Murray Perahia Plays Bach With a Sensuous Touch

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Not so long ago, admitting to a preference for Bach on a modern grand piano rather than the harpsichord could seriously damage your street cred. But the pendulum has swung back and in the last decade we’ve seen performers like Angela Hewitt, Simone Dinnerstein and Murray Perahia play works originally written for the harpsichord in a grand, sensuous and often personal style on the modern instrument.

Indeed, it was a decade ago that Perahia staked his claim firmly in the modern-instrument camp, teaming up with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields to record Bach’s seven keyboard concertos, the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5; the Concerto for Flute, Violin and Harpsichord and the solo "Italian" Concerto. Sony has just re-released these on a 3-CD set, which is our Album of the Week.

Of course, the debate on whether Bach’s keyboard works should be performed on piano or harpsichord -- with modern or period instruments accompanying -- rages on. Some find the harpsichord dry and soulless; others find the modern grand anachronistic, and not exactly what Bach had in mind. What is important is whether the listener is convinced by the performance he or she hears. Perahia is no doubt a sensualist, prizing expressive warmth and beauty of tone above other qualities -- qualities that he draws out from the orchestra as well.

Still, there’s also a sharp rhythmic profile and keen textural clarity in Perahia’s Bach playing. He brings out the subtle variations of articulation in the D major concerto's Finale and the G minor's slow movement, for instance; his trills and runs in the F major are breathtakingly clean. In the final movement of the Concerto No. 1, Perahia and the orchestra’s continuous interweaving figures vividly animate the music. Never shy when it comes to embellishment, Perahia seizes every opportunity.

How do you prefer Bach's keyboard music: on the modern piano or harpsichord? Leave a comment below:

Murray Perahia, keyboard and conductor
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields
Sony Classical
Available at


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Comments [20]

Anita from Florida

When I listen to the great Wanda Landowska on the harpsichord I am transported to another time and place, but who can deny the sheer lyricism of Chopin's piano etudes, or the drama of Beethoven's sonatas on piano. Like my children, each instrument has its own special and very welcome voice.

Aug. 09 2011 06:18 PM
Peter V. from Rosendale, NY

I just downloaded Perahia's performance here and listened to it a few times. When it gets better each time, you know that something magical was accomplished! I think it is not the instrument, but what the musician does with it that is of paramount importance. I have a number of old Westminster LP's of Scarlatti sonatas played splendidly on the harpsichord by Fernando Valenti - but then, Horowitz's readings of Scarlatti on the piano are magnificent too - in a different way. Your ear and open mind will always tell you - just listen and enjoy!

Aug. 07 2011 11:57 PM
L.Lubin from Fort Lee, NJ

Bach frequently re-arranged his keyboard concerti for other instruments, and vice versa, demonstrating that he was more concerned with the music than the instrumentation (As in the Art of Fugue, too.)

It is reported that when Bach first heard a very early fortepiano he was none too impressed. But years later, visiting his son (CPE) in Berlin, JSB was able to try out a new improved instrument. He was much more interested in that one, but unfortunately already had the eye infection that would lead to his death. Ergo, no new music specifically for that instrument.

I have recordings of baroque keyboard music on piano, harpsichord, and clavichord, but I rarely listen to the plucked instruments any more, as fine as the performances may be. I have come to prefer the piano for its greater range of color and sustaining power. The harpsichord works better for me in ensembles.

Aug. 07 2011 10:43 AM
Ramon from New York City

Listening to a limp performance such as that by Perahia being played at the moment would support the theory of Wanda Landowska that Bach should be played as it was meant to be played- that is, not on the piano. Listening to her recordings is also good evidence of that, although modern interpretations on the piano are always welcome when done right.

Aug. 07 2011 10:29 AM
Constantine from New York

I do not prefer the harpsichord to the piano any more than I prefer the viola to the bassoon. I do tend to prefer it in certain repertoire, just as I prefer the piano in others. Having both instruments around expands the palette of sounds available to a composer. Why would anyone want to reduce that?

