Tag Archives: J S Bach

The pianist who completed Bach’s final fugue

J S Bach’s final masterpiece, the Art of the Fugue, is one of the most challenging, intense and intellectual keyboard works of all time. The work also confronts the ultimate tragedy of music history: Bach died before finishing his most ambitious work, and for centuries musicians have pondered what Bach had in mind when he began the final triple fugue, based on the musical spelling of his name: B-A-C-H.

In the final Fugue a 3, Bach begins an audacious and exhilarating culmination to his massive work, combining three themes — the evolved derivative of the original theme, along with a jaunty second theme, each of which have just had their own extended sections in the piece — with a theme that spells his own name in notes (this is only possible if you think about the names of notes like the Germans do, go read about it). Unfortunately, he had barely begun when death claimed him, and the piece was left unfinished.

Performers have to make some hard choices when playing this work. What to do when you get to the last notes? Skip the section altogether? Some, like Glenn Gould, punch out the last note like a pistol shot, shocking the listener out of their musical meditation with the harsh reality that it wasn’t supposed to be over, yet. And a select few — perhaps a dozen over the last 260 years — have written their own ending.

Robert Douglass – ‘What 2000 Hours of Piano Practice Sounds Like

Completing an unfinished work presents many challenges – as those who have attempted completions of Schubert’s fragmentary piano sonatas and his ‘Unfinished’ Symphony have discovered. It is a daring undertaking – how can we know what the composer was thinking? Does one attempt to produce music which flows seamlessly to the end or put one’s own personality on it, based on what is already in the score? This is particularly tricky when tackling the music of the greatest composer of all time.

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The unfinished fugue – Contrapunctus XIV (source Wikipedia)

Pianist Kimiko Ishizaka, whose previous Bach projects include recordings of the ‘Goldberg Variations’ and the ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’, has completed Bach’s ‘Art of Fugue’ with her own composition of the final triple fugue. Meticulous study of all the pieces leading up to the finale, combined with her conviction that Bach would have concluded the work with something powerful, dramatic, expressive, and architecturally true to the musical structures at the point where he stopped. Kimiko presents her interpretation of the complete work at a concert at London’s St John’s Smith Square on Friday 23 September.

Here Kimiko discusses the special place the music of Bach has in her musical life and the challenges of composing and performing his music:

As a performer, you always try to understand what was in the mind of the composer. You pick apart the harmonies, the structures, and do your best to figure out why the composer wrote what they did. The resulting performance is hopefully a representation of the composer’s thoughts and emotions that is true to the quality and intensity of what they had imagined.  

If one wants to perform a piece of music that is truly reflective of one’s own thoughts and emotions, it isn’t enough to rest on the compositions of others; one has to write one’s own. Only then are you in total control over what is in the piece, and how it is put together. 

I started composing because I realised that I was having a musical experience in my mind that wasn’t written down anywhere. So I had to write it down to capture it. This turned into my first piece, after which I wrote more. I then realised that composing is a very enjoyable (albeit difficult, and draining) activity, and I especially like that you can do it out in nature; walking along while thinking, as opposed to being closed up in the practice room, chained to the piano.

Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life and career?

Without question, my careful study of J.S. Bach’s music has been extremely influential. Not only in my completion of “Die Kunst der Fuge” [The Art of Fugue], but also in the pieces that I write for myself. The complexity that results in carefully crafted counterpoint holds a strong attraction for me.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career?

Composing music takes me into a space so private, so deep, and so intense, that it leaves me drained and hollow when Im finished. By pouring every emotional and intellectual resource that I possess into the music, I have nothing left for myself. Its honestly been one of the reasons I dont simply compose more of the time; I cant bear the state of emptiness and loneliness that Im in at the end of the process.

I think the completion of “Die Kunst der Fuge” held special challenges, because it had to spring from Bach’s work naturally and organically. That means I had to do my best to adhere to the constraints, as best they’re understood, that Bach laid down in the extant sections of the work, yet suppose what he might have been up to at the time he stopped writing. But still, I was the one who had to produce the notes, so they definitely bear my fingerprint as well, and I’m the one who had to decide whether they sound good or not. Bach could no longer lend me his good judgment on the matter.

How would you characterise your own compositional language?

