bach on the piano

After years away from the studio, Murray Perahia has issued a new CD with three of Bach’s partitas. The official Perahia website, maintained by Sony, provides audio samples of the new recording. As reviews are being written, we will in all likelihood once again have to endure the silly arguments for and against playing Bach on this, that or the other instrument.

To be sure, Perahia himself has an open-mindedness about the issue that many other pianists (and sadly enough many harpsichord lovers) seem to lack. In this interview, for example, he is quoted as saying “I think the pursuit of authenticity is fine. There’s nothing against it, but it’s not the only way.”

Okay – we harpsichordists know (or ought to know) that the word authenticity has nothing to do with our choice of instrument, tempo, trills or articulation, while it hopefully depicts our artistic pursuit correctly. But one can understand what Mr. Perahia is trying to say here: “I think playing Bach on the harpsichord in a harpsichordy manner is fine, but there must be room for playing Bach on a piano as well.”

Interestingly, the interviewer attempts to turn this perfectly reasonable position into a tougher one by introducing it with the words: “But Perahia is adamant that the music can be transmitted on an instrument of our day.” Why ‘adamant’? Because there are positions involved in the tug-of-war about Bach on this or that instrument. To be graceful about the choice of instrument and approach is a breach of etiquette, it takes away confrontation, and it is difficult to present in a journalistic style. For the interviewer, it would probably have been more satisfying to quote things like ‘I never quite got the point of playing Bach on a harpsichord’ or, conversely, ‘the only way to hear Bach is the way he heard it, too.’

None of these positions makes any sense. It is certainly enlightening in all sort of ways to experience Bach’s keyboard music – either as a player or as a listener – as he might have experienced it himself. But the notion that this would be the only correct manner is more likely to destroy that enlightenment than to lead to the kind of open minds and open ears that Bach so dearly deserves. Exactly the same applies to the opposite position. There is nothing that makes Bach played on a piano better per se, even considering modern ears and audiences – it is a matter of choice (or, at least, of personal tradition), of feeling comfortable with that choice and of doing the thing that feels right to oneself (at that moment, or at all).

András Schiff writes in the booklet of his recording of the Goldberg variations, “…to many others the tone of the piano is preferable to that of the harpsichord and let’s not forget we are talking about an hour and a quarter of music – hands on heart, can you listen to the harpsichord that long?” Beyond the layer of witty and slightly mischievous charm, Schiff seems to me much more adamant than Perahia about not preferring the harpsichord. A bit sneaky, really, to involve the hands and hearts of that vast a number of anonymous listeners. And, hand on heart, I listen to the harpsichord that long or longer every day: I play it. It can be done.

Mr. Perahia’s new CD should be welcomed by everyone who cares about Bach, because it is a new, sincere attempt to approach these fabulous pieces of music: an authentic manifestation of Perahia’s musicianship. Who cares about the instrument.

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4 Responses to “bach on the piano”

  1. Thomas D Says:

    Hand on heart, I cannot listen to Schiff playing Bach for more than 30 seconds. He treats the music as a mere playing field for his bizarro, emotionally empty interpretive ‘ideas’. (See him playing on YouTube…)

    I don’t understand your reasoning as to why ‘Perahia’s new CD should be welcomed’. It should be welcomed *if* it is well played and recorded on a good instrument – if not, not. It may be new and sincere and authentic and all of that, but it may also be safe or unstylish or boomy or any number of musically unwelcome things. There are lots of people who are as sincere and authentic as anything – but who just don’t play Bach very well.

    Of course we care about the instrument, because however good a player you are, you have to work with the sounds inherent in the box of wood and metal in front of you. If Mr Perahia’s Steinway is not well-voiced or has too heavy an action for playing this or that ornament or just by chance tuned so that the relevant tonic chords are slightly worse than equal temperament… well, there are things can go musically wrong with Steinways in Bach, although they occur pretty damn rarely with players as expensive as Perahia.

    I would welcome it a hell of a lot more if Perahia put out a disc of (say) Handel’s Chaconnes and J.Christoph Bach’s Sarabanda Variata and Froberger’s Meyerin Variations. We are so used to hearing the Goldbergs and Partitas on the piano that we perhaps forget what an effort it is to make Baroque music sound like anything at all on that instrument if no-one has done it before.

  2. skowroneck Says:

    Well, what can I say? I carefully refrained from letting this post sound like a CD review. I have stopped writing CD reviews ten years ago, because I hated hearing my voice praise one effort and condemn the other. Music making is darn much more difficult than sitting around having views.
    What strikes me with Perahia´s Bach in those pieces I know well is that he acknowledges and tackles the musical difficulties in a way that I recognize (this is not about whether I always would come to the same solutions, which is a different matter altogether). I, too, admit that I have fewer such experiences when I listen to Mr. Schiff playing Bach, but that’s really neither here nor there.
    Then, as I am a harpsichordist after all, I sure do have my personal preference about the instrument. I try to express here that the choice of instrument may indeed be something we care about, but it should nevertheless be treated as a formality in the first place.
    If a clunky piano makes a pianist play Bach in a clunky way, this changes: the instrument invades the music. There are lots of Bach recordings of great pianists out there which I can’t stomach at all because of that. If a wiry harpsichord (of which there are too many) makes someone play this music in a spidery manner: same thing.
    Of course I believe that a really good harpsichord can help, in a positive way, to solve things pretty good. But believe me: I still have to practice a lot on such an instrument.

  3. Andreas Neubronner Says:

    Hello,

    I followed your discussion. BTW.: Is Skowroneck somehow related to the harpsichord-builder Martin Skowroneck?

    I have to introduce myself: I produced the Partita recording of Murray Perahia for Sony Classical.

    What I don’t understand is the fact that there is criticism on playing Bach on a modern piano. BTW.: I’m doing a lot of recordings with Ensembles playing on period instruments (Cantus Cölln, Collegium Vocale Gentz, Orchestre des Champs-Elysses etc.).

    Bachs music is so outstandingly good and deep that you can perform it on almost every instrument (even on a piano :-)). It speaks for itself. And if a musician like Murray Perahia plays it so well then every discussion about the use of a harpsichord is senseless. He is a pianist and he should be allowed the express his deep appreciation to Bach wherever and however he wants.

    All the best regards

    Andreas Neubronner

  4. skowroneck Says:

    Yup I am related to the harpsichord builder, directly related too. Thanks for your comment. I agree, certainly in this specific case since I’ve always had a soft spot for Mr. Perahia’s playing…

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