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Friday December 30 2005

I have fallen into the agreeable habit over Christmas of overdosing, so to speak, on some particular sort of classical music.  I vividly remember the Barenboim Beethoven Piano Sonatas Christmas, my first with a CD player.

I don’t decide about these musical binges.  Something triggers them, and they happen.  I find myself listening to a Mahler symphony, say, or a Mozart piano concerto, and then to another, and another, and the pattern is set, without me ever having decided in one go.

But why the concentration on one type of music.  Why not mere fun?  Why not variety?  Well, Christmas is the perfect time for me actually to listen to all my CDs, as opposed to wandering about London buying more of the things. Buying CDs, mostly for bargain basement prices, is a quite distinct pleasure to listening to them, I find, just as I imagine buying shoes to be a quite distinct pleasure for my lady friends to the mere wearing of shoes.  But at Christmas, many regular purchasing spots are closed in unpredictable ways.  The weather is liable to be cold and the pavements are liable to be crowded. Transport is uncertain.  The demands projected into one’s home life by the telephone or by email fall silent.  No.  Far better to stay snugly in doors and cultivate the soul by really getting to know some music that one would otherwise, year after year, merely possess.

This year, prompted by the BBC Radio 3 Bach Christmas I have been listening, over and over again, in among being ill, to Bach’s 48 Prelude’s and Fugues, otherwise known as the Well Tempered Clavier.

The thing that settled me on this particular overdose was writing a piece about Bach and God for Samizdata.  There is nothing like writing something to cause one immediately then to start wondering whether it was true, wise, profound, etc., or not, so Bach remained on my mind.  But Radio 3, with its self-imposed task of playing everything Bach ever composed, was serving up a deal too much singing for my taste.  I don’t mind the religion in Bach, despite what I may have implied (but actually did not say at all), in my Samizdata piece, but I do not care for the average classical music singing performance.  I like only a few baritones and tenors, and prefer light sopranos to the squally matrons who, too often for my taste, do the soprano – and especially contralto – singing.  So, I was set on listening to Bach, but needed to reach for CDs.

A notable - and notably controversial - CD issue this year has been the Daniel Barenboim (yes, him again) set of the Bach 48.  I enjoyed these greatly the first time around in the summer and autumn.  So, when choosing which CDs to take with me, together with my DAB radio/CD player, on my brief trip to my mum’s home for the actual few days of Christmas, I chose these Barenboim discs.  I also chose a few discs of Bach unaccompanied violin playing - Perlman’s complete set, and the equally excellent Hilary Hahn single Bach solo disc – but ended up not listening to these.  And by way of contrast to Barenboim, I chose the complete set of the 48 by Glenn Gould, which also became available this year in a super-bargain pack.

Now I am back in my own snuggery, and I am continuing to listen to the 48.  Right now, I have Edwin Fischer‘s much admired and pioneering set, made in 1934, on my CD player.  I have also, during the last two ill days, sampled some of the set done by Sviatoslav Richter, for me and for many others the king of all the pianists, which was issued some years ago by Olympia, and which I assume to be the same (July 1970, Salzburg) as this one.  Also on the menu will be a recently purchased Decca set of the 48 by Andras Schiff.  And since all of the above mentioned sets are played on the piano, I will also listen, I expect, to a harpsichord set, to see what kind of a difference that makes, probably the one by Kenneth Gilbert, but maybe Davitt Moroney.  Other pianists in the heap now include Tatiana Nikolayeva, Bernard Roberts, Friedrich Gulda and Jeno Jando.  For someone who doesn’t know this music, I sure own a lot of it, don’t I?  Weird, I know, but that’s how it is.  Like I say, purchasing CD bargains is a pleasure quite distinct from actually listening to them.

And I really do not know this music.  Hardly at all.

The most odd part of the experience of listening to this music is how completely new each piece sounds, in the various different hands of the different musicians involved.  A few notable tunes stand out in the memory and are recognisable, but again and again, I find myself listening to pieces which I have already heard five or six times in the last few days, yet as if listening to something entirely knew.

