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Baroque Variations: Anderszewski Plays Bach

Walt Disney Concert Hall

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About This Performance

About the Program
Notes by Grant Hiroshima

The entry in the seventh edition of Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians begins:

Bach, Johann Sebastian, supreme arbiter and lawgiver of music, a master comparable in greatness of stature with Aristotle in philosophy and Leonardo da Vinci in art; b. Eisenach, March 21, 1685; d. Leipzig, July 28, 1750.

The grandness of the locution might give us pause, but there is no arguing the idea. We do place him on that high a pedestal. But in the decades immediately after Bach’s death, was his reputation quite so secure?

It is important to remember that by the end of his life Bach had seen only a few of his major works in print. The suites for solo cello and the sonatas and partitas for solo violin, the Well-Tempered Clavier, the cantatas, oratorios, and passions – all remained in manuscript, in some cases passed from musician to musician in laboriously copied form. A century or more would pass before any reliable publication of his entire output was available.

Of the three great sets of keyboard suites (the English Suites, the French Suites, and the Partitas) only the Partitas were published during Bach’s lifetime, and even these were published at his own expense. In the case of the English Suites, of which we hear two tonight, no original manuscript exists. The music is known to us only through hand-copied versions preserved by disciples. It is no small wonder that music which we now consider a part of the standard concert repertory had such precarious provenance.

Of course, the very idea of this music as concert material draws us to another interesting point. Since the recital as we conceive it did not exist in Bach’s day, to what purpose were the keyboard suites written? Because of the structural similarities between the English Suites and the Partitas (both written in sets of six individual suites and in the accepted format of the dance suite) we can assume that Bach’s own words could apply to both works. The title page of the first volume of the Clavier Übung, consisting of the six Partitas, designated by the composer as his Opus 1 and published in 1731, reads:

Clavier Übung
bestehend in
Praeludien, Allemanden, Couranten, Sarabanden,
Giguen, menuetten, und andern Galantieren;
Denen Liebhabern zur Gemüths Ergoetzung verfertiget
Johann Sebastian Bach

(Keyboard Practice, consisting of Preludes, Allemandes, Courantes, Sarabandes, Gigues, Minuets, and other Gallantries; composed for music lovers, to refresh their spirits, by Johann Sebastian Bach)

Denen Liebhabern zur Gemüths Ergoetzung” is sometimes translated as simply “for the enjoyment of music lovers.” But more accurately than “enjoyment,” “Gemüths Ergoetzung” should be the delight or edification of the spirit or soul. And “Denen Liebhabern” when translated literally means “to those who have love,” that is amateurs in the original sense of the word before it acquired a derisive connotation of incompetence. Amateur comes to us from the latin amator or lover – someone who is devoted.

For Bach this music was meant for the player, both as a pedagogical tool as well as a musical experience. The idea of an audience gathered to hear music played by a solitary keyboardist would have been alien to him. Remember that the recital format, as we know it, was invented by Liszt in the mid-19th century. Bach might have envisioned the English Suites or the Partitas played by a teacher for a student, but never by a soloist before an audience of hundreds or thousands.

Because this is music intended for the player’s delight, we know that it assumes the simultaneous participation of one’s physical, intellectual, and emotional capacities. Since few of us have the technical means to perform these works, our spiritual renewal must derive from being engaged and active listeners, substituting for an absence of any direct physical effort an alertness to what emotional and tactile energies might be required to produce these sounds with ten fingers. To sit back and expect this music to wash over us misses the point.

The Partitas and English Suites followed the basic form of the Baroque dance suite. An elaborate opening movement is followed by four stylized dances: the allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue, with one or more extra dances (gallantries) interpolated before the gigue. The English Suites have gavottes, while the Partitas include a movement marked rondeaux in the Second Partita and ones marked tempo di minuetta and passepied in the Fifth. Also, in the Second Partita a capriccio takes the place of the concluding gigue. While the opening movements can vary widely in scope and style, the allemande movements tend to be moderately paced in 4/4 time. The courante also tends toward a moderate pace in triple meter, although in the Fifth Partita Bach titles this movement corrente, opting for the somewhat faster pulse of the Italian rather than the French version of the dance. The sarabande was originally a wild and lascivious dance inherited from Mexico, through Spain, but by Bach’s day it had been completely re-imagined as a slow stately dance in triple meter. It is here that Bach confides his deepest reflections. The gigue retains the energetic character of its Irish and English heritage.

General descriptions of character can be given to these pieces, but it is impossible to describe the many subtle emotional states which might comprise a given movement or even section of a movement.

