Bach, Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue

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Belle
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Bach, Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue

Post by Belle » Thu Mar 02, 2017 10:51 pm

I've just been watching a performance of this by Davitt Moroney on harpischord via Foxtel. It is the most staggering piece of music, isn't it!!! Each time I hear it something new is revealed and today I was struck by the 'modern-ness' of the 'fantasy' section - with its seamless progression to new ideas without a single cadence. Surely an aesthetic from Renaissance polyphony yet showing the way forward. I just had to come on here and talk about it. Galaxies collide when I listen to it.

Who are your preferred performers of this work?

John F
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Re: Bach, Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue

Post by John F » Thu Mar 02, 2017 11:51 pm

As it happens, I was listening to George Malcolm's Bach LP on Tuesday, which was the 100th anniversary of his birth. Malcolm played a harpsichord by Thomas Goff, a beautiful-sounding instrument which it seems nobody plays any more.

Another favorite recording because of the fantasy of the playing is Wanda Landowska's of the 1930s. Her Pleyel harpsichord, which the piano maker built to her specifications, is definitely superseded, except for the pieces written for her and it, but she conjures organ-like sonoroties from it with the aid of its 16-foot stop, and the fantasy of her playing is special.



Even more so is her exciting Italian Concerto of the same vintage, in which the 16-foot stop allows maximum contrast between the "orchestral" and solo parts. Her free rubato in the slow movement, and in the fantasia, is a reminder that her teachers included Alexander Michalowski, a friend of Chopin's pupil Mikuli.

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Belle
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Re: Bach, Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue

Post by Belle » Fri Mar 03, 2017 3:25 am

I don't seem to be able to see your links! (I use Google Chrome.)

I have Brendel playing the Chromatic Fantasy but I think this one from Schiff is wonderful. You can hear all the inner voices. Also I have Trevor Pinnock playing this on the harpsichord. Both types of keyboards produce very different works. In the case of the grand piano the pedalling has an interesting effect of prolonging the sonorities, making the work sound less radical and not more so - and this is probably because today we are more familiar with the grand piano sound.

I think there is a case to be made for both types of keyboard, though I do not remember having ever heard this work on an organ.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SNWOhm5iXxs

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Re: Bach, Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue

Post by John F » Fri Mar 03, 2017 8:56 am

Belle wrote:
Fri Mar 03, 2017 3:25 am
I don't seem to be able to see your links! (I use Google Chrome.)
Why? I tried Chrome and dumped it - it seems to me more notable for what it can't do than what it can. Firefox works flawlessly with all features of the Classical Music Guide site, including embedded YouTube clips like these.

The full link for the Chromatic Fantasia is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cxPDiInNseY.

The link for the Italian Concerto is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZgD7Gf0q7g.

Schiff's Chromatic Fantasia seems to me pretty cool and dispassionate, though that may be partly because of the monochromatic nature of the piano and his way of playing it. Much more drama from Landowska.
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Re: Bach, Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue

Post by Belle » Fri Mar 03, 2017 7:37 pm

(I had too many problems with Firefox so my son recommended that I ditch it in favour of Google Chrome.)

I loved the Schiff for all the inner voices which he articulates so well. I find the Landowski rather 'theatrical', though it's very easy to accept many different interpretations of this great work.

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Re: Bach, Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue

Post by John F » Sat Mar 04, 2017 4:50 am

Theatrical is an apt word for Landowska's approach to Baroque music generally, or maybe overtly virtuosic is better. And I think her approach is more apt for these particular works, rather than more inhibited recordings even by such as Sviatoslav Richter, who plays the Italian Concerto's finale at practice speed rather than Bach's Presto. Of course you're right that there are many possible interpretations of this and almost any other music, but it's not all relative - some suit the music better than others.

With Baroque keyboard music there's also the fundamental question of which instrument to play it on. Bach often uses the nonspecific term Klavier, which doesn't help. In music intended to be played or just read privately, at home or in the study, the player can use whatever he has for his keyboard practice (Klavierübung), from the clavichord to the organ, and expressive or colorful playing are beside the point. For performance with an audience, even an audience of one as with the Goldberg Variations, those elements of interpretation are very much to the point, and instruments with stops such as the harpsichord or organ serve the music and the audience better than monochrome instruments such as the clavichord and piano. Or so I believe.

