Wednesday, February 27, 2013

J.S. Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier Book 2, Second Mini-Recital, Sunday February 17, 2013, Preludes and Fugues No 5-8

Preludes and Fugues no 5-8
All titles are connected with the link to the youtube recording

The lively, festive D-major Prelude is all you need to mobilize a little extra energy on a gray day. Interestingly, I never liked this piece until I started to practice it - but ever since, it has become one of my favorites.

A trumpet fanfare, a rising melody made up of broken triads opens the Prelude. It’s like opening the shutters in the morning, and the sun pours in. The triads cascade up and down throughout the entire piece, together with “16th note ripple” that opens the piece. An idea for the pianist - even though those ripples form a 5 note pattern, 1-2-3-4-5 may not be the best choice of fingering. The figure becomes much more even if you use 1-2-3-1-2, together with a slight rotation. The Prelude is extensive, an entire concerto on the idea that opens the piece. 

The time signature, 12/8, combined with the alla breve sign, is fairly unusual. The broken triads suggest triplets, a feeling of 3, as in a dance. At the same time, you can feel the larger unit of 2 in each measure, like a steady and solemn pacing. I’m particularly taken by the spots where regular 8th notes break the feeling of the triplets in the second part of the theme ( M2) - Rosalyn Tureck plays a dotted rhythm here, but I think that robs the piece of an interesting rhythmic effect.

If we neglect the fact that Bach does not bring in a second subject, this piece has the form of a Sonata-Allegro that we find in so many classical Sonatas. The first part, which  - up to the double bar at the end of M16 - is the exposition, followed by a development section M 17-40 that leads to the recapitulation in M 41. 

I like to take the repeats of both parts, as Bach suggests - it makes for a long piece, but , as they say, “too much of a good thing is wonderful.”

The very long Prelude is followed by a very short Fugue.  The trumpets begin the subject with three repeated notes that give it a vital energy. Then the melody descends, and with that descent, it seems to mellow. In all, the subject covers the scope of an entire octave. 

In his guide through the Well-Tempered Clavier, Hermann Keller recommends not to split the subject into two parts by playing each motive with a different character. I have to confess that that’s exactly what I do, though, because I feel the music that way. 

Interestingly, Bach increasingly splits the two motives of the subject in the course of the composition, using the second part for extensions and episodes. This results in sections that feel more mellow, a balance to the fanfare at the beginning of the subject. The fanfare is so predominant throughout that it’s hard to miss, even if you’re not following the music. Bach makes extensive use of strettos (overlapping subject entrances), trumpets seem to be sounding from different places all around.

At first, I played the Fugue fairly slow and solemn, like a hymn, but then I liked my teacher’s idea of staying with the upbeat, energetic, attitude that characterizes the Prelude. This approach holds the two pieces together - and apart from that, not all hymns are slow.

The first sketches of this piece go all the way back to Bach’s youth . The perpetual motion of scale passages and broken chords, convey energy, brilliance and determination. It is like a virtuosic improvisation, without adventurous modulations to distant keys. 

The subject reverses the direction of the scale that cascades downward at the beginning of the Prelude. There is some motion in the 16th triplets, but the ascent feels difficult and labored. Immediately after reaching the peak, measured half steps lead back down, like sighs over the effort, it’s all too much.

A countersubject in calmly flowing 16th appears, as if trying to calm down the restless 16th triplets. The tension between the agitation of the triplets and the calmly flowing 16ths, which I find particularly engaging, persists throughout the entire piece.

This charming piece could have been written for a Lute. Its exposed melody lines and transparent texture require the pianist to shape every note; any unevenness will be noticed.

The Fugue has an outgoing, triumphant character, somewhat similar to the Fugue in D-major. The subject is a catchy tune, easy to follow throughout the piece. There are no inversions or rhythmic alterations. In the course of the development, Bach uses strettos twice.

Once again, I don’t agree with Hermann Keller, who calls this Prelude “sachlich” matter-of-fact, realistic, unemotional. I find that there is something slightly haunting, uncanny about the character of this two- part invention, which inspired me to choose the photo of a twilight sky to go with it. Andras Schiff brought out that atmosphere beautifully in his concert at the 92d Street Y, he played the piece like a fleeting shadow.
Formally, the piece follows the plans of a preclassical sonata. It has two parts, which can be repeated. The first part, the exposition has one subject only. It is followed by a development section and a shortened recapitulation. When the subject appears in F-sharp major and A-sharp minor at the end of the exposition Bach begins to add figuration in 32nd notes. At beginning of the development, these figurations expand into an ear-catching, unruly independent motive that accompanies the subject consistently to the end of the piece.

This is a very pleading, pained and puzzling piece, harmonically adventurous, as if the composer was trying to find new ways, but always comes back to the same question. 

After the counter exposition, Bach uses the technique of stretto (overlapping subject entrances) to increase intensity. Shortly afterwards, (M30) the subject appears in major, accompanied by a flowing bass line that conveys a sense of relief. The following subject entrance, however, brings the piece back to minor, confirming the serious, somber atmosphere. Soprano, Alto and Tenor join together for a gentle trio that conveys a feeling of comfort, before the next subject entrance of the bass. It is almost like a solo, to which Soprano, Alto and Tenor respond with chords that fill the space of the long note.  It’s like an outcry - or a confirmation? At the end, we hear the subject in the soprano, accompanied by free counterpoint in the other voices, and ending in a surprising major chord - suggesting that there may be a way out, after all ?

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