Friday, 21 December 2012

Some notes on Bach.

If it’s alright with you I’d like to share some notes on Bach.

There are a few little interesting historical anomalies that mean that there’s something really rather interesting about playing J.S. Bach on the guitar. The first is the fact that the guitar is a classical instrument which only really became ‘serious’ in the 20th century, meaning that its repertoire is a) distinctly limited, and b) mostly rather lightweight, decorative stuff, even at its peak only rising to a kind of banal romantic whimsy. This has led to the guitar being a predominantly solo instrument: not being part of the romantic orchestra and not having many significant ensemble parts written for it, guitarists generally perform alone, like pianists. Furthermore, if the performer finds the general repertoire uninteresting, then they are forced to play transcriptions of works for other instruments; this has become an integral part of playing the instrument, which my amateur attempts at Chopin’s preludes attest to.

As far as Bach is concerned, there are two things we might note; one of which is that as a Baroque composer, the instrumentation of his works are somewhat malleable- there were far more different instruments in common usage back then, and a great many works are orchestrated for whichever musicians happened to be at court at that time. Furthermore, there are a number of instruments which are somewhat unclear - the mystery five stringed cello from BWV1012 for example, or the debate as to whether or not Bach even wrote music for the lute, or rather the gut-stringed harpsichord called a lautenwerk that he certainly owned a couple of. It seems that there is a certain ‘interchangeability’ to Bach’s music, where, especially with its famous logical consistency, not to mention his own habit of transcribing, it lends itself to being moved from instrument to instrument.

So with this in mind, I’ve recently been playing Bach almost exclusively (bearing in mind any playing at all has to fit in the cracks between Job 1, Job 2, freelance work, not dying, and all the other things I regularly struggle with), and have alighted upon a ‘core’ selection of works to play. Yet another auspicious aspect of Bach’s music is his writing for solo instruments, for so long dismissed as mere studies, but then so unbelievably influential over new music in the 20th century. It is these that form the basis of what I’ve been playing.

Lute Suites BWV995-1000

As I mentioned above, the suites for lute were almost certainly not written for the actual lute, and are actually keyboard music with a lighter polyphonic texture than usual, and I generally play the transcriptions for guitar by Jerry Willard.
BWV 995 is Bach’s own transcription of Cello Suite 5, BWV1011 with added voices, and so I consider it part of that work.

BWV996 is a Suite in E minor, with some very challenging three and four part writing, with the initial Presto and final Gigue really impressive.

BWV997, another suite, is most notable for a long, powerful minor-key fugue.

BWV998 is the serene Prelude, Fugue and Allegro, a beautifully majestic mini-suite which is an absolute joy to play, especially the fugue and its slow build-up of its three parts.

BWV999&1000 are a prelude (akin to a minor key version of the prelude of BWV1007) and a fugue that is based upon the violin fugue from BWV1001, one which was a favourite piece of Julian Bream.
As well as all these, BWV1006a is Bach’s own elaboration of 1006 for the lute, which is best played in place of 1006.

Violin Sonatas and Partitas BWV1001-1006

Where the lute suites are often richly polyphonic, the violin works are much more varied - a great number of them are composed of single lines, where all harmony is implied, while on the other hand, there are a number of pieces which utilise all four strings on the violin, giving serious polyphony. I generally play Tadashi Sasaki’s transcriptions, which maintain all the original keys.

BWV1001 in G minor has an incredible prelude, all ornament and lugubrious harmony, a real joy to play, including just the most exquisite deceptive cadence near the end. It’s followed by a fugue, a siciliana and a solid presto.

BWV1002 is rather long, and contrasts a series of dance movements with Doubles in single lines.

BWV1003 was transcribed by Bach himself for the harpsichord, and so there is a version of much thicker texture and ornaments that the performer can pick and choose from. This sonata is completely dominated by the Andante, a piece of unbelievable spiritual calmness and power, one which Bach actually made worse by elaborating it for the keyboard. I was lucky to hear this played by Frank Peter Zimmerman as an encore this summer at the proms, Mein Gott!

