Bach as Brainbuster

I am right smack in the middle of my Composer’s Landscape recording project, having completed Beethoven, Chopin, and Mozart CD sets, working on the Bach set, with Brahms, Schubert and Schumann to come, (and  considerations of a possible future French music set.)

This Bach business is certainly keeping my brain (and my hands) from going rusty on me! Aside from the several suites on Disc Two, on Disc One I will have about 13 or 14 sets of Preludes and Fugues from both books of the Well-Tempered Clavier, arranged not by the consecutive keys in which they appear in the volumes, but, rather, juxtaposed in complementary key relationships, and sometimes presented alongside the sets in the same key from the other volume. I believe the listening experience with this format is very different from the conventional sequences in which they are generally heard.

As in all my CD sets, there is a combination of live performances (a kind of harvesting process from past recitals) along with current home-recorded music. I have all the components I need–save one. I have a beautiful Steinway A in perfect tune, I have my own (usually reliable) “personal” equipment, a musical mind and soul, a good recording system, a husband who agrees to stay silent during recording sessions–but sometimes I run up against my own quirky and ornery ear and mind, which are very nearly never satisfied. Many times I get a quite good take, and still the voice in my head says “I can do it better.”

Sometimes, of course, a piece runs smoothly and balanced, and that is sheer happiness. I simply save it and add it to my project. When problems occur, they lie mostly in the challenges of sound (ambience) and balance. The sound at home is very different from the lustre of halls in live performance. But even more tricky, are the placement of the mics, and even trickier than that, is the touch, articulation, dynamics, and all the variables when one plays.

I had planned that the opening two preludes and fugues in C Major and G Major from Book Two, would be followed by the E flat major Prelude and Fugue from Book Two, with several others recorded at home. The key relationship between G major and E flat major did not sit well, and so I decided to insert the C minor Prelude and Fugue from Book One, which would lead neatly to the E flat, then to the A flat, and so on.

Well,– the C minor Prelude is a very difficult prelude to play–the word balance says it all.
Andras Schiff, in his first complete Bach WTC collection (he has since re-recorded all 48, and performed all of them in live concert, a feat that renders mere mortal pianists awestruck), plays that c minor prelude quite deliberately, moderato and forte, with almost no melodic line brought out in the tops of each half-bar. Others play it faster, or lighter.

My own “tempo juste” felt right being rapid, with more tonal accents on the first sixteenths of each half-bar. There is a beautiful melodic line hidden in there, which I feel I want and need to bring out. I have not listened to all the wonderful CDs available from great pianists like Hewitt and Gould, because after I checked in on Schiff’s, and did not agree with it, I realized how fascinating it is–how many choices there are that could be valid in the performance of this piece, and I wanted no further “input” from any other interpretation. I wanted to feel entirely free of influence. (I should add, that in most of Bach, Schiff would be my pianist of choice!) 

So, in the process of finding my own perfect balance between the voices, which means the regulation of my finger-weight, the placement of the mics,–all the myriad considerations, not to mention that factor of how I hear myself, which, in itself, can be very subjective, I think I played that prelude at least 30 or 40 times, in different “takes” before I found one I could love altogether! It seems incredible to me, and yet that was the reality! Oddly, the take I chose one day, was not necessarily my favorite the next day. And many days I discarded all, in favor of starting again from square one, and re-recording it.

 I recently read an article in International Piano quoting Peter Donohoe, a quite successful British pianist, who plays Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, and every “big” composer, but is now recording “the 48” , and says “There is no more difficult music than this.” The bottom line is that each composer has his challenges, and each of us have, as my great teacher, Leopold Mittman, once said, a piece of talent with territorial boundaries (if we are lucky.) For me, Bach has always been well within my “territory”, but this is my first in-depth experience with the process of recording and getting it as “right” as I can for “posterity.”  (Posterity is a fancy word for permanence, in this case. In concert, any irregularities that might haunt me in this process, would have floated away into the firmament. ) The recording process intensifies Bach’s enormous contrapuntal challenges and the need to concentrate fully; and listening so intently to oneself and preserving one’s efforts, increase the desire to keep the music alive with contrasting colors  and textures, using the full range of possibilities of a fine piano, well-trained hands, and a fertile imagination.




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