Well-Tempered Clavier

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Wolfgang Rubsam

It is not that often a set of recordings comes along which is genuinely as much a revelation and surprise to the Bach initiate as this one.  Wolfgang Rübsam’s current spate of recordings on his self-released ‘Counterpoint Records’ include the entire Well-Tempered Clavier (across 5 vols.), Art of Fugue and most recently a number of the Cello Suites (!), all of which are available only as downloads but thankfully in FLAC format as well as lossy MP3.  They all feature an unfamiliar sound: the Lautenwerk or lute harpsichord, in this case one of only a few in existence, built by the fine and intrepid instrument maker, Keith Hill.  Readers need look no further than Rübsam’s website for generous helpings of tracks from these CDs together with other recordings of Pachelbel, Buxtehude and Böhm (www.wolfgangrubsam.com/listen ).  For me the recordings speak for themselves, and I have grown to like them even more over time, as well as slowly realising how far they go against the grain of traditional Bach keyboard interpretation. Those who are not instantly convinced may want to read on and reflect.

First let it be said that the Lautenwerk has a charm all of its own.  The timbre outwardly resembles that of the buff stop that is featured on some harpsichords except that it is a lot fuller, mellow and, well, lute-like.  Although notes die away rapidly a warm reverberation is created by a set of strings above that resonate in sympathy, rather like the effect contributed by the undamped final octave or so of strings on the piano.  In fact, the ear does not seem to tire of this closely recorded sound as much as can be the case with the bright tone emitted by some conventional harpsichords, even after listening endlessly to it (on headphones).  There is a gentle ease about it, matched by the ease and delight of the player.  Sometimes the sound-world reminds me of arrangements of Renaissance polyphony for lute duet, and Rübsam manages to make the listener forget that this is actually a keyboard instrument, so nuanced is his touch.

The liberties the instrument itself seems to entice Rübsam towards, lead him beyond where most dare to tread in this very Germanic, learned repertoire. However, for me the results give a breath of fresh air to what can seem sometimes, even on the piano with all its dynamic variety, a rather trudging tradition of playing (I am thinking particularly of the fugues).  In fact, I think this raises a whole heap of questions about how such music may have been brought to life by the player of an instrument where other parameters such as dynamics are so minimal.  It is clear from the modern tendency to perform works like the Art of Fugue on strings and other combinations (not to mention piano) that the listener benefits from such individualisation of lines, yet Rübsam finds a viable and enchanting solution to this problem on the Lautenwerk by displacing one voice rhythmically from another resulting in a remarkably three-dimensional sense of the polyphony (Bradley Lehman has called his Bach ‘geodesic’), an effect that initially takes some getting used to.

This is nothing new for him.  His two complete Bach organ cycles (particularly the later one for Naxos) show a subtle rhetorical approach to rhythm that, although requiring more concentration from the listener, is deeply rewarding in communicating the sense of metre, the stress of dissonances and light and shade of rhythmic groupings, and bears out repeated listens. This sensibility has been transmitted to the work of his students too, including Julia Brown’s brilliant Buxtehude complete organ series for Naxos.  Rübsam himself also did quite a lot of piano recordings for Naxos that also show a distinctly free approach rarely heard in today’s pianistic Bach, saved from accusations of Romanticism by its accomplished ornamentation and deep awareness of style.  The ornamentation on his Lautenwerk recordings is also very impressive and adds to the sense of freshness.  Everything is on the table and there are no textbook solutions for Rübsam, who adds anything he chooses, before, on or after the beat.  Hearing it is really thought-provoking, reminding me of the writings of Frederick Neumann, who has always criticised the dogmatic approach of some early music specialists in the light of contradictory evidence, emphasising the final arbiter of good taste over formula in this epoch, a concept reinforced in many treatises.

There is something luxuriant, deeply sensuous about this playing that I think reveals a kind of ultra-sensitive Bach that perhaps has been unfairly obscured from view by pianists and harpsichordists alike, but is now perhaps coming more into the open (a favourable comparison would be Richard Egarr’s WTC) even if historically one might speculate this to be closer to the performance traditions of the later Bach circle.  Although we know of the importance of the clavichord to Bach, another instrument essentially lost to the modern concert world, it is interesting that the Lautenwerk also had a place close to Bach’s heart (two such instruments are listed in the inventory of his possessions at the time of his death) and these performances should perhaps make us think again about the expressive core of this music, its simultaneous expression of harmonic depth and contrapuntal complexity.  I for one have never enjoyed the canons from The Art of Fugue so much as in the hands of this wise sage of Bach interpretation, who seems to care nothing for contemporary fashion and everything for the music, its world of overlapping voices and subtle comings and goings.  It is fair to say you will find a whole universe here, the existence of which you might not even have suspected.

A 5CD version of WTC I+II by IFO Classics will be released first quarter of 2018.  www.ifo-classics.de/index.php/startseite.html

Also worth reading: Rübsam’s notes on ‘horizontal music’ here : www.wolfgangrubsam.com/biography

Other reviews of Rübsam CDs:

www.bach-cantatas.com/NonVocal/Klavier-Var-Rubsam-Part1.htm

A short video amalgamating various flexible versions of Bach’s C major Prelude from WTC 1 (including Rübsam’s): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q0ygnhv2FQ8


About the reviewer:

Dr Charles Tebbs is a freelance piano teacher, pianist, one-time harpsichordist, organist, and accordionist, recording fanatic (both making and listening to) who also composes from time to time (and is a recipient of two minor composition prizes).  Special areas of interest include polyphonic music, jazz improvisation, historical keyboard performance practices from the 18th to early 20th century and early recordings.  He has recorded a CD of Bach’s Goldberg Variations on piano and made numerous contributions to YouTube.  Current plans include recording the entire Well-Tempered Clavier Book One on the piano in a temperament other than equal.

www.charlestebbs.co.uk

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.

