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A J.S. Bach Little Prelude: Making decisions about phrasing and articulation

The Urtext (original) editions of Bach’s keyboard music offer sparse directions about phrasing/articulation, (groupings of notes) so the player has to make important decisions that reflect a Baroque style. But what are the guidelines in a process that has an intellectual and affective dimension?

To the extreme, some pianists use pedal and soak up linear lines of counterpoint. These independent strands of skips and steps that move along at Andantino or Allegretto pace, etc. are drowned in sustain. (Phrase markings, detached note playing, etc. will not compensate for an over-soaked musical fabric)

In Bach’s Little Prelude in C minor, BWV 934, for example, my most recent undertaking, I was sent a score that seemed to be edited in a way that the harmonic rhythm (flow of harmony) and sequences were mostly ignored. Dynamics inserted did not necessarily reflect a fall down in measures that were modulations a step down. A counter melody in the bass (measures 33-37) that occurred in three sub-divided measures was marked off by pure legato slurs. (In this editing, an important line was lost)

In addition, there were long groupings of legato-slurred melodic phrases that would suit a Romantic era composition, not one originating in the Baroque.

But did I want to imitate the harpsichord as I took my pencil in a slash-mode fashion, making my own edits?

I had no intention of playing never-ending detached notes, especially where a melody had its own charming contour, and seemed grouped in two-measure frames at the start. My own aesthetic, based upon playing a modern-day piano, would not embrace imitating an instrument that had its own built-in character and form of expression.

Purists might think otherwise.

In my soul-searching, I decided to consult two pianists known for their interpretations of Bach.

Here are Glenn Gould and Angela Hewitt playing Little Prelude in C minor, BWV 934, followed by my own performance and that of a child. (Note the lovely ornamentation in Gould/Hewitt’s readings)

Gould:

In the first section, Gould plays the soprano line detachee, while on the repeat of the same, he’s playing legato. His sequences have consistent internal groupings.

Characteristically, he seems to flesh out detached phrases as against the same in legato. I also noted his long lines of bass legato, against treble detached notes. Then he reversed it.

Gould exhibits a variety of articulations in a very relaxed tempo that suits this approach. (you can hear him singing occasionally, which matched the selected pace)

Hewitt:

Hewitt’s performance moves more briskly in dance-like fashion, and I particularly underscored her bass sequence articulations in measures 33-37. In measures 16, 17 and 18 she detached the treble line quarters, which fleshed out the agogic dimension of tied notes. (a natural accent by dint of their length amidst surrounding shorter note values) I favored her note groupings at the cadences, A and B sections.

My own revised playing: (A tad faster than Hewitt’s performance)

A child’s lovely reading without repeats: (Listen to her phrasing/articulation)

These inserted edits, in the aftermath of my having separately studied the first two interpretations, were a synthesis of what made sense to me in Hewitt’s reading, re: phrasing/articulation/harmonic rhythm, and my own idea strands. (dynamics were influenced by sequences and harmonic flow)

bwv934 p 1

bwv934 p 2

My original, preliminary ideas about this Prelude, after I had carefully listened to Hewitt’s rendition, though I made changes in the course of practicing the work:

A section:

Angela Hewitt, Bach's tempos in clavier music, Baroque music tempo, classissima, classissima.com, dance-like tempo in Baroque keyboard music, Elaine Comparone, Glenn Gould, Halida Dinova, Harpsichord Unlimited, Harpsichord.org, J.S. Bach's tempos, Johann Sebastian Bach, piano, Quantz, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten, word press, word press.com, wordpress, wordpress.com, you tube.com, yout tube, youtube.com

J.S. Bach and tempo in his Little Preludes

A few days ago, I posted a You Tube of Bach’s Little Prelude in F, BWV 927, which is popular among pupils in the Intermediate range of study, though to be candid, these “Level” classifications should be taken with a grain of salt. Why? because all Bach’s compositions require an understanding of voicing and counterpoint that deepens with seasoned exposures. In essence, as eternal students, we commit to layered learning and study spanning a lifetime.

