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The Well-Tempered Clavier, Paired - Mahan Esfahani

A Few Remarks

The story of how I learned to stop worrying and love the Well-Tempered Clavier is inextricably bound with my coming to the realization that I am basically an incorrigible and immature person who would surely have fallen through the cracks had I not been guided by great musicians. These mentors saw past my tendency toward willful error and did their best to set me on the right path. When I was an adolescent pianist, the “48” gnawed on my conscience as a set which I considered to be mere exercises but which my heart told me were powerful in a way as of yet unrevealed to my little brain.

So, for my thirtieth birthday some four years ago I decided to finish learning the few preludes and fugues I hadn’t learned in my teenage years in order to perform the whole of the first book of this collection in recital. This daunting task was made somewhat easier to digest by the fact that the first book—in fact, the only collection of preludes and fugues in every key actually called ‘the Well-Tempered Clavier’ by its composer (in 1722)—clearly is a single narrative; in other words, the individual pairs of preludes and fugues only achieve their full potential in the context of their neighboring pairs. With a handful of exceptions, all of the preludes in Part I are based on seventeenth-century patterns of improvisation on specific patterns; many of the preludes even mimic the opening sequence of chords as found in the C-major prelude. A few pairs contain motivic similarities between the prelude and fugue themes (B-major, for example; or B-minor, whose fugue actually quotes a bar from the prelude). The subject of the final fugue in B-minor even contains all 12 tones of the chromatic scale in an obvious summing-up of all the keys that have come before.

The second part of the Well-Tempered Clavier was compiled by Bach in 1744. Amongst keyboardists, the second part has a reputation for being rather more impressive in performance but also sitting more comfortably in the hands in contrast to Part I. Johann Nikolaus Forkel’s remark that Bach composed the first part at a time when he lacked access to a keyboard may have something to do with this, as the preludes and fugues of Part I are generally more thorny in terms of their demands on the fingers’ ability to navigate the clarity demanded from each voice in Bach’s contrapuntal framework.

This aside, though, Part II of the 48 is an altogether more ambitious affair, the preludes being generally longer and characterized by an attempt to transfer orchestral textures to the keyboard medium. To be sure, elements of the quasi-improvisational practices of the first book are still there—for instance, in the first part to the prelude in C-sharp major, echoing Bach’s earlier tendency to explore a brief harmonic skeleton through the repetition of an organizational pattern. But basically this sort of approach to the prelude is now the exception rather than the rule, and there is little, if any, discernible material shared between the prelude and fugue. The extroverted D-major prelude is something out of a book of sonatas by Scarlatti, with a bold opening theme covering the span of a twelfth and long chains of semiquavers running up and down the keyboard in a display of technical fireworks; whilst sober, the subsequent fugue has an almost operatic quality in the plasticity and sophistication of its subject. We are worlds away from the nearly didactic, even lecturing tone of the G- and A-minor fugues of the first book or the divine contrapuntal games of the G-major fugue from the same collection. Bach’s fugue-writing is as dramatic as ever before, but by 1744—after the Partitas (1735), the Goldberg Variations (1741), and the large-scale fantasies and fugues—it has acquired a far more extroverted quality.

My decision to replace the version of the G-major prelude found in the autograph copy of Part II of the Well-Tempered Clavier comes from a reading in a later manuscript copy made by Bach’s son-in-law Johann Christoph Altnickol. As with the same scribe’s copy of Part I, there are various emendation and changes to the text which I dare, now and then, to even regard as improvements on Bach’s ‘original’ (whatever that means). The most famous example of this is a change to the rhythm of the opening motif of the subject of the fugue in C-major—this has survived into our own time thanks to Carl Czerny’s publication of this alternative text, supposedly based on his recollection of Beethoven’s performances of the 48. Whether J.S. Bach himself intended this alternative prelude (BWV 902a) to be played with the fugue found in the 1744 text is an open question, but it is highly likely that the various emendations and changes to the original as found in subsequent copies by various pupils and followers may reflect the sort of private performances of the Well-Tempered Clavier as recalled by Ernst Ludwig Gerber, who reported that Bach was wont to relieve the tedium of teaching by sitting the student down and simply playing preludes and fugues to him.

