At the Cremona Mondomusica Piano Experience in October, the Italian pianist Pietro De Maria performed selected preludes and fugues from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (WTC), as part of the exhibition’s Decca/Deutsche Grammophon showcase series. After the concert, Piano Street’s David Wärn had the chance to talk to De Maria about the challenges pianists face when tackling Bach’s legendary “forty-eight”.
– You have previously recorded the complete works of Chopin. What was it like to go from Chopin to Bach?
– Well, after all the romanticism of Chopin, I needed to cleanse my soul…! Actually, Chopin was very fond of Bach – he used to work on the 48 preludes and fugues to prepare for his concerts, and he recommended them to his pupils.
To me, Chopin is the most “baroque” of the romantic composers. There are two reasons for this: firstly, the importance of counterpoint in his music; and secondly, the importance of ornamentation. Ornamentation is fundamental in Chopin, just as it is in in Bach. So, playing Bach after Chopin felt like a natural continuation.
– You started the concert here in Cremona by playing the first prelude in C major. What are your thoughts about this famous piece, that so many pianists have studied over the centuries?
– One interesting fact is that it features all the twelve tones of the chromatic scale, which of course makes it an extremely fitting introduction to the cycle. It also creates a connection to the last piece of the book, the fugue in B minor, where Bach makes even more conspicuous use of the chromatic scale. I like to speak of the B minor fugue as the first 12-tone composition in history, because already in the theme, all the twelve tones are present.
Out of the first 12 preludes, eleven had already been composed for the Clavierbüchlein for Wilhelm Friedemann, Bach’s favorite son. But most of the preludes Bach wrote for Wilhelm Friedemann were much shorter and underwent a major revision before being printed in the WTC. They became bigger – like the C minor prelude, for example. At the end of that prelude, the tempo changes: there is an adagio, then an allegro, and a pedal point on G which increases the tension – it wasn’t like that in the first version. And the first version of the C major prelude didn’t feature all the twelve tones.
This is interesting, because it illustrates how in the WTC, Bach gave the preludes their autonomy. Preludes by earlier composers, like Buxtehude, can’t stand by themselves – often there is no interruption between prelude and fugue. But in Bach, each prelude is an important piece of music in itself.
– You seem to take great interest in Bach’s use of number symbolism.
– Yes, I find it fascinating to note how Bach uses numbers to put his signature to things and tell us of his intentions. The theme of the first fugue, for example, is made of 14 notes, Bach’s own number (B=2 + A=1 + C=3 + H=8). And then this theme is played 24 times, once for each major and minor key.
Another interesting fugue in terms of number symbolism is the C-sharp minor fugue in Book I. For me, this is a choral fugue. In the WTC, there are only two fugues with 5 voices, which is what you find in the big sacred works. This already gives you an idea of the spiritual significance of this piece. And for the first theme, he uses the four-note “cross motif”, with its obvious reference to Christ. All in all, he uses three themes in this magnificent fugue, which I think should be interpreted as a symbol of the divine Trinity.
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– What are the differences between the first and second book?
– The most obvious difference is that the preludes of Book II are longer, and often in two parts, with repeats. That poses some problems for ornamentation, but it also makes it closer to our time.
In a way, Book I has become more popular. I don’t know why – I think the second book is closer to us. When I speak to my colleagues, most of them also seem to prefer the second book.
– What do you mean by “closer to us”?
– I mean in terms of musical form. Many of the preludes in Book I are in the ancient style – like the first prelude – and many are in a toccata style. The second book was written 20 years later. There was a new generation of composers around, a lot of things happening in terms of style, and Bach was always open for influences.
In Book II, a lot of preludes are already small sonatas, like Scarlatti sonatas. And in some of them, towards the end of the prelude, you have a kind of recapitulation, which is really astonishing at that time. And he uses more and more dance rhythms – the F major fugue for example, is a gigue.
– What kind of background knowledge do you think is needed to tackle Bach’s music?
– Well, in that respect Bach is more complicated than many other composers. You really have to know something about how this music was played at the time. For me, it was fundamental to read Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments, as well as books by Couperin, Quantz…. Even if you play this music on a modern piano, it’s important to know a lot of things, for example about the correct way of playing ornamentation.
I am sure you have seen Bach’s ornament table, which he wrote at the beginning of the Clavierbüchlein for Wilhelm Friedemann – at that time his son was nine years old. But only a few ornaments are explained there; there are also other ones that are not shown. That’s one of the reasons why you have to turn to other sources.
– Even if you know a few things about baroque performance practice, it can be quite hard to know which rules to apply in a given situation…
– Of course, it helps if you know a lot of Bach’s music – not only the instrumental music. One of the problems is that Bach almost never notated any dynamics, articulations and so on. So, what you must first do is to find the character of the music. After that, you find a fitting articulation, according to the character you think that piece has.
Now, in some of his cantatas, or in the B minor mass, or in the Passions, sometimes you find similar passages – for example, the B minor fugue of the first book is very similar to the Kyrie in the B minor mass, which is also a fugue. If you know these things, it is easier to find the character.
