The secret to a happy relationship with Bach is in embracing perpetual challenge

(This post includes reviews of two new Bach CDs, below.)

The current mania for immersive experiences packaged for small groups of obsessive-compulsive personalities manifested itself this week in classical music with yesterday’s kickoff of an eight-day Schubertiade on BBC Radio 3 (“200 hours of continuous broadcasting!” proclaims the public radio service) and a week-long focus on all things Goldberg on NPR.

NPR’s Goldberg Variations obsessions were anchored on the birthday of J.S. Bach, March 21. There is a lot to read and listen to. For those who missed her recital at Gallery 345, the NPR list includes Lara Downes’ wonderful 13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg.

(Tomorrow, at 2 P.M. ET, catch live streaming of Bernard Labadie and Les Violons du Roy performing Bach’s St. John Passion from Carnegie Hall here.)

All of this coincided with me receiving a fresh pile of CDs.

Among the fine Canadian content was pianist David Jalbert’s new recording of the Goldberg Variations, as well as violinist Lara St. John’s all-Bach collaboration with Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra principal harp,  Marie-Pierre Langlamet.

The two albums represent opposite ends of the aesthetic spectrum of serious Bach interpretations. Jalbert’s is, at first listen, cold and severe. St. John’s is gauzy, diaphanous and elusive.

Jalbert and St. John (and Langlamet) likely spent dozens and dozens of hours arriving at these interpretations. So my only response, as a critic, is to accord them the respect of multiple auditions of their CDs, to see if their very different paths to Bach can convince me.

Oh, what a week it has been.

Because it’s a Saturday, I’m going to digress for a moment to confess my middle-aged reconciliation with Bach.

A lifelong association with Protestant churches, the piano and, since age 16, the organ means that the music of J.S. Bach has long been a part of my beathing out and breathing in. But it is only now that I’m in my 40s that I feel as if I’m truly beginning to understand and appreciate Bach’s work, and have felt confident enough to attempt different ways of playing his music.

With every single other composer I can think of, one type of approach really is better than others. There is a correct tempo, an ideal dynamic envelope and appropriate underlying pulse.

But Bach’s music for solo instruments is much more malleable. It’s uncanny, really. And, for the interpreter, solutions are never obvious.

Jalbert and St. John had to work as long and hard to figure the music out as did Angela Hewitt and Rolf Schröder, or Glenn Gould and Jascha Heifetz.

Here is how, in his autobiography Violin Dreams, Arnold Steinhardt, former first violin of the Guarneri String Quartet, describes his relationship with the “Chaconne” from Bach’s Partita No. 2:

To prepare for [a friend’s funeral] service, I had been practicing the Chaconne every day — fussing over individual phrases, searching for better ways to string them together, and wondering about the very nature of the piece, at its core an old dance form that had been around for centuries. After the many times I had heard and played the Chaconne, I had hoped it would fall relatively easily into place by now, but it appeared to be taunting me. The more I worked, the more I saw; the more I saw, the further away it drifted from my grasp. Perhaps that is in the nature of every masterpiece. But more than that, the Chaconne seemed to exude shadows over its grandeur and artful design. Exactly what was hidden there I could not say, but I would lose myself for long stretches of time exploring the work’s repeating four-bar phrases, which rose and fell and marched solemnly forward in ever-changing patterns.

Before the listener can be seduced, the performer has to have been seduced first. And the endless possibilities that Bach’s music presents mean that tonight’s seduction is tomorrow night’s fresh challenge.

What surer way is there of keeping a love affair fresh?

It’s in the spirit of an ever-present challenge that I sat down repeatedly this week with Jalbert and St. John and Langlamet.

Bach Sonatas (Ancalagon)

Here is how St. John describes her relationship to this music:

I have had a lifelong relationship with Bach’s solo instrumental works, from when I was four years old and first performed the double concerto with my brother, to my first E Major Partita movements a few years later. As a Canadian, I grew up with the omnipresent Glenn Gould. Oddly, as a pre-teen, I also developed an obsession with Bach’s organ works.

The Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord eluded me. Of course I had known them for a long time, but somehow I never thought they quite clicked. With harpsichord, I found them rather unsubtle, and modern piano always seemed so heavy-handed and just not quite right.

A few years ago, I was in Berlin staying with my old friend Marie-Pierre, and she wanted to read some Bach. We began with BWV 1016, and it was a revelation. All of a sudden, this music made sense. With harp as a partner, the degree of nuance made possible for the violin created an entirely new experience. I thought that evening that I had never heard or been part of anything so beautiful.

What we get on this disc are Sonatas Nos. 1 & 3 for violin and harpsichord, two sonatas and a “Sicilienne” movement for flute and harpsichord.

For all the details, click here.

If there’s a quick way to describe this disc, think of it as the kinder, gentler Bach. St. John keeps her bow light and finds an easy, natural stride through this music using what sounds like period-performance techniques with her modern violin and bow.

Langlamet’s softly murmuring harp is nothing short of seductive, lending shimmering, soft contours to the sometimes staid keyboard accompaniment.

Does this sort of softly undulating Bach work?

There’s no doubt it’s beautiful to listen to, but, no matter how hard I tried to focus, eventually my attention would start to drift. These sonatas I think work better either as background to meditation exercises, or listened to individually.

I have to admit I prefer my Bach with a bit more bite.

Variations Goldberg (ATMA Classique)

Canadian pianist David Jalbert joins the ranks of pianists who will, inevitably, be compared to Glenn Gould. But Gould himself is an example of how an artist’s relationship with a composer changes over time — as anyone who has listened to the first and last recordings of the Goldbergs will attest.

My first reaction to my first listen of Jalbert’s disc — which benefits from gorgeous audio captured at the Palais Montcalm in Quebec City — was that this interpretation is a bit too severe. I’ve enjoyed the strong-minded, yet round-cornered interpretations recently given the Goldbergs by Simone Dinnerstein and Minsoo Sohn, for example.

But I’ve now listened intently to Jalbert’s disc six times. I’ve pulled out Sohn’s recording, as well as Evgeny Koroliov’s (for a great video performance, check this out). All have helped grow my admiration for Jalbert’s accomplishment with each sitting.

The attraction is in Jalbert’s uncanny balance of surface and underlying structure. The secret of these variations is in how Jalbert keeps a dead-consistent equal footing between  right and left hands from beginning to end.

This means that, just as with a perfectly balanced choir, the listener can choose which voice to listen to at any given moment.

Most pianists assign a bit more weight to the right hand here, to the left hand there, in a way editing the listener’s options.

Jalbert, on the other hand, has translated the struggle of coming to terms with the music of J.S. Bach into a corresponding experience for the listener. Each time one spins this CD, one can hear something different.

This alone is reason to sit down and give this album a try. (For all the details, click here.)

Here is ATMA’s promotional video for the recording:

John Terauds


3 thoughts on “The secret to a happy relationship with Bach is in embracing perpetual challenge

  1. Thank you for this. Some beautiful playing by David and interesting reflections from both David and from you, John.

  2. Pingback: CD Review: Jonathan Swartz finds beguiling Bach voice with his violin | Musical Toronto

  3. Pingback: The long, hard road to capturing the genius of Goldberg Variations is paved with trial and error | Musical Toronto

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