Johann Sebastian BACH
The Well-Tempered Clavier - Book Two
Robert Levin (organ/harpsichord/clavichord/fortepiano)
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC CD 92.117. (2 CDs) (DDD) ( 135.59)
Over two hours of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues in one
go is some task for anyone to have to listen to. Perhaps this is why
Robert Levin alternates between four instruments.
He is a very fine player and among his teachers was
that exemplary master of modern music, Stefan Wolpe. Levin is an international
figure of deserved repute. No less a figure that Rudolf Serkin invited
him to teach at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia He is
an individual usually improvising his own cadenzas in concertos saying
that that would have been what the composer would have done. His performances
of Mozart and Beethoven caused a stir and, sadly, he has, or had become
so involved with the irritating school of authenticity.
As I have said in another review, ornaments were important
to the baroque composer. Quite frankly it was laziness to simply write
a trill or a mordant sign instead of writing out the notes. Even today
students taking theory examinations with the Associated Board and Trinity
and other such places have to deal with these blessed ornaments. For
example, grade 7 with the Associated Board sets an exercise giving a
piece of music by an early composer minus all the ornament directions
and asking the student to write it out fully putting in all the notes
of unspecified ornaments as the composer would have done. How utterly
ridiculous! And when the student has done this who is to say he is wrong?
How can you mark an exercise which is mere speculation?
One advanced student of mine was criticised for the
ornaments she used in playing a piece by Handel. The examiner wrote
on the mark sheet, "Handel would not have played it like this!"
How did she know? Is she a Rosemary Brown figure who is in touch with
the spirit of the dead composer who dictates his wishes to her from
beyond the grave? Students are supposed to know all about ornaments
and yet the same examinations do not cover more modern styles of composition
and musical grammar. As far as I know students are not given exercises
in serialism and yet they are expected to know and understand figured
bass - another downright lazy device of baroque composers. Everything
in music academically is largely in favour of early music and tonal
predictabilities of each age. Nothing about modern techniques. This
I saw an allegedly well-respected musician write in
a musical journal recently, "No music of any worth has been written
since 1934, the year that both Elgar and Holst died." Another wrote,
"Anything that is not written in a key is not music at all."
The prejudice against music of the last 60 years is a disgrace.
And it is the opinion of some that this hateful prejudice
has caused the desire for baroque authenticity and the rise of champions
of this fashion (or do I mean fad?). Early music has become so slow
so stilted and so damn correct that the spirit is lost as well as the
excitement. Early music played in a dull way will kill it. Music must
always be played with life and vitality. Music is not prodding a corpse.
Robert Levin plays with energy and verve. The items
played on the organ sound best with a taste of majesty and, of course,
far more colour. But even he cannot resist slowing down at the end of
movements. Are we to play Bach or the player? These early composers
left few directions as to how the pieces should be played and, therefore,
did not authorise rallentandos at the end of movements.
But are these preludes and fugues just exercises as
were the Scarlatti sonatas? Are they merely academic? Some years ago
I conducted some research and found that the majority said that the
Bach preludes and fugues were better to play than to listen to. The
ratio was 12 to 1. And is it true that Vivaldi wrote the same concerto
eight hundred times? Is it true that all the 48 Preludes and Fugues
of the Well-tempered Clavier, books one and two, are much of a muchness?
It is how we see these pieces that governs to some extent how we review
them and assess the performances. And opinion is divided as to the purpose
of these pieces. Much as I admire Bach I cannot maintain interest in
this enormous undertaking. For students and those having to play any
of these pieces for any examination I can and do recommend these performances.