BWV1004 is the D minor partita, which is most famous for the Chaconne, which completely dwarfs all of the movements preceding it, for good reason: without hyperbole, it’s one of the most incredible achievements in all music, grandiose, tortured, passionate, sweeping, emphatic.

BWV1005 is another sonata, with a gigantic fugue as its second movement. What is most exciting about this one though, I would say, is the faltering, heartbeat-like prelude, building from near silence into glorious, churning, four-part grandeur.

The prelude of BWV1006 is a guitar favourite, and for good reason. Its effervescent, joyous, rolling rhythm creates a wonderful web of sound that is ideally suited to the guitar, and as I’ve mentioned, there is a ready-made Bach transcription for multi-stringed instrument. In my opinion, however, the rest of the suite can’t really match up to it, despite its charm.

Suites for unaccompanied cello BWV1007-1012

It’s a little bit harder to do these ones justice, such hallowed works, inextricably tied to Casals and his grainy, over-romantic resurrection of what were once simply practicing etudes. The least polyphonic of Bach’s solo instrumental works (not counting the flute partita), they are also the most awkward to transcribe. Unlike the violin works, which can literally be played off the stave in the original without edits, the cello suites have to be completely transposed in order to fit the guitar. Furthermore, decisions have to be made as to how to treat the texture of the pieces - the guitar, charming though it is, simply cannot compete with the cello in the power of a single line, and so the suites can sound naked in a lot of places if they are not dressed up. However, that opens cans of worms about how much tinkering one is allowed to do to the beauty of the original. I’ve encountered a variety of approaches, and I think it depends upon what each of the suites demands in its own logic.

Everyone knows BWV1007! It’s got to be one of Bach’s most famous pieces, recognisable from a million recordings, the background of a innumerable films and so on. I play a transcription by John Duarte, which has become a classic in its own right. He fills the texture out considerably, making for quite rich and challenging pieces, which I think suits the jovial nature of this suite.

BWV1008 is the opposite - sparse, melancholic and vulnerable, to me it sounds better with its nudity emphasised. I haven’t found a satisfactory transcription of this one, so I’m working on my own at the moment, which I’ll probably continue editing as time goes on.

BWV1009 also has a satisfying edition transcribed by Duarte, with slightly less added texture but still a rich and open sonority is achieved.

BWV1010 is proving slightly tricky. The transcription I’m working with happens to be in the same key as BWV1009, and despite me not playing one after the other, I feel that they ought not to be structured in this way. I’ll have to have a further think about this one.

As I mentioned previously, Bach himself filled out BWV1011 into BWV995, and this is excellent help in deciding how to go about playing the others. This is the home of the sarabande, that timeless single melody which sounds like it could easily have been Webern. It’s hard to achieve the same gravitas on a guitar, but it’s worth trying.

And of course, BWV1012, the mighty end to the suites. This is particularly challenging, featuring quite a lot of passages of incredible speed and difficulty, written as it was for the mystery five-string cello (which some believe might have been more like a viola!). Again, I have no decent transcription to work with, so I’m editing it myself. The highlight just has to be the overwhelming, titanic prelude.

So overall that’s eighty-three movements and almost five and a half hours of music to play through (I haven't included the flute partita because I don't know if I can be bothered at the moment). It’s very comforting music; in turbulent times, both worldly and personally, there’s something steady and firm about Bach’s formality, his a-historicism and pre-modern sensibility, that seems like the right thing for me now. I’m still working on transcriptions but I have much less time for that now. We’ll see what happens, but I’m quite keen, if I get bored of this regime, to start really working on some of the more modern C20th guitar works, of which there’s reassuringly quite a lot. On the other hand I have some transcriptions of Bach's keyboard music (including some quite infamous Well Tempered Clavier transcriptions) which if I'm feeling very confident about I may try to work on in future.

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