Bach the Show-Off

November 23, 2014

1000

Lest we forget: during his lifetime, J.S. Bach was mostly known as a great organist. Since the solo keyboard performances were normally improvised, we may have only the faintest idea of what his virtuosity was like. That it dazzled, we know. How it dazzled, we can only guess from contemporary descriptions and from the written-down compositions that survive. The Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor, for example, are said to have been first improvised and then written down. This hardly seems possible to mere mortals, but then Bach regularly seems to transcend that category, doesn’t he? Most often, naturally, to us he does so via his compositions that manage to be models/marvels of erudition and expressivity at the same time. Relatively few of them give evidence of the crowd-pleasing virtuoso.

So it is that, on a beautiful Sunday morning, I find myself spending some highly enjoyable time with one of the surviving compositions that I imagine give us a glimpse of the composer as dazzling virtuoso, “showing off,” if that’s not too one-dimensional a judgment for a work that also stands up on every level as a profound exercise in compositional structure and originality.

I followed three performances on YouTube, separated only by trips to the kitchen to fill the coffee cup. It has been a rewarding experience, and I recommend something like it.

The first is a fine performance by the venerable French virtuoso Michel Chapuis. He evidences complete understanding of the improvisatory nature of the piece (helped in his perceptions, no doubt, by the fact that he is himself a renowned improviser), though not going as far in that direction as he might:

The second performance I listened to (and viewed, since in this instance we get to see the very soignée performer) is by the young Maria-Magdalena Kaczor, playing a modern French instrument. This is a comparatively self-effacing affair—which in itself is not, I’d contend, a good idea for this work—but the virtuosity still shines through, and I particularly like the transparent registration for the dancing fugue:

The biggest surprise for me, however, came from the sometimes tiresomely, self-consciously iconoclastic Virgil Fox. The late virtuoso, for whom no technical limitations ever seemed to exist, was well-known for sometimes sacrificing the composition in favor of the performer. (I say this as one who, contrary to many, insistently maintains that the performance takes priority always. The pious idea that the performer is only the servant of the composer would have made performer-composers from Bach to Chopin to Saint-Saëns stare in incomprehension.) But, in my view, he achieves in this performance, through somewhat different means, the most important effects that historically informed performances aim at, or at least should aim at. The rthymic vitality, the unambiguous accentuation (always the most tricky thing on an instrument in which every note is exactly the same volume as its neighbor but, by auditory illusion can seem otherwise) are masterly. Even though the plentiful registration changes would probably have been unlikely (and a few impossible) on Bach’s instruments, he was himself renowned for the unconventional effects that he confected. So I surprise myself a little by saying: if you’re going to listen to only one of these three interpretations, I recommend that of the old Fox. I am very far from being one of those people who like to say of certain performers—Wanda Landowska, for frequent example—”He/she may do things wrong, but he/she captures the right spirit.” It happens that I’d be hard put to call anything Virgil Fox does here as “wrong.” The spirit of the piece does take over:

Note: All three of these videos were recommended to me this morning in a post by Kenneth Sybesma on the e-mail list “Pipe Organs and Related Topics” (http://www.albany.edu/piporg-l/). His cited them in his enlightening discussion of the performers’ registrational choices in this piece, which is often considered problematic in that regard—a fact that may also be evidence of its provision for somewhat unconventional virtuosic display by its original performer, the great Bach. This led to my own thoughts, in which other aspects predominate.)

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