The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: We need to hear more Bach on the modern piano | June 20, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

There was so much to like and to remember at this weekend’s outstanding concert “Bach of Ages” by the Madison-based Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, which I heard Saturday night in the nearly sold-out performance at The Playhouse of the Overture Center.

As usual, it featured some wonderful wind and string playing by imported and local artists.

But at its heart, it was a piano program – specifically, a two-piano program (below top) with BDDS co-founder Jeffrey Sykes and University of Wisconsin-Madison virtuoso Christopher Taylor (below n bottom, with Taylor on the left), who also received an Avery Fisher career grant and is a bronze medalist of the Van Cliburn competition.

It featured the changing colors of the artistic backdrop installation (below top) by UW textile artist Carolyn Kallenborn (below bottom).

There was also an outlandish and thoroughly enjoyable appearance by the Mystery Guest Artist – aka Karlos Moser, the retired director of the University Opera at the UW – who portrayed old J.S. Bach himself (below), bedecked in wing and period costume, speaking fakische Deutsch and playing his own sort of bluesy, boogie woogyish, rock ‘n rolly ditty about modern music and current stars, complete with rhyming names. His cleverness and complete involvement in the role had the audience roaring with delight.

And at the end of another concert in this 20th anniversary, Bach-themed season for BDDS, was free and very tasty celebratory birthday cake, (baked, The Ear found, by La Brioche).

But for The Ear the big take away of this concert was how wonderful Bach sounds on the modern piano (the main one of which was supplied by Farley’s House of Pianos.)

It’s typical for Bach lovers to cite the need for the harpsichord, the truly authentic period instrument for this kind of early music. And the harpsichord does indeed have its virtues.

But when played well, the modern grand piano — like other modern instruments – can bring a wonderfully long sense of line and rich tone to the music of Bach without losing the textural clarity and polyphony.

And that is exactly what we heard in the second of half of the program, which was devoted to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. The score itself is a kind of keyboard concerto, especially in the first movement with its roiling cadenza.

Taylor was the solo pianist and he played it beautifully. His articulation was crisp and precise. He used the pedal, but ever so judiciously just to sustain a specific note or chord or a line here and there, but never to muddy the sound or texture. It had neither the detached and dry plunkiness you hear in Glenn Gould nor the muddy Romantic fogginess you hear in older over-pedaled historic recordings. It was a great compromise and reminded me of how much I like hearing Bach played on the piano. (Taylor has also performed the Goldberg variations as a kind of specialty, so he really knows his Bach.)

I was especially impressed with the second movement when you could hear the lovely duets he played with the flute and violin.

In short, Bach’s music is just too beautiful and too moving to remain a prisoner of the period instrument movement. We need that kind of “authentic” Bach, to be sure. But we also need to hear Bach on modern instruments, including the piano, especially if the performances are tempered by knowledge of period instruments and practices.

The first half of the program was devoted to a performance of the mid-20th century French composer Olivier Messiaen (below), specifically his “Visions de l’amen.” For one thing, I don’t buy into his seriously Roman Catholic vision of the universe, life and music. For another, I find his kind of music to be heavy on the banging and overstatement as a way to evoke wonder. It reminded me of the way the Pentagon uses the words “shock” and “awe. (True, the stridency of the music was somewhat attenuated by the expressive reading, by Linda Clauder, a retired Wisconsin Public Radio host,  of the Biblical texts accompanying each of the seven sections.) Overall, I find a lot of Messiaen’s music to be a quirky mix of fuzzy Debussy and abstracted Schoenberg. It has moments I like, but overall it just doesn’t move me or speak to me.

What did speak to me was the music’s obvious difficulty of execution and interpretation. While I wasn’t moved, I was certainly impressed by how Taylor and Sykes performed this difficult score live and brought it off with no unsure moments I could discern. I don’t ever expect to hear this music performed live again or on a recording so well – so I am grateful to the unusual program.

And I am also intrigued by the way BDDS is so creative about programming. Separated by 300 years, Bach and Messiaen share some curious traits: Both were deeply religious men whose music is rooted in cosmic religion and personal faith: Bach the German Lutheran and Messiaen the French Catholic. Plus, both men managed to compose in captivity: Bach in jail and Messiaen in a Nazi prisoner of war camp.