The music Ive composed recently is all fugal. Of the fugues Ive written, the only thing that has been performed in public is the completion of Die Kunst der Fuge”. Im quite proud that nobody seemed able to put their finger on the moment when Bachs music ended, and mine began.

How do you work?

I consider the structure of my works very carefully, and give each note due consideration. I keep track of the basic elements that are in use, and how they go together to create the big arc of the work.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

I once played in a huge tent for 2,000 geeks and hackers who were attending a tech convention in the middle of a Dutch sheep field. It was probably the first live classical performance many of them had ever heard. I played Bach and Chopin, and the audience gave me every last bit of their attention, hanging on every note until the very end. It was magical for everyone.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

Find your own way, and do what it takes to assure the highest level of quality that you are capable of.

The Art of Fugue at St John’s Smith Square

St John Passion at St John’s Smith Square

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First page of the autograph manuscript of St John Passion
Hearing J S Bach’s St John Passion in a Baroque church, as I did on Good Friday, connected this powerful and stirring work more closely to its original conception and performance. This was the annual Good Friday performance at St John’s Smith Square, a Baroque church in the heart of Westminster, given by Polyphony with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conducted by Stephen Layton.

Bach composed his Johannes Passion (St John Passion) in 1724, the composer’s first year as director of church music in Leipzig. The work received its first performance on 7 April 1724, at Good Friday Vespers, at the St Nicholas Church. The work is in two sections, intended to flank a sermon, and the text, which retells the events of Good Friday leading up to Christ’s crucifixion, death and deposition from the Cross, is drawn from chapters 18 and 19 of the Gospel of John in the Luther Bible. To the modern audience, the text may seem arcane, and the unfolding narrative feels almost operatic, but to the congregation in Bach’s church, it would have been entirely familiar, as were the chorales which used well-known hymn tunes and texts. The work comprises choruses, chorales, arias and recitatives, with some highly effective and arresting “word painting” to reflect the meaning of certain words or passages.

In this performance, the role of St John the Evangelist was sung by Stuart Jackson whose tenor voice was eloquent, pure and mellifluous. Jackson was joined by Neal Davies, a sombre Christus, whose interplay with Roderick Williams’ Pilate was gripping and intense. Julia Doyle, Iestyn Davies, and Gwilym Bowen all responded with sensitivity to the spiritual substance of the text and the profound drama of the narrative. Julia Doyle’s soprano arias were especially luminous, while Iestyn Davies’ counter-tenor was clear and ethereal.

Polyphony sang with a full, rounded sound with impressively crisp diction which brought a dramatic immediacy to the text, for example in the chorus when Christ is brought before Pilate and the choir become the baying crowd. Stephen Layton drew a rich, colourful sound from the OAE with some particularly fine contributions from the woodwind and an elegant cello continuo. The pacing of the drama was also expertly judged by Layton with impactful and moving pauses and longer silences to allow the audience time to digest and reflect upon the highly charged and emotional narrative.

#twittergoldbergs

Here’s a delightfully simple and utterly enjoyable way to allow yourself some time off during your busy day.

Every day for a month pianist and conductor Alisdair Kitchen will post one of Bach’s iconic Goldberg Variations on Norman Lebrecht’s blog Slipped Disc, accompanied by Alisdair’s personal commentary on the music.

Here’s the Aria

Get your Daily Goldberg Variations on Slipped Disc

“That Bach from 50 Shades of Grey”

Bach 50 shades

The best-selling “mummy porn” erotic fantasy 50 Shades of Grey (and its sequels) is notable for being short on culture and long on bad writing and naff BDSM sex scenes. I know this because I weakened, while bored on holiday at Christmas, and read the damn thing (a friend sent me a PDF of the book so I could read it in secret on my iPad!). Those who know me well – as a voracious reader of books on pianism and classical music, and the works of contemporary novelists such as Alan Hollinghurst, Ian McEwan, Helen Dunmore and Paul Theroux – are probably now, as I write, throwing their hands up in horror at this confession. However, as a reviewer and one who will join in noisily with a good debate around the dinner table, I believe it is necessary to read, hear or see the rubbish so that one can a) offer criticism based on knowledge, rather than hearsay; and b) really appreciate great literature, music or art when one comes across it.

