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Colin Pykett

Bach (etc) played on the piano

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Not exactly an organ topic, but do others find Bach and contemporary composers' works played on the piano as much as a turn-off as I do?  I've just this minute switched off BBC R3 when they started playing (aka advertising) a recent CD of (D) Scarlatti thus rendered.  It's not so much the blatant anachronism of using an instrument that barely existed at the time, but the fact that the romantic excesses of a powerful modern concert grand plus the exaggerated antics of some executants verge on the revolting to me.  (I'm not all that keen on it for some of the 19th century repertoire either ... )  Plus, of course, the major issues of temperament and even pitch.  One cannot really know what temperaments would have been preferred in view of the whole subject boiling around in a melting pot at the time, though the probability of equal tuning would have been low I suggest - but don't start me on that.  And as for A440?  It would have resulted in a lot of snapped violin strings, and wouldn't have done the wooden frames of harpsichords and early Silbermann-type pianos much good either. I wouldn't have minded quite so much if they had had the grace to use an actual or ersatz fortepiano tuned to some reasonably 'authentic' temperament and pitch, but no - not on this CD at least.

I'm not expecting any replies.  But thanks to the forum for letting me get it off my chest.

And, on a barely related topic which concerns attendance at concerts, I discovered a dreadful thing about my mobile phone yesterday.  If you have set an alarm call, you still get the alarm even if you have switched off the actual phone - at least, on mine.  I think the only way to be absolutely safe is to physically take out the battery prior to the commencement of the concert.  Thank goodness I discovered this the easy way (in the kitchen as it happens) rather than the hard way at the RFH or wherever ...  Anyway, I now realise why this seems to happen so often at live events.  Doubtless this is well known to those who've made the transition into the 21st century better than I.

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No doubt there is someone on here who will correct me and it seems a little bizarre but I'm sure that I remember reading somewhere, possibly in the Kennedy book, that Vaughan Williams, when conducting Bach Passions, as part of the Leith Hill Festival, which  he did for years and years, refused to have a harpsicord in the place and had the Recitatives accompanied by piano.

 

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Hi

I agree with you Colin - I've only heard a very small handful of early music pieces played on piano that I've found somewhat acceptable.  I'd much rather hear original instruments.  

Every Blessing

Tony

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It’s piano for me though. I make no apologies at all, I prefer the sound and EQ every time. The HIPP movement passed me by many years ago without any lasting influence. 

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I agree with you entirely Colin,  in fact I find the tone of the piano in such pieces aggravating.   Bach is bad enough but Scarlatti is just ridiculous. Many years ago I wrote to the BBC saying how much I found it offensive but as always with the BBC it's like talking to a brick wall, I had no reply or acknowledgement.

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Before someone else does it, I'll remind us that Gottfried Silbermann was an early maker of pianos. Bach was critical of them at first, but found the later ones acceptable. It doesn't follow that the piano would ever have been an instrument of Bach's choice - I don't think we have that information. In any case these early pianos were effectively an entirely different instrument to a modern grand, so this is all a bit of a non sequitur.

I'll admit that I don't automatically disapprove of Bach played on the piano, but it does depend on how it is played. I thought that Sir András Schiff's performances of the '48' at the Proms in 2017-8 were immensely tasteful and moving. Unfortunately, the eliciting of such depth and poetry in Bach is rare. Give most pianists a page of Bach's semiquavers and off they'll dash like a greyhound out of a trap, determined to despatch the poor man with all the bravura they imbue Prokofiev and Bartok. If you really want 'spinning-wheel Bach', these are your people. It's at times like this that I'm uncertain whether to reach for the off switch or the meat cleaver. Sadly, when I was a student, virtually all the Bach performances I heard from pianists were like this and things haven't changed much in the intervening years (although I should also admit that I don't go out of my way to listen). It's difficult to produce poetry like Schiff's on the organ without pulling the music around and I'm rather allergic to  rubato in Bach's organ works (at least of the more obvious type). When I was young one of the things that used to impress me so much about Simon Preston's playing was his invariable knack of playing every note with absolute mathematical precision, but without ever sounding boring. A case of different instruments needing different approaches?

