Sunday, February 24, 2013
J.S. Bach, The Well-Tempered Clavier Book 2, First Mini Recital, Sunday February 3rd 2013, Preludes and Fugues No 1-4
First Mini-Recital Sunday, February 3rd, Preludes and Fugues No 1-4
(All titles are connected with the respective youtube link)
The Prelude in C-major is a grand and festive opening. In the beginning, a pedal point grounds the harmonies - a long note in the left hand that is held through changing harmonies. This is a typical feature of organ pieces, and one could well imagine this piece played on an organ.
The prelude is a free improvisation over progressions of chords, with fragments of melody passing between the voices. They are not independent melodies, though, as in a fugue or invention. The driving force behind this prelude is harmony and the harmonic progression shines through the web of moving voices. The music is full of expectation, like spring, or the first page of a story waiting to unfold.
I once got a Christmas Card, showing a little girl in jeans and rubber boots running across the lawn, her face beaming with enthusiasm, her arms wide open, as if she was ready to embrace life. The writing on the card said “Joy to the World.” Unfortunately, I didn't keep it - it would have been the perfect illustration to go with the Fugue in C-major - full of motion and exuberance, as if the joy that appears contained in the Prelude is suddenly left to run free.
The Fugue has three voices. The subject is characterized by a rhythmically distinct motive that is easy to follow against the passages of running sixteens throughout the piece.
In terms of compositional technique, the Prelude in c-minor is a two-part invention - the melodic ideas are passed back and forth between the two voices. In difference to an invention, the Prelude has two parts, which is a characteristic feature of baroque dances. Some pianists choose a fairly fast tempo for this piece, emphasizing the motion energy of the passage work and the leaps in the accompaniment. I don’t feel this piece has a very outgoing character; the long melody lines that hide in the passage work and the minor key give it something subdued. Harmonic “sunlight” in the form of the relative major E-flat appears briefly at the end of the first part, only to be swallowed up by a cloud in the third measure of the second part.
The descending melody line of the Fugue subject gives it a quiet, solemn character, that becomes even more evident when the augmentation - the subject is twice as slow - appears at the beginning of the development. (For step-by-step listening of the fugue, see lecture in the previous post) It has been my favorite spot in the piece since the first time I heard it, conveying a feeling of a solid foundation. It is one of those pieces in Book 2 that touch the profound, unanswered questions of our existence.
The Prelude is a close relative of the Prelude in No 1 in C-major from Book 1 - interestingly, Bach re-worked an older piece that was written in the key of C-major.
Four voices constitute three layers of sound: soprano and alto share gentle waves of broken chords, the soprano begins with the upward motion, the alto balances it, going down. The tenor provides the pulse with steadily throbbing 8th notes, accompanied by warm and resonant bass pizzicatos, that give each chord its foundation. The piece concludes in a brief, sprightly “surprise fugue” that brings it home to the key of c-sharp major.
The calm and clarity of the first part corresponds with picture showing the reflection of trees in the still water of a pond; it disregards the short “surprise Fugue” at the end of the piece.
The Fugue expresses joy, but it is a different kind of joy than the C-major Fugue. You could imagine the pomp and splendor of a festivity at court, the duke and his following entering in a solemn procession.
Staccato leaps through the C-sharp major triad open the subject, suggesting humor - a friend of mine once said it reminds her of a fat man’s belly laugh, and instead of the giant-soap bubbles in Central Park, NYC, I could also have imagined one of Arcimboldo’s “Fruit People” as an illustration to the music.
It is difficult to determine where the subject ends exactly, the broken triad remains the predominant motive that bounces back and forth between the voices, inversion and strettos (overlapping subject entries) appear already in the course of the exposition. As the Fugue progresses, brilliant passage work forms the counterpoint of the subject, as if to add splendor and fill in the gaps. Choosing a moderate pace in the beginning serves pianists well who hope to survive all the way to the end.
The Prelude in C-sharp minor is a deeply moving lament in three-part writing, that has been compared to the third movement of the Trio Sonata from Bach’s Musical Offering. The melody is shared between the three voices, which conveys the feeling that it goes on forever.
The Prelude is followed by lively fugue, that contrasts the character of the Prelude, as if to break out of the grief. The piece is modeled after a Giga, a quick baroque dance. It is a double fugue, with a second subject that develops from the countersubject - the motive that accompanies the subject in the beginning.
The music has something of a point of departure, it reminds me of currents of water running under the ice before it breaks in the spring.