Sometimes you even find some articulation signs. I’m thinking of the C-sharp major fugue of Book I – there is a cantata, Alles nur nach Gottes Willen, BWV 72, which has a similar theme, the same sort of lines, played by the oboe. In the cantata, Bach writes some staccato dots, some slurs and everything. That’s very helpful; to have an example how they would phrase something at the time, how they would articulate.
– What are your thoughts on ornamentation in the preludes and fugues?
– In the first book, there is not so much space for ornamentation. I mean, there are normal places, like important cadenzas, where it is almost mandatory to do a little trill or something – this is unproblematic. But in the second book, most of the preludes are written in two parts, which are repeated, like in the Scarlatti sonatas. And I think that when there is a repeat, you have to do something.
Still, it’s important for me not to do too much. You have to be kind of sober when you play Bach. By the way, I think this is true of Mozart as well – it has become a habit to do lots of ornamentation whenever you have a repetition in Mozart, or when you have long notes. I don’t like that. There are people who overinterpret in that sense. For me, it was very interesting to listen to András Schiff’s most recent recording of the 48, because he never does too much.
Of course, I do my own ornamentation sometimes. But in some pieces, I save all embellishment for the repeats: I don’t do anything the first time – then, when the music is repeated, I use Bach’s ornamentation. Especially when you play on a modern piano, you can do many other things to accent or highlight certain notes. Ornamentation is not always needed the first time.
It’s also very interesting to compare different sources. Sometimes I do ornamentation that doesn’t come from Bach’s manuscript but from copies made by people in Bach’s circle. There is the Altnikol copy – Altnikol was a pupil and son-in-law of Bach; Kirnberger was also one of his pupils; and there was Anna Magdalena, his wife. In the urtext editions, you don’t find all these differences – you find only Bach’s manuscript, which – of course! – is very important. But sometimes, it’s really most likely that during lessons, he would write something on the pupils’ copies.
– Like Chopin also often did.
– Yes! This is one of the big problems with Chopin as well, because even the urtext editions don’t take into account everything Chopin wrote in the copies of his pupils, which is sometimes fundamental.
– What about dynamics? They aren’t notated and Bach’s instruments didn’t have the dynamic range of modern pianos.
– In Book I, Bach wrote some staccato dots and some slurs, but never a dynamic sign. In Book II, there is one prelude, in G-sharp minor, which has some dynamics: he writes forte, and then piano when the same material is repeated, creating an echo effect. This is something you can use in other pieces as well.
In my view, Bach wrote the Well-Tempered Clavier – unfortunately, in Italy, we say “Il clavicembalo ben temperato.” Clavicembalo means harpsichord, which is incorrect because it is too specific. I don’t think Bach had a specific instrument in mind for the whole collection.
Of course, it’s true that he didn’t have the modern piano in mind! It seems that he loved the clavichord; he was the best organist; and sometimes, some preludes – very virtuoso preludes – could be wonderful on a harpsichord, even some fugues. Sometimes, there is an intimacy which would suit the clavichord very well. And sometimes – I didn’t play it today, but the F major prelude from the second book is a very organ-like prelude, with lots of very long notes!
– I think it was András Schiff who said that Bach belongs to everybody – not just the harpsichordists!
– Yes, and another thing Schiff says is that the main reason he plays the 48 on a modern piano is the F minor prelude from the second book, because it’s almost impossible to do that kind of appoggiatura on a harpsichord.
– So, for example, if you think Bach may have had the clavichord in mind for a certain prelude or fugue, do you try to reflect the soft expressivity of that instrument in your playing?
– Yes; or I play with more brilliance and less legato when I think of a harpsichord. I don’t really want to imitate an instrument but the piano gives you all these possibilities of varying the sound, and I think you can do a lot in this respect.
The pedal could be a problem, but only if you play with too much pedal in a passage that has too much going on with voices and texture. As long as you can hear all the layers and the voices clearly, I think a little bit of pedal helps. I’m not against it.
– Do you feel that you have to limit the dynamics because of the character of the music or because Bach’s instruments had a narrower dynamic range?
– Well, a little bit. But I also do that when I play Haydn or Mozart or even Clementi sometimes. You can’t play as fortissimo as you would play Liszt, of course – this is just common sense, it simply wouldn’t fit the music!
Actually, there are people who say that it isn’t possible to play Bach on a modern piano, but I think they are a little narrow-minded. I think Bach was much more open-minded: he transcribed lots of music for different instruments. He took one of Vivaldi’s violin concertos and made a concerto for four pianos out of it! And he transcribed a lot of his own music. I think the fact that this music touches us so deeply, even when played on instruments very different from the ones Bach knew, is a sign of its greatness.
Pietro De Maria received the Critics’ Prize at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1990, and went on to win first prizes in several other competitions, such as the Géza Anda competition in Zurich. De Maria’s repertory ranges from Bach to Ligeti, and he is the first Italian pianist to play Chopin’s complete piano works in six concerts. More recently, he has been focusing on Bach, presenting both books of The Well-Tempered Clavier as well as the Goldberg Variations in concert. His recordings of Chopin and Bach have received excellent reviews in international press.
Read more at www.pietrodemaria.com