Kimiko Ishizaka’s Meet the Artist interview

Open Goldberg Variations project

1901 Arts Club

kimiko_di_100-708x352Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career? 

The inspiration to play piano came to me at the age of four when my mother first placed my tiny hands on the keyboard and pushed my fingers down with hers, thus teaching me the first piece I learned, the Minuet BWV 114 from Anna Magdalena’s Notebook, which at that time we still believed to be a piece by J.S. Bach. I say inspiration, but really it was a decision: a decision, that I would be a pianist, which was probably made before I was born.

The more interesting moment in time is the point at which I actually embraced my future and identity as a pianist. Certain experiences in my life, which began at university, contributed to my actively making the decision to become a musician for myself: the first time I really connected with an audience as a soloist (my early years were dominated by chamber music); having success at sports; learning a second language: these are all things that I needed to experience before I could embrace fully embrace the decision to be a pianist.

Who or what were the most important influences on your playing/composing? 

Everybody’s playing is a conglomerate of personal experience, and memories. I cannot name any single influence. However, there are many small clues that added up over time to lead me down a road of exploration that eventually allowed me to find my own voice as a pianist.

My experience as a weight lifter taught me that the millimetre matters, that a small change in the shift of your balance can mean the difference between success and failure. Also, my music school professor, Roswitha Gediga, would admonish me to relax my shoulders, to get to the bottom of the keys, and would demonstrate this to me in my lessons.

Those experiences and memories led me to deeply explore the physical aspect of my playing. And in the sanctity of my practice room, with the requisite time for exploration, I’ve looked at my playing and progressively learned about the physical mechanics of piano technique. You can’t do that type of exploration when you’ve got one 70-page chamber piece to get through after the next, where you really can’t ever find the time to get into the detail of each motion.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

Every new piece that a pianist learns is a great challenge. It’s never the same set of problems twice, but this is a good thing, really. It keeps it fresh.

One challenge came at the point when I stopped playing in the chamber ensemble that occupied the first 17 years of my career. We had been playing up to 50 concerts a year and that number pretty much went to zero for me overnight when we quit. So while it was a profound change in the rhythm of my life, it afforded me the space and peace to finally embrace my identity as a pianist and make it my own.

Which performances and recordings are you most proud of?

I am most proud of my recent solo recording from the Open Goldberg Variations project that completely occupied the last two years of my life. It was a large project that involved many more people than just myself, and we produced something that is truly new and beautiful.

The recording of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations is now in the public domain, as is the new engraving of the score of the piece, which I assisted in editing. People can get this recording directly from the Open Goldberg website – www.opengoldbergvariations.org – and enjoy the full freedom of a public domain work. That means you can download it, share it, and even use it as the starting point for new creative works.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in? 

Any hall with a Bösendorfer and an attentive audience.

I recently played in the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, Massachusetts. The hall features a window behind the performer that looks out over the ocean. I liked that quite a bit because as I was warming up during the day, all sorts of birds were swimming in the water right below me.

There are some halls on my wish list as well. From the photographs I imagine that it is divine playing in the Snape Maltings Concert Hall in Suffolk.

In the end, music is this ephemeral thing with a very strange heartbeat of its own. When it’s a good performance, the music is all that matters. So whether it’s a large audience or small, whether the piano is working with you or against you, and whether the hall is resonant or dull, the pianist only has the music to think about in every case.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

Music is a very personal thing. I recently performed a concert that was half Bach and half Chopin. It was interesting to me after the concert to listen to the audience members debating amongst themselves whether the Bach part or the Chopin part was the better, more enjoyable half.

Just like the audience at that concert, I have my personal preferences. I seek out the pieces that speak to me in the most profound way. The piano repertoire is very large, and there is far too much for anybody to play in a lifetime. So I have focused on a few composers to whom I have the closest relationship. This includes Bach, Schubert, Debussy, and more recently, Chopin. This is something that will certainly continue to evolve.

Who are your favourite musicians?

There are many, of course, though I don’t listen to recordings nearly as much as one would expect. One of the most inspiring concerts I’ve attended recently was Radu Lupu performing Schubert and Schumann in Amsterdam.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

When I was 11, the trio I played in with my brothers debuted at the Sogakudo Concert Hall in Tokyo. At the time all three of us played both piano and a string instrument – mine was the violin. We played every combination of violin, cello, and piano music possible, including 6-handed piano.

What I remember distinctly was the audience’s extreme enthusiasm for what we had done. Many of them had brought flowers, and they placed the bouquets on the stage as we played successive encores. By the end there were over 30 bouquets, and this made a strong impression on me as a child.

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

Be yourself. Attending your 20th masterclass won’t make you any smarter than the 19th did. Study the music, the actual piece. Not someone’s analysis of it, or the composer’s life, or the 10 other pieces that were written at the same time. The piece is supposed to stand by itself, and it’s got its own message, but you need to take the time to find it.

What do you enjoy doing most? 

Taking walks in the fresh snow. When the snow and ice go crunch under my feet I experience an advanced elevated state of happiness that cannot be equalled by anything.

German-born Japanese pianist Kimiko Ishizaka performs the first book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier at the 1901 Arts Cub, London on Wednesday 30th January. Further information and tickets here

The Open Goldberg Project

Kimiko Ishizaka’s biography