Friday, 3 April 2015

Bach’s Two-Part Inventions for Keyboard

When I go to hear a performance of the two-part inventions — or more likely select a recording to listen to, since I live too far away to get to a live performance — it is Bach I want to hear. That may seem just a touch obvious. What I mean is, my main interest in the performer is in his or her ability to play the pieces well, and not in his personal eccentricities. Many performers, including some of the best, feel an urge to hum or drone along with the music. It’s understandable, but I’d like them to refrain from expressing that urge. Having worked as a recording engineer, I know that it’s easy to place the microphones in such a way as not to pick up odd noises from the performer, and — especially nowadays — not all that difficult to edit out any that get through. But such is the vulgarity of modern taste that people actually want those noises, and I have seen mikes deliberately sited to pick them up. A really quite good professional pianist — she is more Mozart than Bach, and plays his sonatas with the respect they deserve — to whom I mentioned this said ‘Oh, I think it’s all part of the Glenn Gould Experience.’ (Glenn Gould is a particularly bad offender, and actually I don’t even like his interpretations, neither of Bach nor Mozart.) But I don’t want ‘The Glenn Gould Experience’; I want the Bach Experience. And the same goes for Beethoven and Schubert. Here of course the best player is or was Alfred Brendel, who understood especially Schubert’s  music better than Franz himself. Unfortunately in his later recordings he had a tendency to hum along, and the crass people in charge of recording mixed this intrusively into the final records. The ‘Alfred Brendel Experience’, if that’s what you want to call it, is well worth having, and is available in some recordings — sound and video; his facial expressions are priceless — he made in Salzburg some years ago. But when he’s playing Schubert’s piano works — which he does better than anybody; if the B flat Deutsch 960 is too daunting then at least try to hear one of his recordings of the G flat major impromptu — it’s Schubert I want to hear, not Alfred Brendel humming.

But back to the Bach two-part inventions. I was listening to an hour or two of recordings by various people last night. The very best of the four or five I have of  the F minor — for my taste one of the loveliest of the set — is by a little girl of I would guess about thirteen. She has the skill and talent to play it really well, and the humility to know that — like Glenn Gould, who doesn’t know it — she is insignificant next to J.S. Bach.

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