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.