That said, the whole universe of Bach’s tempos can be a challenge to those of us wanting to play his music with a degree of authenticity. (Recommend: “On Bach’s Rhythm and Tempo” by Ido Abravaya: http://www.music.qub.ac.uk/tomita/bachbib/review/bb-review_Abravaya.html)

My first inclination was to draw on the vast body of Bach’s choral works for tempo reference: Oratorios, cantatas, etc. as well as the solo concerti for violin, flute along with the composer’s collections of chamber music. (The Brandenburgs, for instance, contain dance-like movements)

Elaine Comparone, world-renowned harpsichordist and scholar suggested that I consult Quantz in my research endeavor, so I raced off to Google where I found the following:

http://www.janvanbiezen.nl/18century.html

Although the header pertained to ORGAN works, I benefited from tempo choices linked to DANCE movements and metronome markings.

Comparone, likewise characterized some of Bach’s music in a dance frame even when the composer didn’t specifically attach a French or Italian adjective to his manuscript.

For BWV 930 in G minor, she referenced the “Courante” as well as “harmonic rhythm” as cues for tempo decisions.

Courante: a) “Italian variety, in a rapid tempo and in simple triple time. b) French variety, similar to the above, but with a mixture of simple triple and compound duple rhythms, the latter pertaining especially to the end of each of the 2 sections. Occasionally, in Bach’s keyboard examples the conflicting rhythms are found together, one in each hand.”

Attribution: The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, Third Edition, Editor, Michael Kennedy

Here’s Angela Hewitt’s dance-like reading:

Gould, by contrast, was thinking more of the vocal model in his chosen tempo.

I must confess that my original perception matched Gould’s even before I hastened to You Tube to check out his performance.

My latest recording, however, turned out livelier:

In BWV 926 (d minor) Gould fleshes out a definitive rhythmic dualism. He plays this Little Prelude rather briskly, suggesting, for me, at least, a sprightly dance movement. (His detachee–detached note approach is emphasized)

The artist, known for his many original, and sometimes unorthodox performances, perceives a stream of triplet 8ths at the beginning of this work, though the notes are seemingly comprehended as parcels of two to the quarter note (in 3/4 time)

He then reverts to duple division of the beat, fleshing out a perception that is uncommon to most performances of this Little Prelude. (two against three in the larger sense) If we agree with Gould’s interpretation as authentic to Bach, then the composer had something whimsically sophisticated up his sleeve. (Comparone favored Gould’s rhythmic disposition)

Here’s Angela Hewitt’s reading which I prefer in it’s more singable frame:

(I love the way she “relaxes” alternate measures in the opener, and responds so beautifully to the harmonic rhythm dimension of this work)

I adopted this same spirit in my rendition, before locating Angela’s You Tube offering.

Having matched up in tempo and character with an artist I revere as one of my favorite Baroque period interpreters, I was a bit puzzled by the tempo she chose in BWV 927 that I mentioned at the beginning of this writing.

Hewitt is so intrinsically musical that she seems to pull off any reading at whatever tempo frame she chooses.

Yet I can’t fully grasp the counterpoint in this rapid speed.

My own humble choice seemed to be one where two voices could be more easily followed, though a You Tube poster to my website asserted that I played the composition “too fast.”

Gould’s reading seems to corroborate my more conservative underlying beat, though taken a tad faster: go to 3:30 in the track.

***

Another Little Prelude:

BWV 999 (The broken chord pattern permeated C minor) is played in a very brisk tempo by pianist, Halida Dinova: Go to 1:46 in the track

Compare to Hewitt’s tempo (which I prefer)

The question remains what tempo would Bach have envisioned, and what character reference would he have chosen for any number of his compositions?

A partisan of separating the vocal model from that of the dance especially in these shorter works, I would favor such a point of departure.

Finally, does the character of the composition upend the metronome marking assigned to the piece? (or should they have equal weight in conjunction with Key/Major/minor tonality?)

I leave readers with food for thought.

LINKS:
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/11/06/angela-hewitt-pianist-plays-j-s-bach-beautifully-on-a-fazioli/

http://www.harpsichord.org

Aimi Kobayashi, Brahms, Elaine Comparone, Glenn Gould, great pianists, Johannes Brahms, keyboard technique, Liszt, Murray Perahia, music history, Myra Hess, New York City High School of Performing Arts, Oberlin Conservatory, New York City High School of Performing Arts, pianist, piano, piano society, Piano Street, piano student, piano teacher, Piano World, pianoaddict.com, Pianostreet.com, pianoworld, pianoworld.com, scales, Scarlatti, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Kirsten blog, Steinway and Sons, Steinway console, Steinway grand piano, Steinway M grand piano, Steinway piano, talkclassical.com, Teach Street, technique, uk-piano-forums, Uncategorized, video performances, Vladimir Horowitz, word press, wordpress.com, Yamaha piano, you tube, you tube video

My Favorite Video Performances of Beloved Pianists: Do you have some to share? (UPDATED)

Update: Approaching still another New Year, I will add more favorite performances by pianists to the group: These inspiring players include Irina Morozova, Cyprien Katsaris, and Georgy Cziffra plus Yeol Eum Son playing Gershwin’s “Embraceable You.”