Partly this is because of my own failure to concentrate.  But I don’t think that this is entirely it.  I think it is also that there is so much in this music that it is simply impossible to take it all in, even in the sense of recognising it, all at one sitting.  To even listen to just one thread of melody, weaving in and out of all the other threads, requires a huge effort of concentration, and you can tell that if you do concentrate it will eventually all make perfect sense.  There is no sense of mere note spinning for the sake of it, of mere surface decoration.  And because there is so much going on in this music, it only needs a slightly different interpretation to the last one you heard for you to experience this latest melody as something entirely new.  Right now, for instance, Fischer is playing a tune that is quite unlike anything I have ever heard before, yet which is actually the same melody as one I have already heard Barenboim and Gould play within the last few days, in Barenboim’s case twice at least.

There is also the fact that each of these little pieces is a universe of delight in itself, and one tends to switch off – not exhausted exactly, more like just satisfied - after each one ends.  Recently BBC4 TV played the 48 Preludes and Fugues one Prelude and Fugue at a time.  There is a lot to be said for that way of listening to them, because that it how it often works out even when you are supposedly listening to lots of them at once.

When knowledgeable critics compare and contrast – CD Review style – this and that version of this or that piece, they already know the music thoroughly.  But there are important facts about particular pieces or sets of pieces of music that are also to be learned – which can only be learned - by people who are getting to grips with this music for the first time.  It is one thing to know, because one remembers, just how “difficult” this music is to comprehend.  (By which I do not mean unenjoyable.  The surface sound of this music is, to my ears, unfailingly beautiful.) It is quite another to experience this difficulty by experiencing how long it takes to learn even the basics of what the music consists of. 

Mahler symphonies or Beethoven piano sonatas are not like this.  With them you have a melody, and some harmonies, and there they are, each in their manageable little clumps, and very memorably so, even if some of the clumps last half and hour.  Okay, that doesn’t apply to some of the long Beethoven movements, but comparatively speaking I think the point still stands.  Each little Bach piece in the 48, in contrast, is like a symphony in itself.  Like a symphony, it covers a vast journey, compressing time as if by some Einsteinian magic trick, putting a girdle round the earth in four minutes.  An “event” in a piece of music is when an expectation is established, but then modified.  And it seems to me that in the piece that Fischer is now playing that happens about once every quarter of a second.  That’s a lot of events.

So I don’t think it’s just me and my lazy CD era listening habits.  I think this music is genuinely very hard to learn, even as a listener.  I can quite see why noted pianists wait decades before playing it in public, and further decades before recording it, and why many never venture outdoors with this music at all.  I used to think that was mere artistic preciousness.  Now I understand that attitude far better.  If you have to make an interpretative decision four times every second, and if the pieces as a whole last for about four or five hours, that’s a lot of interpretation to have to lay end to end.  I still think that a pianist would learn a lot by performing these pieces in front of an audience, however inadequate he felt that his performance was bound to be, because hearing how music works with an audience is a basic way of understanding its nature, I would say.  But that’s a different argument.

Great point on the difference of having a recording and actually listening -experiencing- it. It is easy not to pay attention to a CD thinking it is always possible to do so ‘some other time’ which never arrives.

I could not agree more on the WTC’s complexity for both performer and listener.

Posted by Carlos on 31 December 2005


Thanks for that.  If I’d had to guess which of my postings here over Christmas was the least likely to get commented upon, this one would have been it.  But I guess if you actually get stuck into a subject and really say some things, people find their way to it . . .

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 31 December 2005

Plus, I should have said, it is very good to have my sense of the nature of this marvellous music confirmed by someone who surely knows it far better than I do.

But I repeat, the fact that this music is complex does not make it superficially offputting.  Simply, it sounds so unfailingly beautiful.

This is one of my tests for great art.  Is it superficially appealing?  AND, does it repay further digging?  This music scores a resounding two out of two.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 31 December 2005

Just have a look at:

Posted by bernard on 31 December 2005
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