My new project is to rescue Bach’s A-minor partita. This is not a description of how to re-animate music that has suffered from one’s enthusiastic teenage assaults. I am talking about a suite that has been butchered for me by others.
Imagine a Dutch brown-brick townhouse from around 1900. One entrance hall has been transformed into a room. The other entrance serves both parts of the house – each of the three floors sports a connecting hallway with self-closing doors (eeek-thump). There are ten relatively big rooms, and eight small ones; all eighteen rooms are occupied by music students. Only one, a solitary conductor, plays no music. The others, amongst which were eight pianists at a given moment in history, all practice three to five hours per person per day, between nine in the morning and eleven at night.
My knowledge of part of the canonical keyboard music has thus been influenced either by matters of how sound transmits through various solids, or by the interpretive quirks of my fellow inmates. For me, Bartok’s piano suite is unthinkable without the drone created by a Yamaha baby grand on bare wooden planks, heard through one solid wall and one layer of hardboard. One of Schubert’s sonatas works best for me as a canon (at one time, three of the pianists were preparing the piece). Every time I call Beethoven’s Op. 13 to mind, I remember my neighbor’s foreshortened first chord and swallowed rests; Chopin’s etude op. 25/1 is preserved in my mind with a skeletal sound: the result of her foot slipping off the pedal.
Bach’s A-minor partita is one of the victims from that time. When I worked on this suite for the first time, I could not escape the clunky gloom that had etched itself into my mind from my dormitory days. I put the piece aside after a cursory run-through and a few lessons. Yesterday evening I began again, after twenty years of rest, and this time, I started at the end. This is much more fun! The Gigue is a meaty handful of notes, and would make a great piece all by itself. The Scherzo calls for fun experiments on two manuals; the Burlesque has an effective bite to it. After that, the somewhat pedantic triplets of the Sarabande, with their air of “an evening at home with the Bach family”, can be excused, or rather, will be worked out in some pretty way. I will have to slow myself down, so I don’t arrive at the beginning before I have gained full appreciation of these movements. The resurrection of the mumbling and meandering Fantasia will probably be the most difficult part of this project. But perhaps this is not entirely my neighbor’s fault.