But in the end, my votes all go to Bach (below). It is in his music, not Messiaen’s, that I find universality and spirituality as well as beauty  – and more than enough of it to redeem “the sin” of playing Bach on the modern piano.

Earlier this year, Jeremy Denk performed Bach’s Goldbergs at the Wisconsin Union Theater on the piano, and I hear Paul Badura-Skoda do the Partita No. 1 at Farley’s. And now this. It makes me hope we are in for a lot more Bach on the modern piano in the future.

 I also hope we hear Taylor team up with some of his UW faculty colleagues for more Bach – maybe to do the viola da gamba sonatas with Pro Arte Quartet cellist Parry Karp (below left, with Taylor) and the violin sonatas with Pro Arte Quartet violinist David Perry or Felicia Moye. I suspect those would be great performances of great music.

Do you like Bach on the modern piano or other modern instruments?

Why or why not?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music


  1. As a piano teacher (who also plays the piano) I certainly believe in the cause of Bach on the Piano. Where would we be without him? On the other hand, it seems to me that we hear LOTS of Bach on the piano, and much less of his music played on the instruments that he himself played and knew. And much as I love the modern piano, I tend to think that Bach played on our mighty Steinways and Bosendorfers is a bit like a “transcription” that colors the music in a different way from what we experience with the harpsichord, the clavichord and the organ. Even without adding Busoni-isms, Bach on the modern piano is a little like Big Orchestra Bach, a la Stokowsky and others. It isn’t wrong, it isn’t bad, it can be quite beautiful, but the rules are rather different, and the effect is certainly different.

    I would also note that it is as possible to play Bach in an unmusical way on the modern piano as it is to play it quite musically on Bach’s own keyboards. I’ve heard it both ways. Elucidation of structure, articulation, and communicating the emotional character of the piece at hand is, in my humble opinion, so much more important than laying on personal “touches” that draw more attention to the performer than they do to the music. Bach’s music humbles us, and that is as it should be.

    The modern piano is much more serviceable and practical instrument for playing Bach (or other early keyboard music) in big concert halls. On recordings, I enjoy hearing thoughtful playing of his music on a wide range of possible instruments, but I always encourage students to hear and if possible to play Bach (and Scarlatti) on 18th century instruments to help them better understand what is involved in playing the music.
    Thanks for the Blog Jake.

    Comment by Bill Lutes — June 20, 2011 @ 3:02 pm

  2. I felt that the piano drowned out the other instruments. Although I generally prefer a piano over a harpsichord, I would have preferred the harpsichord in this situation.

    John Rinehart

    Comment by John Rinehart — June 20, 2011 @ 7:27 am

    • Hi John,
      There were indeed spots where the piano was a bit too loud, I have to admit, though it sounded fine overall from where I sat.
      I probably would have put the piano lid peg on the lowest setting rather than the highest.
      But then if the piano is too loud, I often find the harpsichord too soft.
      And I prefer the sound and color and clarity of the piano.

      Comment by welltemperedear — June 20, 2011 @ 8:01 am

  3. One of the three pianos is an old Yamaha Clavinova. (Actually, we have four if you include a lovely little toy piano rescued from the Freeport, Maine dump) When friends drop in on our Wednesday music evenings (aka “Noise Nights) they often request Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. I play it using the pipe-organ sounds, accompanied by my husband, Tom, on his drums. I play it correctly with all due respect but Tom’s drums add excitement! I also have enjoyed playing Bach on my accordion. Of course, Bela Fleck does a great job. My favorite recording of the Well-Tempered… on a modern piano is by Keith Jarrett.
    Nan Morrissette

    Comment by Nan Morrissette — June 20, 2011 @ 7:26 am

    • Hi Nan,
      Thanks for the note and the recommendation.
      I like the Keith Jarrett recording a lot, but still think the best Well-Tempered Clavier Book I is by Till Fellner on ECM. Of course, Andras Schiff and Sviatoslav Richter also offer well known versions of the WTC, both books, and lots of other Bach.
      Happy listening.

      Comment by welltemperedear — June 20, 2011 @ 7:59 am

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