50 Shades…. has been responsible for sending Thomas Tallis’s wonderful, soaring 40-part motet Spem in Alium to the top of the classical music charts (it’s the piece Christian Grey, the controlling, BDSM-obsessed ‘hero’ of the book, is listening to the first time he seduces our ‘heroine’, the irritatingly immature Anastasia). Another piece which has enjoyed a resurgence of interest thanks to the book is the ‘Adagio’ from J S Bach’s Concerto in D Minor after Marcello, BWV 974. Christian Grey, who is not only drop-dead gorgeous and richer than Croesus but also a talented amateur pianist (natch), is playing this piece (naked at the piano, I might add) the first morning-after-the-night-before:

I hear the music.The lilting notes of the piano, a sad sweet lament……

Christian is at the piano, completely lost in the music he’s playing. His expression is sad and forlorn, like the music. His playing is stunning……I listen enraptured. He’s such an accomplished musician….

When he’s finished, Christian tells Anastasia that it is Bach’s transcription of an oboe concerto, originally by Marcello.

I first came across this arresting piece on the soundtrack of a French film called ‘Je Te Mangerais’ (in English ‘Highly Strung’) about a couple of French lesbians (one of whom is a pianist), which I saw just after I’d done my ATCL Recital Diploma in December 2011. I was looking for some repertoire to keep me occupied while I was waiting for the exam results, and, by a neat coincidence, the entire Concerto was on the repertoire list for the LTCL, which I decided to attempt after I’d received my ATCL result.

It is the pure beauty of the Adagio, a limber solo melody over a hypnotic, repeating bass line, that makes it so compelling: a serene oasis between a witty, rhetorical opening movement and a Presto finale, an exuberant 3/8 romp, scored almost entirely in semiquavers.

Bach transcribed 16 instrumental concertos by other composers for solo harpsichord during the 1710s. Six were originally works by Antonio Vivaldi. Alessandro Marcello lacked the style and innovation of Vivaldi, and it is possible that Bach selected this concerto to transcribe to test his own skill and adaptive ingenuity. Bach’s transcription, like its original, is in the usual three movements of an Italian concerto. The shell of the first movement is clearly Marcello’s work, though Bach is quick to thicken the lean textures of the original, particularly in the middle of the movement where the writing is very dense.

In the Adagio, the right hand melodic line is highly ornamented, suggesting improvisation, and is perhaps an opportunity for Bach to show off the emotional possibilities of the harpsichord, as well as the technical prowess of the keyboard player. When I first started learning it, I was also working on Chopin’s Nocturne in E, op 62 no. 2, a piece in which a beautiful simple melodic line is decorated with ornaments and fiorituras. Chopin revered Bach, and learning the two pieces concurrently demonstrated the influence and inspiration Chopin drew from JSB.

As for playing the piece, a soft, light right hand and arm is crucial to achieve a beautiful singing tone in the melody. Keep the mordents and trills quite leisurely/lengthened, and the demi-semiquaver bars relaxed to create a sense of improvisation. I like to spread some of the chords – e.g. bars 5 and 13. Keep the LH chords soft – “floating chords” where the keys are depressed just enough to create sound – and think 3 in a bar (rather than 6 quavers). Throughout, the piece needs to ‘breathe’, so observe Bach’s phrasing where marked (there is limited phrasing in my Barenreiter edition) and don’t overdo the drop slurs (e.g. at bar 18), and don’t push the LH. Remember, this is 5 minutes of serenity between two dramatic and exciting outer movements.

For me, the benchmark recording of this work has to be Glenn Gould’s. His treatment of the ornaments is particularly fine, and the rest of the Concerto is splendidly orchestral. James Rhodes has also recorded the Adagio but to my mind it is an overly contrived, self-conscious reading of the piece. A quick trawl around Spotify threw up some other interesting interpretations of the work, including a ‘cello version with Rostropovich, and a rather smooth, “lounge” style improv by Gabriela Montero. When studying the concerto, it is worth listening to Marcello’s original to hear how Bach has handled the orchestral writing, and where he has stripped out material to highlight the capabilities of the harpsichord.

Download the score of the complete Concerto in D minor BWV 974 from IMSLP. For a simplified version of the score, click here

Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis

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