J S Bach’s ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’ on the piano (including the infamous pedal)

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The disagreement between musicians about what instrument to use for most of Bach’s keyboard works continues. Leaving aside the works specifically written for organ (and here organists will disagree about what kind of organ is the most suitable), there is a vast body of keyboard music which can be played on a range of instruments, some now obsolete, or at least rarely encountered. In fact, we don’t really know what instrument Johann Sebastian Bach wrote many of his keyboard works for: we assume, in many cases, that it is the harpsichord, although reputedly he preferred the clavichord; he also played a Silbermann fortepiano in his final years, and took an active interest in new instruments.

In The Well-Tempered Clavier – two volumes of twenty-four Preludes and Fugues each, which encapsulate every facet of Bach’s art – we have a collection of works requiring great virtuosity and erudition. ‘Clavier’ simply means ‘keyboard’: a clavichord, a spinet, a harpsichord or…a pianoforte.

Following Bach’s death in 1750, we didn’t have much of an argument: few people played his works (masters such as Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin did, of course) but most were not performed until the celebrated revival initiated by Mendelssohn. At the end of the nineteenth century, some virtuosos began to play what we would now call ‘hyphenated Bach’: their own stylized, Romantically-flavoured concoctions, of which the most famous remain the Bach-Busoni arrangements. (It is perhaps doubtful that a harpsichord in playable state would have been found at that time, let alone a harpsichordist.) Nevertheless, these arrangements began to put Bach on the map.

Then, in the 1920s, along came a Polish musician of genius, Wanda Landowska, who, armed with a powerful harpsichord-sounding instrument, began to play, superbly, all of Bach’s major works as written. Alongside, generations of great pianists, such as Schnabel, Backhaus, Kempff and, later, Tureck and Gould in the 1950s, were playing works by Bach, in a plethora of styles, and, increasingly since the 1960s, Bach’s keyboard works have been played by pianists. Since Landowska brought about the harpsichord’s revival, the last hundred years have also produced generations of expert, erudite harpsichordists, beginning with Kirkpatrick and Leonhardt, and so the arguments about appropriate instruments have raged for over half a century.

Having listened to Bach’s keyboard works played on all manner of instruments and tried some of them myself, miscellaneously, on other instruments (principally the harpsichord), there is no doubt in my mind that the piano offers a unique range of possibilities not available, for instance, to the harpsichordist. Let’s look at some of these:

  1. The modern piano is capable of umpteen dynamic gradations. Whether it is appropriate to use extreme dynamics is, of course, another matter, but the harpsichord offers no such possibilities (unless the instrument has several manuals, in which case one manual will have a different tonal colour). On it you get pak-pak-pak; however you attack the note, with whatever force or finger or hand position, the result is still pak-pak-pak.
  1. The modern piano can give, at least, a semblance of ‘legato’. Now, every musician knows that a true legato is impossible on the piano, but by playing what is generally called an overlapping legato action, we can produce a ‘singing tone’, even if we cannot bind the notes as a singer or string player would. What in fact we are doing is minimizing the decay of the note, which begins the moment the hammer hits the string. To my mind, many lyrical pieces in Bach require just such a ‘legato’, although such markings were not indicated in his keyboard music.
  1. The harpsichord, unless artificially amplified, cannot produce the level of sound required in a medium-size hall, let alone a large one. A nine-foot Steinway will, like the celebrated beer, reach parts the harpsichord cannot. Bach’s music, like most music of the time, was not intended for large halls: The Well-Tempered Clavier, furthermore, was intended for study. However, audiences nowadays are more aware of these pieces and do go in large numbers to hear the work performed by superbly accomplished executants playing in a wide variety of styles.
  1. The modern piano has at least 2 pedals, but often 3, and sometimes even 4: it can sustain notes, introduce a softer, more distant register, or sustain a first note and not those that follow (as in the pedal note of the A minor Prelude and Fugue, Book I).

This much is fairly obvious. But now we get to a more difficult argument. The harpsichord needs a different STYLE of playing in order to compensate for its lack of dynamics, legato and sustaining powers: playing with enormous amounts of rubato, splitting the hands, altering rhythms (notes inégales and double-dotting) and changing ornamentation on repeats are part and parcel of the playing style of most harpsichordists. Some of this performing style carries over into the Bach playing of many pianists and, to my mind, such playing is anachronistic and unstylistic. But it is possible to play Bach convincingly on the piano and many artists have – Edwin Fischer, Kempff, Gould, Tureck and Schiff, to name just a few, representing different fashions and generations, who have played Bach marvellously on the piano: Fischer, the romantic colourist, with generous use of pedal, both for sustaining and for colour; Tureck, often bringing out fugue subjects while obscuring other voices and frequently favouring slow tempos; Gould, showing extreme tempos (some much too fast) as well as staccato playing; Schiff, imaginatively ornamenting, splitting the hands and playing in a different octave on the repeat, and so on. We are all the richer for having their performances there at the touch of a button.

But what about the sustaining pedal on the modern piano? I have discussed this with colleagues, with students at lessons and masterclasses and with aficionados and members of the public. My first observation would be: don’t be dogmatic! It is possible to use the pedal convincingly if (and it’s a big if) it is used discreetly. If you feel you need it, use it. Personally, I never use it. I especially would not recommend it in fugues: however much one can argue it colours a texture, it is almost impossible not to hold down notes that should not be held down and thus unwittingly obscure the texture. By careful use of dynamics, by knowing which note we are going to in a fugue subject (its shape, in other words), or where we can slightly alter the rhythm (e.g. in an entry of the subject), or where we can have a lower dynamic level (in an episode, for instance), we can shape a fugue as we wish. Yes, pedal would suit some preludes where it can provide a more uniform texture to colour, but then we end up with a prelude coloured by pedal, followed by a drier-sounding fugue. Most importantly, of course, we must be very careful, even fastidious, about joining notes together through careful and sometimes pianistically unconventional fingering, as well as occasionally holding on to keys while repeating them (as in the B flat minor Prelude, Book I).

I personally don’t feel that the kind of colour offered by the piano’s sustaining pedal is part of Bach’s thinking or sound world: it was created for Romantic piano music and it best suits the music of Chopin, Liszt, Brahms,  Debussy, Ravel and some of the Russians, which features melody and accompaniment, rather than polyphony. Indeed, the gradual development of the increasingly powerful piano was brought about by the demands of the works of composers such as Beethoven and Liszt. Yes, sustaining notes and allowing the build-up of an enormous sonority happens often in Bach’s organ works, and the instruments allow it, but that is an entirely different matter.

I favour (and I hope this is apparent in my performances) a style of playing which, through its clear, unclouded execution of the text, particularly the part-playing in fugues, its reasonable tempos (obviously not the only possible tempo, but the most appropriate for me at that time) and its naturally expressive power, gives what I consider to be the most convincing reading. As with any interpretation, the ideal performance is one that allows the music to speak for itself, without strenuous efforts on the part of the performer to make it expressive. The music is already expressive: it should never be dry, mechanical or, worse, uncommitted, but should sound natural and right. I do hope I play with sufficient freedom but my aim is, definitely, not the ‘personality’ approach: for me this is the complete opposite of what is required in Bach. My hope is that modern audiences, discovering this greatest of masterpieces, should hear the work, rather than the performer. An impossibility? Perhaps, but we can all aim for it.