Naturally, many pianists are unwilling to forego Bach's keyboard music, and they are also unwilling to give up their pianos for instruments whose requirements the player are physically as well as conceptually different. I listen to piano recordings of Bach from Busoni to Barenboim with interest, especially in music for which other instruments offer no decisive advantage such as the Well-Tempered Clavier. Otherwise, I think they need the instruments that Bach used and on which he was a virtuoso, the harpsichord and the organ.
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Re: Bach, Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue

Post by maestrob » Sat Mar 04, 2017 12:26 pm

For years I have preferred Bach on the piano, but lately I have been appreciating his music on the harpsichord, which is very fine. In the days of LPs, my taste was formed by recording quality, i.e. I felt that the harpsichord was not reproduced faithfully in the recording process, sounding harsh and distorted, even on the best equipment (which I had). Early CDs exacerbated the problem, as they were too "up close" with the microphones for my taste.

Recently I've acquired the disc below of the Goldbergs, and I find the recording stunning in its beauty, a crystal-clear and distortion free balance with true-to-life sound where the instrument doesn't overpower the recording process: a huge success, IMO.

As for the Chromatic Fantasy & Fugue, thank-you for the examples you've both provided. I find Schiff's Bach ideal on the piano, but somehow my heart prefers Murray Perahia in Bach, although I have a weak spot for the drama of the Russian school. Landowska pioneered Bach for those of a certain generation, even if her Pleyel was not an authentic original instrument. I still like her approach, but that's just me. So many choices, and I feel lucky to have them on hand to enjoy.

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Re: Bach, Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue

Post by John F » Sat Mar 04, 2017 8:54 pm

The Baroque harpsichord is a quiet instrument (though not as quiet as the clavichord), and microphone placement has to be close. Indeed, I've been to concerts in which the harpsichord was amplified, with a speaker on the floor beneath it, so it could be heard in a modern medium or large hall.

One advantage of the Pleyel harpsichord is that it's louder. Built like a piano, with a steel frame and steel piano wires tightly strung, it can hold its own in a modern concert hall. (Also, its sturdy construction made it as suitable for touring as a grand piano and more so than an old or replica instrument made of wood.)

There is no standardized harpsichord and never has been, unlike (say) today's concert pianos by different makers. Not only do the materials and construction differ, but they have different stops, some have two manuals and others just one, and so on. The Goldberg Variations were composed for a two-manual instrument, as Jeffrey Kahane once told me - in some of the variations, the hands get in each other's way on a single keyboard such as a piano. For the Well-Tempered Clavier, or most of it, a single keyboard will do. So it's a stretch to speak of an "authentic" harpsichord.

Landowska's two-manual Pleyel had six stops operated by pedals, so she could change stops while her hands were fully occupied on the keyboards - and she made full use of them, as in the recording of the Italian Concerto. In the finale she uses the peau de buffle stop for a brief passage, creating a special staccato sound for just a few seconds. All the Pleyel stops derived from Baroque originals, but no one Baroque instrument had them all. Some think she overdid it, and I read a snide comment that it would have been better if her shoes were nailed to the floor, but I disagree; as with most present-day pianists, we hear less colorful playing than from their predecessors, and I think that's a pity.
John Francis

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Re: Bach, Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue

Post by Lance » Sun Mar 05, 2017 12:53 am

Indeed, one of my favourite pieces of JS Bach as well, and like John Francis, I have always enjoyed Landowska's interpretations of most of her Bach. I have learned to love the harpsichord, and in Landowska's case, maybe it was because I was able to play on her incredible cast-iron made custom-made Pleyel harpsichord at her home in Lakeville, Connecticut. And while in my university position, I maintained three Dowd harpsichords, to Italian single keyboard instruments and the French-type double-manual with pedals as well. However, today, the piano has pretty much taken over and I have assembled over the years countless performances of the work. The question as to the favourites, there are many and one cannot select just one.