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When I kicked off this topic I was only too aware that I was having a self-indulgent rant.  So it's interesting that some others seem to incline in a similar direction all the same.  In particular, VH's thoughtful and professional remarks summarise exactly what I meant.  Although I find the music of Bach and his contemporaries is at its most attractive when played on the instruments which were around at the time, this is only a personal opinion and I certainly wouldn't want to impose it on anyone else.  In any case, some harpsichords sound better than others, which were amusingly described some while back on this forum as sounding like a 'drawer full of cutlery'.  I can't recall who said that but I love it as it can be so true!  On the other hand I've heard the most sublime, golden and warm sounds from some of them both on recordings and live.  I think there can be more mileage than might sometimes be thought concerning the pitch (as distinct from the temperament) they are tuned to.  The so-called 'Baroque pitch standard' (if there can be such a thing) of A415 is a semitone flat from today's almost universal A440, and it results in a gentler timbre to my ears on at least some instruments, if not the majority.  It's a totally different matter to merely switching a digital instrument down a semitone, because in that case there's no timbral change at all since exactly the same samples are used at both pitches.  But it's not straightforward to retune any acoustic keyboard instrument, as the thing needs time to settle down to the new set of string tensions.  It can easily involve several retunings over a period of some weeks or even longer before you can assess the result properly, and it definitely needs to be done by an expert.  Therefore it's not surprising that people are unwilling to retune on a whim, since it takes just as long (and it's just as expensive) to put it back again if you don't like it.  It obviously couldn't be done for a piano which might be needed the following week for a concerto performance in which the orchestra would be expecting an A440 instrument.

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I would choose harpsichord, clavichord or low-pressure pipe organ for Bach keyboard music and a circulating temperament for the “48”. The organ pieces would probably have been played on organs with less “modern” temperaments; Bach didn’t get his way with most organ builders, I think.

But I don’t mind people playing Bach or Scarlatti or Byrd on the piano if that works for them. The music is glorious whatever.

I really couldn’t care about the pitch standard though. Bach existed at a time of differing pitch standards and had to cope with up to three at the same time for some of his Cantatas, I think. The pitch of church organs would have changed by as much as a semitone from winter to summer. 

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I have no objection to Bach on a piano.  He himself showed that the timbre of the instruments his music was played on was not necessarily the prime consideration.  Of course, it's possible to play Bach very badly indeed on a piano - but then I've heard some pretty bad harpsichord playing as well.  And further, when I was growing up many harpsichords were also very foreign to what Bach would have heard.

As an illustration of how style and musicality are separate issues, I like to point people at an old Saga recording of Handel's Eight 'Great' Harpsichord Suites, played by Christopher Wood.  The instrument is apparently a Dolmetsch, but sounds heavy and dull, and the playing is full of exaggerated contrasts, both of tone and speed - and yet, I enjoy it because it clearly demonstrates real enthusiasm for and enjoyment of the music.

(Seven of the eight suites can be downloaded here, where the write-up is considerably politer than mine!)

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I agree entirely with Colin. But what really annoys me is the sound of a harpsichord jangling away in Bach's church music. It should surely always, always be the organ.

(Lights blue touch paper and retires to a safe distance.)

Ian

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Definitely agree with VH’s comments regarding András Schiff. He’s one of the few pianists who I enjoy listening to play Bach. His depth of feeling for the music is unsurpassed. 

As far as Bach piano transcriptions go, the only one I care much for is Brahms’ version for left hand of the Chaconne from the D minor partita. Unashamedly romantic, but still with the character of the piece intact. 

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I don’t want to appear to be monopolising posting on here today, but this brought back a memory of a TV documentary many years ago in which András Schiff said that he wished he could have heard Bach play the organ, “that would have been really something” (or similar words - I can’t vouch for 100% accuracy, but that was the gist.)

