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Views on J. S. Bach – Interview with pianist Peter Hill

A recognised authority in 20th century and contemporary music, Peter Hill turns for the first time on disc to another of his lifelong preoccupations – the music of J. S. Bach. In this exclusive interview for Piano Street, Peter shares his ideas on the world of Johann Sebastian and his praised recent recording of Book 2 of the Well Tempered Clavier on the Delphian Records label.

Patrick Jovell: We have seen you as a keen and important Messiaen interpreter and scholar. What can you tell us about your relationship to J. S. Bach?

Peter Hill, pianistPeter Hill: A lot of people have asked me this question! Bach was in my blood very early. As a child I studied the easier pieces plus some of the ‘48′. I was a chorister, and I remember the great event of every year was when the choir sang the big motet, Jesu meine Freude. Also, one so readily gets type-cast! When I was asked by Unicorn Kanchana to record the Messiaen series of course Messiaen took centre stage in my piano playing life, but even then I was doing a broad repertoire, much of it classical. Life is a series of unplanned accidents: so the Messiaen recordings led to a book (The Messiaen Companion) which I recall planning during the editing of the last Messiaen disc. And that book led to others, because of the great kindness of Yvonne Loriod – whom I knew from the days when I was working with her husband on the recordings – who allowed me to research in the archive in the Messiaen apartment. So that led to the biography, then a book on Oiseaux exotiques, and now (in progress) a book on the Catalogue d’oiseaux. So no wonder one gets known for Messiaen.

That said, for years I didn’t play Bach in public. Why not? I suppose, in common with many musicians, I became a little intimidated by the profusion of scholarship that surrounds the early music movement. But I used to lecture about Bach’s music and teach my students harmony from his chorales and analyse the fugues. (At the back of my mind was a formative experience when I was at Oxford and attended lectures by Edmund Rubbra on the 48. They were probably way over my head, but I found it amazing that someone could talk passionately about just a fugue subject for a whole hour!)

And I studied Bach in private: he became my summer holiday composer, keeping the piano playing going during the summer break by learning something different, and something not for a specific concert. I became more and more fascinated by the possibilities offered by the piano in communicating what Bach has to say. Occasionally, my family would make an observation about my practice, and say why don’t you play Bach in concerts? And when I did, I noticed that the Bach made an impression: that’s probably more a compliment to Bach than to my playing, but still it was encouraging.

Finally, when I met Paul Baxter of Delphian to discuss repertoire we talked about all sorts of projects, and just as we were parting I said that one day I’d love to record Book 2 of the 48. He must have seen something in my expression, because he at once said, let’s do that then. A brave move by him, because there’s no shortage of competition. But, of course, every phrase of a Bach fugue opens so many possibilities. I think it was Schnabel who said that some music is ‘better than it can be played’, meaning that a definitive performance is meaningless, an impossibility. So there’s always room for a new version, especially if it can be a fresh look.

What I never do is listen to various pianists and find a different way. I think that’s fatal. No, I gradually evolve my point of view, and with Bach that’s taken many years. If I had to put into words what that point of view is, I’d say it has three strands. The first is that I’m interested to discover what I think each piece is saying. What I don’t want to do is to impose a style – however authentic! – on Bach. Because to me every piece is a new personality and demands its own unique style. What an amazing composer he is; simply the most inventive mind there’s ever been. No two fugues in the 48 are even remotely alike.

The next strand is that to me Bach transcends his time: I think it was John Butt (who ought to know) who said that one can’t take Bach as typical of the Baroque era. Well, Bach is the great time-traveller of music, from the renaissance to the modern (the latter, of course, because so many later composers were profoundly influenced by him). A particular surprise for me in the 48 was to find how much of the spirit of the later 18th century – the rococo – there is in Bach: the wit, irony, charm etc we associate more with Haydn or Mozart. Finally, my attitude to the piano and Bach is to try to articulate the voices and nuances through as many shades of colour as I can. It’s intriguing to speculate how much Bach knew about the first steps being taken in his lifetime to develop the piano. He certainly knew Gottfried Silbermann’s fortepianos, and is said to have offered advice. But that was probably not till the 1730s. (Incredibly, Cristofori’s first instrument dates from as early as 1699.) Knowing how interested Bach was in instrument design and in anything innovative I find it impossible to believe that he was unaware that the keyboard was going to be revolutionised.

PJ: When approaching the music of Bach the polyphonic mastery is always evident. However, modern discussions have pointed in the direction of harmony being tremendously important and for many a performer pure sound aspects and qualities of timbre etc. Can you elaborate on these possibilities when it comes to your own readings?

