Monday, August 24, 2015

March 9, 2009: A highly informative Bach recital

Pianist Frank French has scheduled a performance of all 48 preludes and fugues in Johann Sebastian Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, in the "ascending chromatic order" in which they were organized, over two concerts, one for each of the two volumes that Bach compiled, at the Unitarian Universalist Church.  The first concert took place yesterday afternoon;  and the second is scheduled for Sunday, March 22.  For those interested in an "authentic" sound of Bach, French has taken an interesting approach.  While he is playing on a modern piano, he has had that piano tuned according to a system developed by Thomas Young in 1799, rather than the usual equal temperament.  I shall not go into the details of what makes Young's system so interesting, but those interested in such details may find a "beginner's account" on my blog.  What is most important is that, on an instrument tuned according to Young's system, each key has its own characteristic sound.  The distinctions between the keys are subtle, but they are most evident in keys whose harmonic relation is remote.  Thus, one is particularly aware of the qualitative difference between C major and C sharp major;  so, by playing the preludes and fugues in the order in which Bach recorded them, one is most likely to appreciate the variety of different sonorities associated with the different keys.

Now, by way of a disclaimer, we should remember that Bach died in 1750;  so he would never have had an opportunity to hear Young's specific approach to tuning.  As French observed in his program notes, Bach's probably followed the practices of Andreas Werckmeister;  but, in the course of his career as both organist and theorist, Werckmeister experimented with at least four (that being the number given in the Wikipedia entry) tuning systems for keyboard instruments.  Since Young was a physicist, rather than a musician, his approach may be viewed as an attempt to propose a more systematic framework that would encompass both the theory and practice behind Werckmeister's investigations.  Thus, French's performance could be heard as at least a credible approximation to the subtleties of intervallic relationships that Bach originally had in mind.

I chose the words in that last sentence carefully:  Bach clearly could not have imagined the sound of a modern piano.  There is no question that the subtleties of those intervallic relationships are likely to be more evident on "period" instruments, particularly those in which each note is sounded by a single string, than in the multi-string thickness of the piano sound.  However, by taking a "total immersion" approach to exposing the audience to the full spectrum of the 24 examples in one of Bach's volumes, French facilitated the ear's gradual discovery of those subtleties.  Furthermore, the modern piano was much more capable of holding its tune over each half of French's recital (retuning took place during the intermission) than any instrument of Bach's time could have been.  On the other hand the modern piano still has a disadvantage in that thickness of sound.  Rapid sequences of notes in a single voice risk running together in a single blur, and that risk is all the greater when several such voices are woven together in counterpoint.

Yesterday afternoon's result was that a plan that initially would have seemed about as inspiring as reading through a dictionary in alphabetical order was actually excitingly revealing of the richness of an earlier approach to tuning.  The biggest problem was that the full set of 24 preludes and fugues makes for heavy demands on the performer, particularly since French played them all from memory.  Signs of fatigue were evident not only through more than the usual number of faulty notes but also in the ways in which the voices of Bach's intricate contrapuntal webs (in the preludes as well as the fugues) were balanced.  (As pianists such as Richard Goode have demonstrated, that "balancing act" is the usual way to sort out the "blurring" problem on a modern piano.)  In retrospect I would say that French's decision to take a single break at the half-way point was too demanding.  Taking two intermissions to divide the collection into thirds would have facilitated his endurance (not to mention the powers of concentration of those of us in the audience).

In spite of those shortcomings, I have every intention of returning to hear the second volume on March 22;  and I am very curious to hear whether or not my ears have "learned" from yesterday afternoon's experience when they are exposed to an entirely new body of material composed in the same spirit.

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