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Rather similarly to Rowland's story above, I heard a radio broadcast a very long time ago in which John Lill said that the one instrument he really envied and wished he had learnt was the organ.  He said something like 'it's singing ability is so sublime, so different to the transient sounds of the piano'.

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Those two comments, from John Lill and András Schiff, are very perceptive, perhaps suggesting that those pianists that are successful in transferring Bach’s music to the piano are those that have some affinity for the instruments on which it was originally composed, even if they don’t play them themselves. I know a pianist (who doesn’t play the organ) said to me that she had a much greater appreciation for Bach’s music after playing a harpsichord for the first time. As far as my own experience is concerned, I now have no inclination to play Bach on the piano, but before I learned either the organ or harpsichord, it was one of my greatest joys. 

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On 12/10/2019 at 06:53, Colin Pykett said:

Not exactly an organ topic, but do others find Bach and contemporary composers' works played on the piano as much as a turn-off as I do?

In a word, yes.  In a few more words, I tend to find the music of Bach, etc., needs the sustained tones of the organ in order for the moving lines to be properly heard against one another.  Some seem quite enamoured of Bach on the piano though, as evidenced by the Royal Canadian College of Organists 2013 national convention which concluded with a "Gala Piano Recital" of Angela Hewitt playing The Art of Fugue on the piano, which they made certain everyone knew was a FAZIOLI !  Public Concerts

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Has anyone played Bach on a clavichord? I went to a clavichord recital once in Oxford and it took about 10 minutes of playing for my ears to adjust to the extremely low dynamic level. But the sound of a clavichord isn’t a million miles away from an early piano, just quieter! And they were the common practice instrument for keyboard players, I think. Some large triple-strung clavichords were made in Bach’s lifetime that perhaps projected better than the small ones. Just wondering where people draw the line? Bach on an early fortepiano might be interesting. I don’t agree with mkc1’s comment about the necessity of sustained tone; Bach wrote and arranged a lot of contrapuntal music for lute or Lautenwerk.

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When Colin Pykett started this thread, one name stood out: András Schiff, but VH beat me to it.  

There were two others, both, I suspect, potentially controversial: Glenn Gould and Myra Hess, respectively famous for their performances of the Goldberg Variations and ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’, and pianistically very contrasting.  I believe Glenn Gould never used the piano’s sustaining pedal.  Famous for his ‘noises off’, I found his playing of the Goldberg Variations entirely convincing.  Myra Hess, of course, played with an almost supreme legato in ‘Jesu, Joy’.  Didn’t the artistry in both cases prevail over any ‘authentic performance’ objections?  These are not, of course, organ works. There is much speculation about the instrument(s) Bach had in mind in ‘The Art of Fugue’.  

I think mkc1 must have meant Bach’s organ works played on the piano, on which I agree with innate.

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I have discs of both Glenn Gould and Sir Andrăs Schiff playing Bach's Forty-Eight Preludes and Fugues on  pianos. Whilst I find it difficult to listen to Gould these days (not least because his continuous grunting and groaning are irritating), Schiff's performances are wonderful. (I still have the Promenade Concert which Vox Humana mentioned saved on a HDD.) 

For my money, I'm very happy to hear them played on a modern piano. I have a very limited tolerance for the sound of a harpsichord. I find it too thin and metallic. It is (clearly) also rather limited in dynamic variation. I suspect also that I am more tolerant of a little rubato here and there. I don't like anything too wayward, but the relentless progress of a metronomic performance palls for me after a short time. True, I haven't heard Preston's Bach recordings, so I cannot say; however, I do like music to breathe.

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Hi

Further to Inate's comment about the Clavichord, which I also have read was a common practice instrument in Bach's time, there have been Pedal Clavichords (and Pedal Harpsichords).  I saw a pedal Clavichord for sale in the Early Music Shop in Bradford a good few years ago now.  Sadly, it was beyond my means.