Prelude no 1 in C major from WTC II - final bars

Prelude no 1 in C major (WTC II) - final bars

PH: There’s a telling example of Bach’s harmonic practice just before the end of the first prelude in Book 2 of the 48. The penultimate chord is ‘coloured’ by a note (A flat) from the scale of C minor, a beautiful nuance in its own right, but with a double pay-off. First, the A flat lends a particular sweetness to the final (C major) harmony; and when the fugue starts the fifth (and most emphatic) note of the subject gets an extra ‘kick’ because it is an A natural when we still have A flat in our ears. Thus with Bach we get not only the expressiveness of the foreign or chromatic alteration itself, but the subsequent expressiveness when the ‘correct’ note is restored. Another example is in the final section of the F sharp minor prelude, where the music of the opening is being recapitulated. Bach sidesteps on to a chord foreign to the key, a chord of G major. This is a well-used expressive device in 18th-century music, known as the ‘Neapolitan sixth’. In this instance Bach lingers on the chord almost for a whole bar; the effect is of an icy stillness, which, when the G natural subsequently becomes G sharp, lends a warmth and eloquence to the lines as they unwind towards the closing cadence.

Harmonic colour also arises from Bach’s use of dissonance. Dissonances are either ‘passing’ or are the expressive ’sighs’ known as suspensions. As the name implies, what happens with the latter is that a note is sustained while the rest of the harmony has moved on to a new chord: a resolution is required, almost always a fall to the note a semitone or tone below. Dissonances are not just colouristic and expressive devices. They also serve to differentiate the contrapuntal lines, so that now one now another stands out. And in the case of suspensions they give impetus to the music, since every suspension inevitably looks forward since it needs resolution. Often the dissonances in Bach, though arrived at through the logical movement of the counterpoints, are strikingly sharp, or may arrive on vertical combinations that are arrestingly weird. A favourite harmony used by Bach, evidently denoting the most intense feeling, is what came to be known as the ‘augmented triad’, heard for example just before the end of the G minor prelude.

Then there is the ‘dissonance’ of Bach’s use of key. Bach’s system of tuning the instrument in the 48 (whatever that may have been) allowed him not only to proceed from one key to another, but more importantly to use the whole spectrum of tonality within single pieces. I say ‘importantly’ because keys and tonalities made possible the vast symphonic expansion of music, from Beethoven to Bruckner and beyond, which may arguably be traced back to Bach’s 48. (Neefe, Beethoven’s teacher, reported that his pupil had mastered the 48 by the age of 11.) A superb example in Book 2 is the fugue in D sharp minor, one of the most profound in the 48, with its majestic development of the subject through a great arc of tonalities. In the G minor prelude just mentioned, Bach begins with three expositions of the main ideas, in G minor, C minor and D minor. The subsequent development takes the music to the major (E flat major), followed by a momentary touching base with the home key (a strategy very commonly found in Bach, with the obvious advantage that it reminds the listener how close or remote the
keys used are to the home key). And then to a cadence in the relatively remote key of F minor, before the music gradually finds its way home. It seems to me, as a performer, that the F minor passage is not only remote but should sound remote, so I try to find an appropriate sonority, and I also like the trill into the cadence to ‘drift’ – a brilliant trill is emphatically not what’s wanted.

Bach may not have known the modern piano, but he would surely have liked its capacity to respond to and to articulate the colours I’ve been describing. Ideally – and this is what I aspire to! – one should have a myriad colours at one’s fingertips, achieved through every subtle combination of dynamic, balancing and articulation, and even with dabs of the sustaining pedal that can give an extra warmth, just as a string player might selectively use vibrato for expressive ends. As a pianist I’ve found it instructive to work at Bach’s music on one of his instruments, the clavichord. In my view the clavichord is the hardest of all keyboard instruments to play because it requires extraordinary sensitivity and control. So it’s a good exercise. But it’s also good because, within a miniscule range of dynamic, the clavichord has so many possibilities for colour: these even include ‘bending’ the pitch (possible because the hammer, or ‘tangent’, remains in contact with the string after the note is struck) and adding expressive vibrato.

PJ: Articulation and ornamentation in Baroque music form the basis for the rhetorics of this era. How do you apply this in Bach´s music, as really no information can be found in his own handwritings – what advice would you give to pianists?

