Which keyboard?

I was recently invited to participate in a performance of the entire Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier by JS Bach. I say participate because on July 28th at (Spectrum NYC) 24 NYC pianists will come together (Link HERE for info) to play the 24 sets of preludes and fugues that make up the book. The presenter’s purpose for this was to curate a listening of the work with 24 different points of view rather than a unified one by a single performer (which usually turns out to be a tour de force event.)

I was given the choice of the g#m or the GM. Lured by its visual contrasts just by glancing at the pages, I grabbed the GM (number XV), eager to explore and unlock its technical and intellectual difficulties. After all, I find running 16th notes incredibly exciting sensorially speaking. The fugue would be a mathematical puzzle to wrap my mind around and good mental exercise.

However, as soon as I plunged into the prelude, I discovered awkward overlaps between the hands playing the same G. However minute, it was incredibly frustrating and affecting the flow of the right hand running triplets. No problem, I thought. I’ve negotiated that before in other composers’ music, although I still found it suspicious. I was also bothered by the sound: I was going for more of a differentiation in tonal color between the registers that both hands were functioning in. Yes, I could achieve that by differentiating the quality of touch in either hand – after all, I had trained many years to be able to create that sort of magic.

Leaving those issues aside to simmer in my mind I moved on to the fugue and this is where I threw my hands in the air. There were long tones at various sections especially in the bass at measures 62-64 (pedal points) that were impossible to hold with one hand and could only be executed by an organ pedal, (unless Bach had a secret 3rd hand). I decided that as beautifully as so many of Bach’s keyboard works translated smoothly to the piano, this one’s greatness lay in its execution on a very specific instrument, and it was definitely not the piano and probably not even the harpsichord.

I decided to confirm my suspicions by trying it on the organ at a church that I had access to – and voila’, everything made sense and sounded exciting and perfectly crafted. The first decision I made was to choose different settings for the two manuals by manipulating the various stops available. It was like using my skill to curate sound normally by adjusting very subtle changes in the attack, weight and articulation of the fingers/arm to the piano keyboard, but now making very specific decisions about tonal color that would not depend on my physical prowess but on my understanding of the baroque style and taste. I separated both hands, playing the RH on the upper keyboard and the LH on the lower and dove into the prelude. Here’s the first attempt at it:

The fugue also came to life.  Hearing the tones held by the long ties was exhilarating and added excitement.  The separate voices were now distinguishable and not muddy. Arrivals at climaxes in the piece were now magnificent.  I can go on…

I am still going to perform it on the piano, keeping in mind all the info I had gleaned from playing it on the organ to inform my artistic decisions.  Enjoying the process and look forward to sharing the piano performance in a future post.

CLICK HERE to read a recent article in the NY Times about the great organs of New York City.

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