We can refer to the passion and mysteriousness of the second Partita, but what about the minor-key perkiness of the rondeaux? There is no questioning the generally sunny and joyful mood of the Fifth Partita, but the sarabande dips at times into a serene wistfulness that can be experienced if not articulated. Certainly these are large musical canvases, each comparable in length and scope, say, to the sonatas of Mozart or Beethoven. Importantly, they are now, and were very much in Bach’s day, a virtuoso’s calling card. Mastery of this music was evidence of a musician’s capabilities. Johann Nikolaus Forkel, who published the first Bach biography in 1802, wrote of the Partitas:

“This work made in its time a great noise in the musical world. Such excellent compositions for the clavier had never been seen and heard before. Anyone who had learnt to perform well some pieces out of them could make his fortune in the world thereby; and even in our times, a young artist might gain acknowledgment by doing so, they are so brilliant, well-sounding, expressive, and always new.”

The English Suites are not as technically demanding, but are no less ambitious in their range of expression. The lavish and mournful songfulness of the sarabande from the Third Suite stands against the poise and delicacy of the succeeding gavottes, and in particular the daylight of the second gavotte. The Sixth Suite ends in a whirlwind – the gigue as perfectly contained hysteria.

A final note of ambiguity. We still do not know why, with any certainty, the English Suites are called the “English” Suites. Stylistically they are not English. In fact, the primary stylistic influence is French. (Ironically, the French Suites are themselves not particularly French at all.) “They are known by the name of the English Suites because the composer made them for an Englishman of rank,” writes Forkel, but there has been no evidence adduced to verify this. There are things we simply won’t ever know.

Grant Hiroshima is the executive director of a private foundation and the former Director of Information Technology for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.

Partita No. 1 in B-flat major, BWV 825

The B-flat Partita opens with a pastoral praeludium in the manner of a three-part invention. The gentle subject, with its distinctive grace notes defining the melodic idea, passes between the upper, middle, and lower voices.

The allemande, following the tradition that demanded that the start be on a short upbeat, flows with limpid grace borne by constant 16th notes. A second theme is slightly more assertive than the first but the continuity between the two is wonderfully maintained. The first part ends in the key of F and the second part begins in that key but then makes several departures before returning to the home key of B-flat.

Next, Bach opts for the Italian corrente, a quicker, more vigorous dance than its refined counterpart, the courante. Here, a fast triplet figure continues throughout, spiked in places by an uneven rhythmic idea that provides an enlivening complexity to the evenness of the triplets. Bach’s genius for creating a world out of the simplest of strands, as he does here, never ceases to amaze. And that he can nourish and develop a basic idea in order to provide contrast adds to one’s wonderment.

The stately, highly ornamented sarabande is followed by two menuets (French spelling), the second acting as a song-like trio to the distinct three-quarter time rhythmic activity of the first.

The closing gigue was meant to exploit the two-manual harpsichord to the fullest. Here, on the piano, the left hand crosses over the right to etch a melody that sings its way over and within the constant triplets of the right hand, then returns to the lower register to supply supporting bass notes. This is Bach in a delightfully elegant gigue mood, rather than in the exuberant one that was his wont in the closing dance of a suite.

— Orrin Howard

Prelude and Fugue in A major, BWV 888
Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 889

from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II

“Well-tempered” does not describe a Prozac-induced condition. A musical temperament is a tuning system that adjusts or tempers the intervals of the natural harmonic scale, something that became increasingly necessary as Western music moved away from a melodic emphasis to complex harmonic models, from modality to tonality.

The Well-Tempered Clavier consists of two books of 24 keyboard preludes and fugues (one pair in all twelve major and all twelve minor keys, 48 preludes and fugues in all), the first compiled in 1722 and the second 20 years later. There was an avowed didactic element to this, but Bach also seems to have been making a point about practical and artistic ramifications of the gradually developing system of equal temperament, which divided the natural interval of the octave evenly into 12 semitones. True equal temperament – the tuning on a modern piano – was not universally adopted in Germany until after the death of Mozart, and not in France and England until the middle of the 19th century.

The Well-Tempered Clavier also displays the emotional kind of temperament as powerfully as it illustrates a tuning system. It is a collection of character pieces as much as it is of counterpoint, expressing Baroque affects, the clean bounding joy of the A-major Prelude and Fugue contrasted with the almost Gothic elaboration of the A-minor pair, for example.

In many cases, the preludes are themselves highly contrapuntal organisms. The A-major Prelude is in the texture of a trio sonata – two melodic lines over a bass. In this case, the two melody parts are basically canonic, with the harmonically supporting bass line often incorporating elements of the canonic imitation. Its three-voice Fugue has a main subject of great energy and sprung rhythms, as though it were about to achieve escape velocity and fly off the keyboard altogether.

The intense chromaticism and extravagant roulades of the A-minor Prelude and Fugue come as a stern contrast to the largely diatonic clarity of the A-major pair. The Prelude is a two-part invention of invertible counterpoint, where the two parts often switch hands from bar to bar. The gapped, disjunct lines of the three-voice Fugue gather astonishing momentum and ornamental detail, seeming to dissolve the fugal strictures and structure into obsessive motivic development.

— John Henken

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