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Since it’s the New Year, here are some of my picks, though I’m a bit of throwback to the old days, when modern technology had not yet invaded the recording studio. There are few reel to reel interspersed performances, and one special concert appearance that dates to the World War II era, when pianist, Dame Myra Hess played the Mozart concerto in G Major, K. 453 in London’s National Gallery,  joined  by the Royal Air Force orchestra. Let’s start with this one, and move forward in time. (with zigzagging here and there)

This concerto has special meaning for me since it was the very first one I studied, and was fortunate to have performed at the annual winter Concerto Concert of the HS of Performing Arts Orchestra. Though my heart was set on playing the Beethoven Bb Concerto, Murray Perahia and Robert DeGaetano earned the honors, and rightfully so.

Speaking of Murray Perahia, I can say with certainty, that those who took classes beside him at “P.A.” (Performing Arts High) were indelibly influenced by his artistry, up front and personal. Here is one of my favorite performances of his, that is a bit scratchy, but resonates with Perahia’s singing tone, vibrant energy and shimmering passage work.  For Mozart Concertos, I would recommend his CDs of ALL 27!!!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FnMKeShFOd0

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And don’t forget the  middle (slow) movement of this concerto that was adapted as the movie theme for “Elvira Madigan.” Who says the MAJOR key can’t be soulful.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O7335XDZQP0

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Let’s back track a bit. Watch Glenn Gould practicing Bach at home on his old Chickering grand (not the beloved Steinway written about in Katie Hafner’s book) Excuse his singing, but it does give life to the pianist’s phrasing.

Lang Lang plays Liszt’s “Liebestraume” at his Carnegie Hall debut recital.

Krystian Zimerman performs the Schubert Impromptu No. 3 in Gb Major Op. 90 in a lovely parlor setting.

Vladimir Horowitz plays the Chopin “Black Key” Etude, Op. 10, No. 5. While the video and audio clarity is not perfect,  this performance has historical value. Horowitz was interviewed in his Manhattan apartment in the presence of his wife Wanda, who is the daughter of the famed maestro, Arturo Toscanini. The impromptu playing of the “Black Key” Etude is worth a listen, minus all the recording studio edits, splices, etc.

And in the present, my favorite young pianist who reminds me of a   young Richter or Gilels, whose concerts I attended at Carnegie Hall.

In this appearance at the 2010 Chopin International Piano Competition in Poland, Evgeni Bozhanov from Bulgaria plays the Chopin Waltz in Ab Major, Op. 42

Notice the Yamaha piano that Bozhanov selected over a Steinway and Fazioli. Interesting story going back to the 2009 Van Cliburn Competition in Texas: Bozhanov was not pleased with the Steinway grand sent to his host family, so he chose to practice on a Yamaha Clavinova. (digital piano) I thought it was charming to see him perched at the Clavy rehearsing some of the warhorse concertos, minus the orchestra, of course.

Aimi Kobayashi (age 14).. not just a child prodigy, but a fully developed young artist who communicates music from the heart with an abundance of technique to spare. Here’s the Chopin Etude no. 4 in C# minor.

Excuse this departure, but I must include one particular, resonating harpsichord performance.

The artistry of Elaine Comparone is displayed in this performance of the Scarlatti Sonata in D minor, K. 517:

And to come full circle, looking back over a panorama of wonderful pianists and their performances, here’s a sample of Dame Myra Hess’s artistry, reel to reel, playing Brahms selections.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aX9TgQUclfg (Looks like the account was closed down)

Once again, who says that the MAJOR key cannot be beautifully soulful and melancholy.  (Brahms Intermezzo in C Major)

Please share your own preferences and choices. I look forward to seeing/hearing your selected artists and their videos.