How to play Bach, in one easy lesson!
For the next few days, we'll feature one of the year's best new Bach albums in WFCR's classical music. It contains three of Bach's Keyboard Concertos, and features French pianist Alexandre Tharaud with Quebec's Les Violons du Roy conducted by Bernard Labadie.
Our shelves are are already well-stocked with Bach Concerto CDs, performed by pianists (I'll just stick with pianists for the present) as diverse as Glenn Gould, András Schiff, Murray Perahia and Angela Hewitt. What makes this new one so special?
It's the way the performers, working in perfect harmony, and with great imagination, use very simple musical techniques to enliven what could otherwise be a dry series of notes. Bach and his Baroque contemporaries, unlike later composers, give their performers relatively little guidance on the fine points, other than the notes, the rhythm, and (sometimes) the articulation, i.e., when to play notes as separate units and when to blend them into an unbroken line. Therefore, their music places an extraordinary burden on the performers to make their own decisions. It also gives performers the freedom to do it "their" way, for better or (as sometimes happens) worse.
So, what are some of those musical techniques? First and most basic is tempo, the basic speed at which the music goes by. Tharaud and Labadie have chosen relatively brisk tempos for the faster outer (first and third) movements of the Concertos, and the music benefits by it. In particular, the all-important bass lines pick up a little extra bounce in their step at the quicker pace, avoiding the dreaded heaviness that can drag down more romantic interpretations. The central (second) slow movements, by contrast, are allowed all the time and the flexibility they need for Bach's gorgeous melodies to reveal every bit of their almost painfully expressive beauty.
Then, there's the dynamics, the loud-soft aspect of the music. Tharaud and Labadie use dynamics as creatively as any performers I've ever heard in this music. Accents, crescendos and diminuendos (the music getting gradually louder or softer, respectively), subito (sudden) changes in loudness -- these cats do it all! And they do it ways that never seem forced upon the music; rather, their decisions always serve to underline the drama inherent in the music itself.
Finally, for today at least, is the aforementioned articulation. Let's analogize this to speech. When you speak, which syllables do you accent? Which word endings and final consonants do you drop, and which do you take care to pronounce? Which words do you run together, and which do you pause before, slightly, in order to emphasize them? Bach's melodies have a prose-like (if never prosaic!), run-on quality to them, and require the performers to articulate them, naturally and expressively, to bring them to life. How are Tharaud and Labadie at this aspect of music? Amazing. Check them out for yourself in this promotional video. And keep that dial set to WFCR!