bring Bach to the people and to make his wonderful music accessible to everyone. Her Open Goldberg Variations, a crowd-funded (via Kickstarter), non-profit project that created a high-quality recording, typeset score and iPad app all free to download, is a fine example of her democratic approach.
Bach composed his Well-Tempered Clavier “for the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning, and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in this study”, in effect the forty-eight Preludes and Fugues are technical studies or Etudes, and were probably never intended to be performed as concert pieces. But in the years since their publication, the “48” as they are also called, have come to be regarded as some of the finest writing for keyboard. The works offer great variety of styles, structure, textures, colours, and moods, all of which Ms Ishizaka demonstrated in her performance.
In a concert lasting nearly two hours (with an interval), we experienced a committed and intense performance in which Ms Ishizaka highlighted the shifting moods and soundscapes of Bach’s writing. A serene opening Prelude in C Major (the most famous of the entire 48) launched us on a journey of discovery through dances and chorales (D minor and B-flat minor Preludes), joy and yearning (C-sharp major and F minor Preludes), sunshine and sadness (D major and C-sharp minor Preludes), seriousness and serenity (E mjaor and C minor Preludes). Ms Ishizaka eschewed the pedal throughout, though not through any wish to present a historically authentic performance. Rather, she did not need it: her superior legato technique created some exquisite cantabile playing, especially in the slow movements, while sprightly passagework and lively tempi gave the suggestion of the harpsichord in the rapid movements. Her sense of counterpoint was well-defined in the Fugues, with clear lines and distinct voices.
Ms Ishizaka is not afraid of robust fortes, perhaps sometimes too robust for the size of the venue, but overall her dynamic range was varied and colourful. There was judicious use of rubato in the Preludes, and some rather fine highlighting of dissonances and unusual harmonies, showing the forward pull of Bach’s musicial vision. Although a rather long evening of music, it was a fine lesson in Bach’s compositional thought, presented in an elegant and powerful performance.
When I was learning the piano as a child, it wasn’t obvious to me why my teacher insisted that I learnt certain repertoire, for example, by Bach, Beethoven or Chopin (my Grade 8 programme featured works by all three). Unfortunately, I wasn’t taught technique as a specific area of piano study, and my teacher never really explained why certain composers and works were useful for both technical and artistic development. Meanwhile, my grounding in music history, styles and genres came from O- and A-level music, going to concerts and opera with my family, and listening to music at home.
Now, as I survey the vast repertoire available to the pianist (far bigger than for any other instrumentalist), I realise that there is much to be gained from studying works by specific composers, for they can each teach us something special which informs the way we approach, interpret and play music.
So, what exactly can the great composers teach us? I have tried to highlight one or two key areas for each composer (these are my own suggestions, based on my experience of their repertoire):
Bach – “counterpoint”
how to approach separate voices and textures within a work. Useful not just for playing Baroque repertoire, but for any music where one is required to highlight different voices and layers of sound.
Mozart – “clarity”, “elegance”
to play Mozart well, one needs precise articulation, finger independence, control, and lightness
an ability to utilise the full range of dynamics and phrasing, with minimal/sensitive use of pedal
Beethoven – “strength”, “structure”
an understanding of the building blocks and architecture of music, and the ability to highlight this
strength, projection, scrupulous attention to rhythm
Schubert – “melody”, “emotion”
Beautifully shaped melodies, rapid shifts in emotion, musical chiaroscuro
the ability to move seamlessly between many emotions, from joy to despair, sometimes within the space of a handful of bars, or even a single bar
Play Liszt and you learn how to be a real performer, with the confidence, communication skills and strength to tackle the big warhorses of the repertoire (Russian concertos, Etudes etc) with true bravura
Fantastic technical grounding: double-octaves, chunky chords, projection, physical stamina, legatissimo and leggiero playing
Debussy – “colour”, “control”, “detail”
Debussy often asks the pianist to forget how the piano works and instead demands touch-sensitive control, subtle shadings, fine articulation, absolute rhythmic accuracy and superb attention to detail. Observe each and every marking in Debussy’s score – they are there for a reason!