Posts Tagged ‘Bach’

cembalophilia? cembalophilia.

May 3, 2016

© Tilman Skowroneck 2016

The Westfield Center for Historical Keyboard Studies, in partnership with the 2016 Berkeley Festival & Exhibition, organises “Cembalophilia: Hidden Histories of the Harpsichord”, a mini-festival with concerts and lectures, which will take place in the Berkeley City Club June 6-8, 2016 (see also the poster below for more information; I will participate in the Tribute to Alan Curtis).

I love the title “Cembalophilia.” Is this even a thing, one might wonder, and yes, be assured, it can be a thing. People do love good harpsichords and their repertoire, and good harpsichordists.

Often they don’t even know it, however, which may be why we usually play for smaller audiences than we feel we should. But this is also why – as I may have written before – after a recital audience members always come forward and want to learn more about the harpsichord on stage. “I had no idea there was so much variation in this instrument!” we frequently hear at that point.

Another recent harpsichord mini-festival in Göteborg, Sweden (see this entry)  has convinced me of two things:

First, it is and remains worthwhile to invest energy, time (and money) in live events that showcase harpsichords and their players. A harpsichord is not just a historically appropriate choice for a given repertoire. A good harpsichord offers an astonishingly wide range of expressive possibilities; it can be a friend and ally to the player, and it can move audiences to tears.

Second, all this needs to be said, and not only done by playing. Some people imagine that harpsichord lovers actually feel they need to defend  their instrument. But a fighty attitude is not what I have in mind here. Gone are the angry days, when the historical harpsichord had to battle against the revival harpsichord of a 20th-century design; and also the Bachian conflict between piano lovers and harpsichord lovers has become stale, mostly thanks to the great amount of excellent, serious and unfazed Bach players on both sides. The real “enemy” these days, it seems to me, is the audiences’ increasing loss of interest in live performances, which for our instrument especially is a sad thing: harpsichords do not sound very convincing out of a laptop speaker. So we must keep telling people that it is the laptop speaker that’s bad, not our instrument; that they should come to the next concert instead.


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teachers and students: transmission versus copying

March 30, 2013

© Tilman Skowroneck 2013

Gustav Leonhardt’s transcription of J.S. Bach’s Ciaccona

Musical transmission is a well-explored topic in the history of Western music. In a rare filmed appearance, pianist Edwin Fischer recited, more than explained, how it works: “Beethoven instructed Czerny how to play the Well-tempered Clavier; Czerny taught it to Liszt; Liszt taught it to Eugène d’Albert.” The clip is part of the documentary “The Art of Piano” (found at 1:07:31 of this YouTube video). To complete the lineage for the benefit of readers of our time: d’Albert taught Fischer, who was endorsing his then-new recording of Bach’s WTC.

In addition to being a great-great-grandpupil of Beethoven, Fischer was also a celebrated teacher. His statement about the musical lineage that authenticated his way of playing Bach can be seen as a statement about pedagogy rather than a display of vanity. It tells us that by the mid-20th century, the idea of a student imitating the example of his teacher was considered more than just valuable in a general sense.

To Fischer, the transmission of skills, knowledge and values from teacher to student in an unbroken tradition was profoundly meaningful: the essence of why one became a pupil, or later a teacher. This idea is not new. In France in the 1670s, J.L. Le Gallois suggested the same pedagogy of learning by imitation in his famous praise of Chambonnière’s way of playing: “in order to learn the pieces of each master, it is necessary to study them with the same masters who have composed them, or with their best pupils.”

For a student of harpsichord in Amsterdam in the 1980s, however, learning by imitation was not normally considered an option. On the contrary. (more…)

bach on the piano

April 3, 2008

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.” (more…)

hand choreography and fingering III

December 5, 2007

A typical moment in Bach’s music where the appearance of a sequence obscures the necessity of an asymmetrical technical approach occurs in the second half of the Gigue of the fourth partita in D-major. I am talking about bars 78-83. All the problems of the upward and downward runs of the right hand can be relatively conveniently solved by sliding with the 4th or second fingers. The upward run in bar 78, however, remains insecure. The fifth finger is locked on F#, and the lower fingers (likely 1-1-2-1-2) are forced to tiptoe awkwardly about, risking irregularity, wrong articulations and a crunch into the sharps. Observe the harpsichordist’s or pianist’s left heel during this bar: it wiggles nervously. (more…)

hand choreography and fingering II

December 5, 2007

Often, one fails to master a certain passage to ones liking because long ago, one practiced this passage in a tense or otherwise faulty and ineffective manner. In obnoxious cases even patient slow reworking does not entirely solve the problem. The old approach is too well learned-in and likely, ones fear of performing that particular passage further blocks ones concentration.

A new fingering often solves the matter. In fact, most of the time, the originally chosen fingering is the very cause of the trouble. Additionally, a new technical approach opens the door to an empty brain-box, which will be easier accessible in performance and helps to avoid relapsing into the old, discarded approach.

Bar 196 in the cadenza of the fifth Brandenburg concerto is a good example. (more…)

hand choreography and fingering I

December 5, 2007

Pianist Claudio Arrau was extremely precise in playing the composer’s notation, and refused to divide certain technical difficulties (such as the beginning of Beethoven’s Op. 111) between two hands, if the notation did not call for it (see Joseph Horowitz Conversations with Arrau, Part 2 “Interpretation”, or the article about Arrau in Joachim Kaiser Grosse Pianisten). In the classical and romantic repertoire, such a reluctance to yield to technical convenience often enhances the sounding result. Beethoven might well have been one of the first composers who notated certain passages in an, from a technical viewpoint, unnecessarily awkward manner for the sake of musical expression. (more…)

rescuing a partita

November 19, 2007

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. (more…)


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