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Bach 360°: How Bach Scored with the Keyboard

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Beyond religion, beyond duty, beyond fashion lies J.S. Bach’s music for keyboard. No faith to reaffirm. No Judgment Day to fear – at least in the non-organ works (which were a part of Bach’s professional religious life). His other keyboard music stands apart from the organ pieces – from all of Bach’s output, actually – and require little or no cultural extrapolation to understand what it’s saying.

All tidily packaged, the Partitas, English Suites and French Suites come in sets of six, based on baroque dance and sometimes showing Bach at his open-heartedness. The Well-Tempered Clavier comes in two books (1722 and 1742), each consisting of 24 preludes and fugues. The Art of the Fugue (published in 1751 a year after Bach’s death) is a magnum opus of 14 fugues and two canons that appears to be conceived for keyboard but may well transcend instruments and is better studied than heard.

Some see Bach’s keyboard music as models of Germanic obsession, of pursuing an idea doggedly until every single possibility is exhausted. Really, 48 preludes and fugues in the two books of The Well-Tempered Clavier? Others thank God that he did with such a limitless sense of invention, the two sets showing Bach at different points in his compositional evolution but operating with a beauty of logic sends people back to Bach to cleanse their ears after so much earthly Beethovenian angst. This music is also central to understanding Bach.  

Book I is the most popular due to its thematic strengths. You can’t quite call the music tuneful because of its tabula rasa qualities. But once heard, one never forgets how Bach weaves magic out of the basic C-major chord in the first prelude of the Well-Tempered Clavier. It enters your psyche with an effortless directness, like a glass of pure spring water that, in fact, mixes well with most anything. No wonder, then, that the music elicits such vastly different but convincing performances, some from the harpsichord community (Wanda Landowska’s majesty and Kenneth Gilbert’s elegance) others by pianists (Glenn Gould’s clarity-at-all-costs approach and Sviatoslav Richter’s existential confession).

The main point of entry to Bach’s music in our times is the Goldberg Variations, published in 1741, and written for Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, supposedly as insomnia music. As if anybody could sleep through Glenn Gould’s legendary 1955 recording? Gould misrepresented the piece by ignoring repeats and using wild, willful tempos that prompted critics at that time to call it jet-propelled Bach. Yet he brought charisma and romance to the music that was unprecedented in modern times. Since then, classic recordings by Andras Schiff, Angela Hewitt and Pierre Hantai have given the piece an expanse that make its journey as epic, in its way, as that of the St. Matthew Passion.

The Art of the Fugue is not often heard: It feels rarefied, beyond emotion, concerned mostly with the science and industry of fugal construction. The romanticist could run with the fact that Bach left the final and most complex fugue unfinished amid encroaching blindness and illness. Shades of Icarus? Did Bach come fatally close to the perfection of the God to whom he dedicated all of his works? Though scholars suggest the fugue was intentionally unfinished so others would attempt to do so, I believe that only death would stop Bach from finishing what he started.

Free Download: Harpsichordist Richard Egarr Plays the English Suite No. 2, Gigue

English keyboard player Richard Egarr takes on all six of Bach's English Suites on the harpsichord in a new 2-CD recording for Harmonia Mundi. (Available at

Programming Highlights for Thursday (all times approximate)

7a Vladimir Horowitz (not known for Bach but this is a beautiful performance of a chorale prelude)

     Also in 7a, Trevor Pinnock takes on a famous harpsichord cadenza

9a  the great organist E. Power Biggs (a toccata and fugue)

10a Gustav Leonhardt and Bob van Asperen (teacher and student) take on a double harpsichord concerto

11a  New York organist Paul Jacobs (a fantasia and fugue)

12p Simone Dinnerstein performs the Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 live in the Greene Space

2p  Murray Perahia plays a beloved keyboard concerto

3p   the legendary harpsichordist Wanda Landowska in a selection from Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier

5p  pianist Sviatoslav Richter plays a Bach toccata, plus we’ll hear a set of organ chorale preludes from the Orgelbuchlein collection

6p  Masaaki Suzuki, one of today’s great Bach harpsichordists plays the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 903

7p  Glenn Gould performs one of the French Suites

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