PH: Well, entire books have been written on ornamentation in Baroque music! And articulation in 18th-century music has rightly been a particular focus of the period-instrument movement. My own view is that, for all their obvious value, treatises on performance written for 18th-century performers need to be treated with respect but also with caution; above all, any ‘rules’ derived from them need to be applied with due regard to the musical context. Should trills start on the upper note? – Generally, yes, but not if a ‘hiccup’ in (say) a descending melodic line is undesirable. My preference on the piano is to use fewer ornaments than a harpsichordist would, because the piano gives me other means for articulating shape or giving emphasis. The piano also offers a huge range of touch. When notes are detached from one another, one can use the lightest and shortest staccato, or a ‘lingering’ almost cantabile staccato, right through to a way of articulating each note distinctly without actually having any gap in the sound. Should one use the pedal? Of course! – but selectively and expressively. The pedal is great for changing the colour of a note, or for imparting a glow to a final chord, but if used all the time it drowns the flavours and nuances of Bach’s music. Nevertheless, to forbid the pedal because Bach’s instruments didn’t have one seems absurd – neither did they have dampers; and the ultra-dry sound of Bach played entirely without pedal bears no relation to the sound of a harpsichord or clavichord.

One example of articulation that comes to mind is from the D minor fugue from Book 2, whose subject leaps to a high D, then fills in the gap by descending in semitones.

Fugue no 6 in D minor from WTC II - themeFugue no 6 in D minor from WTC II - theme

My first idea was to slur the semitones expressively in pairs; but I gradually came to see the fugue as having a greater gravity in its character, with the playful side only fully revealed in the dialogue that occurs about two-thirds of the way through. Seen in this light my treatment of the subject began to seem fussy, and I changed it to a legato line – with a slight emphasis on each pair – intended to make the second half of the subject speak as a single gesture.

Two points are important, I think. The first is that articulation and ornamentation – like everything in the performer’s armoury – are means to an end, which is to respond to and communicate the shapes, interactions and ‘psychologies’ (to borrow Brendel’s word) in the music. So context is everything, just as it was my changing view of the fugue as a whole that prompted me to change a detail in the D minor fugue. The second point is that imposing a uniformity of Bach’s music seems to me to run counter to the inexhaustible inventiveness – one might even say inquisitiveness – of Bach’s mind: whether that uniformity is always playing a fugue’s subject in the same way, or imposing a ‘Bach style’ on the music. (I can’t resist saying that critics set a bad example when they harp on about stereotypes of performing style: so we are told about the ‘Romantic’ – whatever that may mean – approach of Simon Rattle and the BPO in the St Matthew Passion but nothing of what they find to say in the music.)

A final point I’d make is the value of thinking of Bach’s keyboard music in terms of voices or instruments. I’m glad that I once studied the violin seriously and even leaned the D minor and E major Partitas. The way single lines in the ‘48′ often flower into polyphonies (the C major prelude is a good example) is exactly similar to the music for solo violin or cello.

Prelude no 1 in C major from WTC II - introduction

Prelude no 1 in C major from WTC II - introduction

Three fugues in Book 2 are vocal in character: the D major, E flat major and E major – their consecutive placing is surely no accident – and I try to give these the character of choral music, complete with points where the singers are permitted to breathe. And there is no doubting that the D major prelude shares both its key and its exuberance with Brandenburg no. 5 or the trumpets and
drums of the Christmas Oratorio.

PJ: We know that you will continue your recording project and I have heard that the French Suites are coming up. What can you tell us about your next J. S. Bach recordings?

PH: Well, obviously the first task is to complete the Well-Tempered Clavier by recording Book 1. We go in to the studio later in the summer, with a second session in the autumn. We’ll do our best to get Book 1 released as early as possible in 2013. I’d love to record more Bach, and have my eye of the Inventions and Sinfonias (the Three-Part Inventions). I studied the latter some years ago and performed them for the BBC as part of a Bach keyboard marathon involving many pianists; at the time I was in the throes of recording all Messiaen, so Bach made a refreshing change! And you’re right, I adore the French Suites, music which shows Bach at his simplest (if deceptively so!) and most approachable: dance movements transformed into exquisitely sophisticated miniatures that still somehow retain a touching directness of expression. And the Sarabandes must be among the most beautiful music Bach ever wrote: I can never decide which is my favourite.

The album on Amazon:
Peter Hill: J. S. Bach – The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II

“Quite extraordinarily beautiful and right.” –The Times

“I listened entranced” — Gramophone


  1. Tim Smith Says:

    Thank you for this informative and interesting post on Peter Hill, an extraordinary musician and scholar. Three years ago I had the great pleasure of meeting Prof. Hill in Sheffield and found him to be as courteous and personable a host as one could imagine. Best wishes to him, and thank you for this entry –Tim Smith

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