Aug. 04 2011 11:34 PM
Constantine from New York

Both instruments will continue in use, of course. People are still writing for the harpsichord. Does that bother you, mister Silversalty? It's no skin off your back. Just don't listen to what you don't like and leave it to those who do. Grow up already.

Aug. 04 2011 10:53 PM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

The vast majority of people that seem to prefer the piano over the harpsichord somehow, strangely, includes the people that create the music and play the music, just like those pop zombies who listen to the music.

The piano is some sort of pop fad that will pass any day now and the harpsichord will regain it's place in music, somewhere below the organ.

Aug. 04 2011 08:40 PM
Constantine from New York

Having just listened to one of Mr. Perahia's performances, I was quite impressed. I realize, also, that I probably overreacted, as is my wont, to a statement that was intended in a tongue-in-cheek fashion. Nevertheless, I appreciate its having been removed.

I still love the harpsichord. I think Derek hit the nail on the head regarding its suitability for smaller ensemles.

Aug. 04 2011 07:44 PM
Derek from New York

The harpsichord has a limited voice but a timbrally complex sound that blends exquisitely with small orchestras, particularly those that refrain from the use of vibrato. Not coincidentally, these were pretty much the musical forces available to Bach in his day.
Unfortunately, there are few orchestras today that specialize in the baroque style; but the better ones can make a convincing case for Bach-on-a-harpsichord. Conversely, such orchestras would be overwhelmed by a modern piano.
I don't object to Bach played on a piano. In fact, thanks to the scholarship and dedication of the handful of pianists mentioned earlier (and please add Andras Schiff to the list), my appreciation of the structure and ingenuity of Bach's compositions has improved greatly. But with the benefit of that enhanced familiarity, I can now enjoy performances in the earlier style and marvel at how much he was able to wring from the limited performance options available to him.

Aug. 04 2011 06:32 PM
David from Flushing

One could argue that the electronic keyboard is a technical advancement over the old fashioned Steinway. Of course, there is a difference in the sound produced and that is the whole point.

I find the harpsichord to have a far richer sound than the piano that I would liken to a harpsichord with cotton stuffed in its mouth.

Going from an nonexpressive instrument like the harpsichord to an expressive one, the piano, often involves some major changes in the music. Whether this a blessing or not depends on the performer.

Aug. 04 2011 05:05 PM
Constantine from Constantine

A lot of people would say that pop music has replaced classical because a great many more more people prefer it. Are you going to give in to them? I didn't think so.

Aug. 03 2011 05:40 PM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

Calling these pieces "harpsichord music" seems to me to be very much a close variant of what the composer "had in mind." And that quote already appears twice in this thread.

I pointed out a Bach piece recently broadcast here that did use the harpsichord, though unfortunately I can't find any details on the soloist. That would seem to challenge the claim of an "either/or approach" to Bach keyboard instrumentation. And that was an item I made the effort to note because I'd read a recent similar call for more harpsichord music from another commenter (MM). There have been other harpsichord pieces broadcast that I haven't bothered to note the time/date specifics.

As for allowing for variance in taste, I do for the most part and certainly far more so than other commenters who repeatedly complain about "bang and clang" piano playing. I don't care for opera. I find choral music repulsive. (I remember as a child having a car with giant loud speakers go through the neighborhood playing choral music - what I've called "monk music." Behind that car was a group of people holding a large sheet into which people in the neighborhood were supposed to throw money. The church from which this procession came, years later, held the funeral for Carlo Gambino.) Yet I rarely complain about these genres played at WQXR, though I have on occasion when the sanctity is emphasized. A while back WQXR had an opera aria sung by some diva whose excessive warbling vibrato almost had me echoing like a coyote (except sounding like a sheep, which makes me laugh - a rare pleasure from opera) which ended with instantaneous shouts of "BRAVO!!" My only thought was on something I saw years before about opera divas and divos paying people to do exactly that at the end of their performances.

As for the piano being some technological advancement over the harpsichord, that's irrelevant. The piano has effectively replaced the harpsichord because its sound is preferred by the vast majority of people.