Now we have come to the question of why I have decided to couple these excerpts from the 48 with new and modern works. In recent years—for reasons I am still unable to understand—I’ve copped opprobrium from the odd critic for not having clear reasons for mixing old and new repertoire. I started doing this mostly after reading a social media exchange with one of the participants discussing a fantasy idea of an art museum where old and new works would be placed right next to one another in the same galleries. I found really nothing objectionable about this concept, and so I started experimenting with how to design these sorts of programs—with varying levels of success. One critic wrote that it seemed as though I had just programmed music that I simply liked playing; he saw it as a criticism, whereas I must say this is exactly what I am doing. Another one tediously grumbled that my playing of the baroque works on the program were not out of bounds of current trends in historical performance; he saw it as pointing out the hypocrisy of claims to innovation, whereas I would say that each repertoire naturally requires its own approach to interpretation. Anyhow, my job is to play music, so let’s get on with that.

A few words, then, on the modern works included in these programs. I have long been an admirer of the work of George Lewis both in terms of his compositional output and his academic work (particularly in his efforts to draw attention to the legacy of the late Julius Eastman). After interviewing Professor Lewis for a documentary I made for the BBC back in 2016-17, I decided that a commission from him for the harpsichord would be ideal if someone would somehow commission it; when this offer for two concerts from Miller Theatre came through, the idea to finally bring a project to fruition was an obvious idea, thus creating his Timelike Weave (2018) which will be performed for the first time on Wednesday evening’s concert. This work, according to Professor Lewis himself, was inspired by the logic of Afrodiasporic quilting aesthetics and the notion of the closed timelike curve, a concept discussed in quantum physics. A timelike curve occurs when the ‘worldline’ of an object—in other words, its path as followed in 4-dimensional ‘space time’—takes a curious path wherein it eventually returns to the exact same coordinates in space and time that it was at previously. A closed timelike curve is the mathematical result of physics equations that allow for time travel. The inspiration for this new work will be discussed before Wednesday’s evening’s concert in the pre-concert discussion.

Luciano Berio’s Rounds for harpsichord (1966) is the original form of material used a year later in the composer’s Sequenza (IV) for piano—highly expressive material at that, represented in a somewhat unorthodox proportional notation which offers great freedom to the performer within the boundaries of clearly delineated cells. Highly dense outbursts of rhythmic activity across the two manuals of the harpsichord contrast with delicate chords and clusters sounding in the extremities of the instrument’s range, resulting in a game of tag between solo lines and miniature walls of sound. Berio then pays tribute to the harpsichord’s greatest exponent—viz. J.S. Bach—by asking the performer to perform the ‘second section’ of the piece simply by turning the single sheet upside-down. This is no mere gimmick but rather a nod to the riddle canons that so fascinated Bach and his contemporaries—and, in fact, Berio’s method of notating accidentals (round notes being naturals and square ones being raised a semitone) means that he can both avoid conventional tonality and reverse the intervallic relations in a way that reminds the listener of the ‘first’ or obverse section. Following the conclusion of the second or ‘B’ section, Berio then indicates that the sheet is to be turned over again and to be performed 20% faster, now playing on the listener’s memory of the material of the first section.

The pieces by Tōru Takemitsu and Gavin Bryars are, strangely enough (considering their relatively straightforward technical demands), works that I find rather challenging to pull off in recitals. It most assuredly has to do with the complete suspension in both compositions of conventional ideas of momentum and rhythmic ‘drive’ (though, the Bryars piece, in its way, does build to an incredible ‘conventional’ climax). Takemitsu’s Rain Dreaming comes from the period in the 1980s when the composer was exploring dreams—that is, specifically the dream-like characteristics of cinema and their effect on film music. The piece itself was inspired by an Aborigine painting of the same title which Takemitsu had seen in Australia; commenting on this experience, Takemitsu himself later wrote that “the harpsichord was thought to be the most adequate [instrument] to express in sound the impression of the painting, which makes one sense the delicate nuances in its limited coloring and feel the breathing of nature.”

About After Handel’s Vesper, Gavin Bryars himself writes: “My first encounter with the harpsichord in a contemporary context was in 1968 when I worked as an assistant to John Cage in Illinois on his HPSCHD. My recollection of that work, and its use of chance operations, led me to the short passage in Raymond Roussel’s novel Impressions d’Afrique where there is the fictional account of the blind Handel composing an oratorio, Vesper, by a curious set of chance operations involving sprigs of holly and colored ribbons. This story drew me away from Cage’s method (there is no use of chance in my piece) to 17th and 18th century keyboard music, and I became acquainted with a wide range of keyboard music and types of instruments which helped inform the writing of this piece. I was attracted to the quasi-improvisational ethos of the music of Frescobaldi for the single manual Italian harpsichord and, at the other extreme, to music written for the larger two manual German instrument. In the spirit of this music I have offered many options with ornamentation, suggesting some, writing out others completely, but also encouraging the player to use her invention and instincts to add others where not specified and generally to adopt an open approach to the piece.”


— Notes by Mahan Esfahani