Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Musings on Bach

March 21st is the anniversary of the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach. It’s nearly 300 years since Bach last walked the Earth (he died in 1750) and he still dominates our musical consciousness. For all we know he might even be dominating the musical consciousness of sentient creatures in faraway galaxies, because three Bach works were included on a recording that was launched into space on the Voyager 2 spacecraft.

What is the power of Bach? Ariama asked six renowned Bach interpreters to share their personal thoughts about the composer.

Matthew Halls, artistic director designate, Oregon Bach Festival

"The universality of Bach’s music is key here. It speaks to us all, transcending the boundaries of culture, language and time. Each of us forges our own uniquely personal relationship with the music. Many turn again and again to his compositions in search of emotional and spiritual enlightenment, for others the focus of their appreciation will fall on the more intellectual aspects of his musical language. There is something in his music for everyone.  Whether it is performed by two accordion players on a street corner or by a first-rate orchestra and choir in the concert hall, the music has a soul – a life of its own – which always seems to transcend the particular mode of performance.

For me, Bach represents a never-ending voyage of discovery. I can’t really remember a time when Bach’s music wasn’t there and I certainly don’t care to envisage any sort of future without it! His music is part of the soundtrack to my life and as such has had an enormous influence upon my development both as a musician and a human being. On another level Bach represents the greatest challenges I ever face as a performer. I can’t imagine there will ever be a time when I stop asking questions. His music continues to challenge us day in day out. On a purely technical level his music stretches the realms of possibility on every front and on an emotional level we are constantly evaluating and reviewing our interpretations as our experience and understanding of his music deepens."

Ton Koopman, keyboardist and conductor of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir

"J.S. Bach was maybe the first composer from the past who was never forgotten. His sons and students did everything to keep J.S. Bach in the picture to create a new Michelangelo. J.S. Bach was the great architect who, more then anybody, possessed an incredible balance of emotion and brains. His ‘können’ (“to be able” or “ability”) was not of this world. Over centuries his music attracted the most attention of everybody in music and even those outside the music world (see the book Bach und die Nachwelt by Michael Heinemann and Hans-Joachim Hinrichsen). That is still the case. He or she who comes in contact with his music for the first time was and remains, under its spell. I am one of them."

Christine Schornsheim, harpsichordist

“I have always loved, revered and regarded Bach with the utmost respect. His picture above my parent’s piano played a particular role. It was not the famous Haussmann portrait, but a drawing in which Bach doesn’t look quite so ‘puffy’. I formed the habit of communicating with Bach while practicing (or what I thought was practicing). This worked well because he commented on everything - if I would let him. I saw his stern look when I did not want to practice, his sad look, when I played music that did not please him. I also knew his conspiratorial look, which to me meant that he would not betray me when once again I had preferred to sight-read, or practiced pieces I was not meant to.

It made me very happy, of course, when he smiled and showed his satisfaction with me. So it was that Bach always seemed very human for me, and I could approach his music with no fear - already as a child I’d rather play his music. I was also very fortunate to be allowed to sing the Christmas Oratorio and the St. John Passion in my father’s choir, and, from 10 of age, to play the continuo in these sacred music performances. Today I am suffering from withdrawal symptoms when not having played Bach’s music for long periods of time. And my gaze would still wander to his image, even if now it's the one with the ‘swollen’ face.”

Céline Frisch and Pablo Valetti, harpsichordist and violinist, co-directors of Café Zimmermann

"Since our début in the late 1990s, Bach's music has been at the heart of Café Zimmermann's repertoire. In our research into the concerted music of Bach or the Sonatas for violin and harpsichord obbligato, we have attached particular importance to discerning, for each movement of a sonata or concerto, what comes close to the archetype of the period, or conversely, ventures off the beaten track. One of the facets of Bach's genius lies precisely in his ability to transform those archetypes, to push back the limits. When tackling a new score, especially a work that has been played or heard often, we ask ourselves various questions. What distinguishes this movement from the hundred of others written during the Baroque period? What, on the other hand, is "normal" for the time, but our habits and our reverence for Bach's music prevent us from seeing it? This fascinating approach has enabled us to savor Bach's genius with renewed admiration, and hopefully to do it justice in due proportion to that admiration."

Petra Müllejans, violinist and co-director Freiburg Barockorchester

"Johann Sebastian Bach is simply the greatest. As a violinist I have been playing his music since my study days. And although I do not perform it everyday, the fact is, that when I take it up again I always wonder how I could have lived even a short time without it.

Just to avoid some misunderstanding here: I do love all kinds of music I am involved with! But Bach is special. Only last week I gave a series of recitals with two of his solo sonatas (plus one Ysaye sonata), and while performing them on stage it occurred to me that this music contains everything you need: compositional accomplishment, a heart-rending intensity, i.e. a unique flow of melody combined with intellectual complexity. And, besides, there are lots of spiritual levels; too, such as religion, science etc. – plus levels of understanding, which perhaps even Bach himself did not deliberately create. Still, they also represent a crucial part of his work.

Preparing his solo sonatas always is the most fulfilling occupation I can think of – apart from giving birth to my children. And if I could travel in time, I would have loved to be one of his daughters, just for one day, to catch a glimpse of the spirit of this overwhelming personality.

I am sure that nobody in the world will ever be able to fully understand all the manifold levels in Bach’s music. Whenever you perform his compositions you can only grasp some aspects of it, and this actually is the fascination his music exerts on me every day."

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