I have those by Rudolf Serkin, Glenn Gould, Nelson Friere, Carl Seemann, Karl Richter (harpsichord), Wanda Landowska (harpsichord), Artur Schnabel, Alexis Weissenberg, Claudio Arrau (early RCA), Maggie Cole (harpsichord), Edwin Fischer (decidedly a favourite), Alfred Brendel, Friedrich Gulda, Gabriela Imreh, Guido Agosti, Isolde Ahlgrim (harpsichord), Greta Kraus, Richard Buhlig, Suzanna Ruzickova (harpsichord), Angela Hewitt, Joao Carlos Martins, Emil Gilels, Walter Gieseking, Jacques Loussier, Rosalyn Tureck (harpsichord), Leon Fleisher, Maria Yudina, Simon Barere, Harold Bauer (piano roll), Youri Egorov, Wilhelm Kempff, Witold Malcuzynski, Ivan Moravec, Awadagin Pratt, Harold Samuel, Ruth Slenczynska and others by lesser-known pianists/harpsichordists. Quite honestly, I love any Bach as performed by Edwin Fischer when performed on the piano. Do I love the work? You might definitely say so!
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Belle
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Re: Bach, Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue

Post by Belle » Sun Mar 05, 2017 1:29 am

That is an extremely impressive list of artists, right there! When do you get the opportunity to hear them all?! :D

What I adore about this music - in fact, most of the music of Bach - is the journey. I suppose the same could be said about all great art music, but there's something different about Bach. Perhaps it's the creative/intellectual journey; the working out of ideas which seem infinite in their possibilities and yet, paradoxically, contained within a very few octaves on the keyboard - as is the case with those particular works. The religious works such as the cantatas, the Passions etc. always arouse intense emotions and my response is usually very different from that of the keyboard works. Nobody has ever suggested this music is easy for the listener (and less than formidable for the performer), but isn't that the reason why we need it? As John Kennedy once said about something else, 'we do it because it's hard, not because it's easy'. Applies magnificently to Bach.

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Re: Bach, Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue

Post by John F » Sun Mar 05, 2017 6:04 am

The music by Bach that appeals most to me is what he composed for performance for a nonprofessional public. These range from large-scale church music to the intimate Goldberg Variations. Bach never wrote down to such audiences, but these works often have a direct melodic appeal that the Well-Tempered Clavier, for example, isn't much concerned with. And some have become widely popular, such as the famous aria from the 3rd orchestral suite ("air on the G string").

Connoisseurs like Belle may hear the "intellectual journey" through the 30 Goldberg Variations, which among other things are a comprehensive demonstration of canons at all 8 degrees of the major scale. But I expect many listeners, maybe most of them and usually including me unless I make myself listen differently, just enjoy the tunes - Bach's variations are not of the theme (as with Mozart) but of its bass line, for which he composes 30 different melodies and, in variation 30, throws in a couple of popular songs of his day for good measure. Though the variations last an hour, longer if the repeats are played, their variety assures that I never lose interest along the way; if anything my interest increases.

We've been talking about instruments. As I said, Bach often doesn't specify the instrument for his keyboard music, but for the Goldbergs he is very specific: "for harpsichord with two manuals." He had it published, and the first edition includes a table of contents saying which variations require two manuals, otherwise the player's hands get in each others' way, and which need only one. I've heard performances on the piano and liked them well enough, but those which are indispensable to me follow Bach's instructions. Not surprisingly they include Wanda Landowska's two recordings, full of vitality and color, which were the first ever made of this music.

A work of genius from beginning to end, the variations reserve a master stroke for the very end, after the last variation: the theme is then recapitulated, note for note, as it was played before the variations started. All the other major variation sets I can think of, by Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and others, end with a finale to cap the work, but Bach daringly ends with an anti-finale, which somehow is not an anticlimax but a fulfillment.
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Belle
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Re: Bach, Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue

Post by Belle » Sun Mar 05, 2017 6:58 am

Speaking of "Goldberg Variations" here's one out of left field for piano. Vladimir Feltsman, and I'm wondering if anybody is familiar with it. A fellow from Little Rock whom I befriended on another messageboard some time ago sent me a CD of this performance which he burned himself. It is stunning.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wedZkkXqOJ0

I enjoy the melodies of Bach, of course, but there's just always so much going on apart from melody and that's what I was driving at. I often find myself smiling and nodding (like a mad relation!) when listening to the intricacies being woven and revealed. There's never a false move or any time when you can say, "well, that didn't quite work" - which is sometimes the case with even the greatest composers.

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