P.S. I've just listened to Landowska playing Bach's Goldberg variations. It's an excellent example of superb playing and worthy of note on that level. For pure musical enjoyment rather than scholarship I'd much prefer listening to the pieces on the piano - Perahia, Dinnerstein, Hewitt, and of course, Gould. I've also got Landowska playing Scarlati, Handel and CPE Bach but I don't have much interest in digging out those pieces. I've no objections to these harpsichord pieces being broadcast - preferably on Saturday afternoons.

Hey! I like old things that don't work well.

Self portrait:

Aug. 03 2011 08:46 AM
Constantine from New York

Not all period-instrument enthusiasts insisted their way was the only way by a long shot. (Wanda Landowska and Thurston Dart, for example, did not.) Can you name any who did? And if they did, it doesn't justify those modernists who are doing the same.

And no, newer instruments are not necessarily "technical advancements" on old. There are times when you want the timbres of older instruments.

Aug. 03 2011 12:25 AM
Bernie from UWS

The period-instrument crowd insisted for far too many years that it was their way or the highway. Now the chickens are coming home to roost. The modern piano is a technological advancement over what came before. The earlier pianos are simple inferior instruments - hence why people like Perrahia succeed at what they do.

Aug. 02 2011 11:15 PM
Constantine from New York

I am not a purist at all. As I said, I do not object to harpsichord music being played on the paino. What I object to is the efforts of some non-purists to stamp out the harpsichord , which is exactly what is happening! The harpsichord is not an imperfect form of the piano. It is a completely different instrument. If you don't like it, you are entitled to your tastes. Leave us ours, please.

Aug. 02 2011 05:29 PM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

There was a Bach Brandenburg concerto (No. 5) played a few days ago that seemed to use the harpsichord as the main solo instrument. I can't find any details from the CD link given.

I vaguely remember some harpsichord piece played by Glenn Gould broadcast on WQXR.

Personally I think the harpsichord is perfect for the B grade gothic horror movies it's usually associated with.

As for the argument that the piano (or any other relatively modern instrument) was not what some particular composer "had in mind" I think those purists should then demand that all later Beethoven pieces should be "played" in total silence, with perhaps the solos done by the individual virtuoso by reading from the original score. Audience members could then imagine the beauty of the music as closely as possible to what Beethoven "had in mind."

Aug. 02 2011 01:53 PM
Constantine from New York

PPS: Why this "either/or" approach? ("Forget about Bach on the Harpsichord.") Isn't there room for both?

Aug. 01 2011 07:22 PM
Constantine from New York

P.S. How about programming Wanda Landowska's performance of the G# minor prelude and fugue from book two of the Well Tempered Clavier some time? I'm sure that her performance of the prelude alone could change many people's minds about the harpsichord. (If it were released as a single, I'll bet it could be a hit!)

Aug. 01 2011 06:01 PM
Constantine from New York

Though I do not object to harpsichord music being played on a piano, I prefer it on a harpsichord, all things being equal. I must say, I would like to hear more of the harpsichord on this station. It seems almost to be in a campaign to stamp it out! (You sometimes hear it in an ensemble, but seldom by itself.) I don't see how anyone who has heard Wanda Landowska, George Malcolm, Huguette Drefus, Igor Kipnis, Rafael Puyana, Blanche Winogron, Hrlmut Walcha, Robert Veyron-Lacroix, Scott Ross, Thurston Dart, Sylvia Marlowe, Albert Fuller, Ralph Kirkpatrick, Gustav Leonhardt, János Sebestyén, Luciano Sgrizzi or Trevor Pinnock (to name a few) could call the harpsichord "dry and soulless."

Aug. 01 2011 05:44 PM
Constantine from New York

Oops! That should of course be "Helmut Walcha."

Aug. 01 2011 05:44 PM

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The Albums of the Week are compelling new recordings that we spotlight every week. These include creative repertoire choices, engaging musical personalities and artistic statements that stand out from the pack. You can hear the Albums of the Week throughout the day and evening on WQXR.