Every Blessing

Tony

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13 hours ago, Tony Newnham said:

Hi

Further to Inate's comment about the Clavichord, which I also have read was a common practice instrument in Bach's time, there have been Pedal Clavichords (and Pedal Harpsichords).  I saw a pedal Clavichord for sale in the Early Music Shop in Bradford a good few years ago now.  Sadly, it was beyond my means.

Every Blessing

Tony

Yes, I spent many days of my childhood looking around that place (wasn't it on North Parade?) imagining that I could buy one of those items.
I shouldn't complain, though.  I did, after all, acquire a wheezy old harmonium (with very leaky bellows), a cast-off from the local church, which my dad and his mate struggled to carry up two floors to my bedroom.  I distinctly remember it having a fan tremulant which actually rotated!

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Yes, EMS was on North Parade above Woods music shop.  When they sold out to the Williams group, who shortly after went bankrupt, EMS has moved to Salts Mill in Saltaire and is still going strong.  And to keep things on topic they often have a couple of Positive organs on display.

Every Blessing

Tony

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The week before last I tuned the pianos for the Nice International Piano Competition. Many candidates played Bach . . . on the piano and at least I was tuning the piano well for Bach, making it less intolerable.

But I can't stand general Bach piano playing. Staccato with no singing, not understanding how even a harpsichord can sing, and as for that Canadian woman whose name I can never remember . . . who I heard playing Mendelssohn as if it was Prokofiev. . . . 

The final concert was rather fun. Of course you can't have a piano accompanied by an orchestra in unequal temperament. What rot! Here's the proof . . . 

In the elementary class, 11 year old Salvatore Mastrosimone from Sicily played a Bach concerto - https://youtu.be/mnTDkj5dYYc?t=1613 and in my opinion musically. Between finals and the Gala concert some of the competitors got the idea that the piano as tuned by me would sing and here in my opinion it does.

At https://youtu.be/mnTDkj5dYYc?t=7150 I explained to the audience what I'd done with the tuning of the piano and the recording of the winner of the Junior section 8 year old David Martinescu from Romania follows at https://youtu.be/mnTDkj5dYYc?t=7284. Hearing the candidates I picked up on him as the best and luckily the Jury came to the same decision . . . as I'd followed him outside and asked him to be willing to come back in and play an experiment . . . 

Having tuned the piano as an organ and focused on the purity of harmonic structure . . .  https://youtu.be/mnTDkj5dYYc?t=7382 was the result and the Jury were completely amazed. None of them had heard the possibility of the piano sounding like this before. . . . 

Have I persuaded anyone now that hearing Bach played on the piano really can now be enjoyable?

A friend was so inspired that he got me to tune a vintage Bechstein and record . . . and 

was the result. It would have been even more stunning were it to have been an 7 - 9 ft grand.

Best wishes 

David P

 

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With regard to Bach on Harpsichord, even the Harpsichord can sing in ways in which modern pianists don't understand and in addition complex harpsichords which are able to bring more variation to the music are expensive to maintain and as a result I suspect rather out of fashion in much modern performance. Alexandra Kremakova is a performer I like a lot - 

and 

 is a piece where the tuning gives us landmarks to add interest to the sound. Modern tuning may well be why the music has become boring for so many.

Here she is playing Dowland on piano https://youtu.be/xW0NLciHGNU?t=309

Here's Scarlatti on both harpsichord and piano for comparison, although not the rather better harpsichord in the recording above, and the piano not best in tune on account of blazing heat and temperature change - 

Best wishes

David P

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On 03/11/2019 at 07:52, Tony Newnham said:

Yes, EMS was on North Parade above Woods music shop.  When they sold out to the Williams group, who shortly after went bankrupt, EMS has moved to Salts Mill in Saltaire and is still going strong.  And to keep things on topic they often have a couple of Positive organs on display.

Every Blessing

Tony

Ah, worth a visit then, even though I no longer live in God's County.

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Hi John

I no longer live in Yorkshire either.  Will go into EMS when we visit the area, although quite when that will be with my wife's illness is anyone's guess.

Every Blessing

Tony

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