Edwin Fischer and Rosalyn Tureck play Bach

All jazz pianists play some Bach. We always have. The wonderful Evan Shinners is in residence all month at his Bach Store and asked me to guest. On Thursday July 11 (tomorrow) at 6:15 I will be playing a mini-set of Bach (Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, F minor suite BWV 823, Fantasy on a Rondo BWV 918) and a few jazz originals.

It is sometimes said that Glenn Gould “invented” Bach for the modern piano. It’s not true, of course. Two of the most interesting and influential 20th century Bach pianists before Gould were Edwin Fischer and Rosalyn Tureck.

Fischer (1886 – 1960) recorded the the first complete traversal of Well-Tempered Clavier from 1933 to 1936. Despite its age this is still an enjoyable listen, especially in the grand or delicate slow movements.

Fischer’s 1924 edition of the Three-part Inventions name-checks both Busoni and Reger, two other European musicians from the early 20th-century seriously impressed with counterpoint. Fischer advises the student:

You should study (sing) every individual voice (the middle voice too, notwithstanding its division between the two hands), and think with pleasure of those bygone times when empty “filling-voices” were unknown, and every voice had its own melodic life.

It’s a fun stance to have, but many of Fischer’s best records are full of “filling-voices.” His Schubert song accompaniments for Elizabeth Schwarzkopf are wonderful and his last record of Brahms with Gioconda de Vito is an important document. Not a big technician, Fischer was nonetheless a favored soloist of Wilhelm Furtwängler, and their lo-fi collaboration in Furtwängler’s own vast concerto is intriguing, all Berlin gloom and doom.

Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue is a very important piece in the repertoire but also a bit of an odd duck. It’s not “normal” Bach; rather, it’s a improvisatory toccata followed by a large fugue. Perhaps more than any other Bach work, this piece looks forward to 19th century pomp. Mendelssohn played it during his great Bach revival, Liszt admired it, both composers put scraps of it in their own pieces. Many famous editors published a romantic interpretation: the first time I tried to sight-read the Chromatic Fantasy as a kid it was in Von Bülow’s overblown expansion. If the Italian Concerto was the “Bach piano sonata” of that era, then the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue was the “dramatic and dark piano fantasy actually written by Bach (as compared to an organ transcription).”

The Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue is still frequently programmed today but there’s usually a hint of playing to the gallery in the presentation.  The Fantasia remains delightfully fresh while the fugue has a few rather uninspired passages. (I doubt Busoni or Reger would have pointed to this fugue as one with exemplary counterpoint.) Still, it’s the only straight fugue of Bach where a pianist can pound out two bars of left hand octaves in the end. The piece will be successful no matter what; even a student performance is exciting.

Fischer’s recording of the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue is famous. After auditioning a bevy of other pianists in the last week, I still think his is the best I’ve heard. Fischer is a 19th century musician in love with the lore of Bach and doesn’t need any modern scholarship to build a cathedral of sound. His chops are just up to the task (the Fantasia is easier than it sounds) and the fugal reinforcements in the bass sing bold.

I told Evan Shinners I would play at his Bach Store if he picked some of the repertoire. He suggested the F minor suite BWV 823. What the hell? I thought I knew all the Bach solo works but this piece had never been on my radar. Some of the obscure pieces are justly obscure but BWV 823 is a gem, although definitely unfinished. Not only are the movements incomplete (only three exist) but some of the voice leading in the Sarabande seems incorrect.

When looking for a recording I came across Rosalyn Tureck’s and was immediately impressed. In a few notes she establishes a rarified atmosphere and makes a case for the F minor suite to be played on piano recitals everywhere.

Tureck (1913 – 2003) is now considered one of the most important 20th-century classical instrumentalists born in America. She was famous for her dedication to Bach — Glenn Gould claimed her as “his only influence” — but early on Tureck trained with Leon Theremin (she played a theremin at Carnegie Hall) and worked with modernist composers David Diamond, Luigi Dallapiccola, and William Schuman.

I have valued my CD of Tureck playing Diamond, Dallapiccola, and Schuman for years but somehow I have never really liked her Bach. Her interpretations seemed slow and didactic, with downbeats accented in a rather unswinging fashion. It was rather a relief to come across a Tureck Bach performance that I could love from first contact.

The Tureck BWV 823 can be purchased on Columbia record filled out with Tureck playing student Bach: easy Minuets, Marches, Gavottes and the like, and is now packaged as a double CD with Charles Rosen’s Art of the Fugue (another excellent performance). The whole Tureck recital is delightful and unquestionably swinging. She even pats her foot a bit in the F minor Gigue. I may have found my way in to appreciating the rest of the vast Tureck/Bach discography.

There’s a certain tradition of great pianists changing the score in Bach. Fischer does whatever the hell he wants with the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, that’s a given. It’s more surprising that Tureck ruthlessly discards Bach’s rhythmic notation for the gigue of the F minor suite. Rather than playing it dotted as written, she evens it out. After experimenting, I can see why she does this, the narrative flow is better.

Tureck published various editions of Bach, including three books of An Introduction to the Performance of Bach in 1960. From the introduction:

As long as one remains human there will remain nuances of all sorts, and as long as music remains an art and not a mechanical reproduction, there will always be more than one possibility in details of phrasing, dynamics, tempi, etc., and sometimes possibilities of marked difference in conception, all of them good.

The F minor suite is included in the third volume, and the gigue is dotted there (as it is in every other edition I’ve found). Tureck’s Columbia record is from 1980, so in the intervening 20 years she must have discovered this rhythmic variant and kept it. (I haven’t been able to listen to her first recording of “easy Bach” for EMI from 1960 yet.)

Gigues are notoriously difficult rhythmically. Indeed, all the dances are a bit of a mystery: It would be so helpful to hear Mr. Bach play though one of his suites, for there’s a good chance we have been doing everything wrong for centuries. Still, the gigues are especially confusing. Tureck has a lovely story in David Dubal’s Reflections from the Keyboard:

I remember in my early years, the gigue from the E minor Partita worried me very much. As you know, it’s a most unusual gigue with a very strong character. At the time I was studying with Arnold Schoenberg and I asked him what he thought about it, its characterization and tempo. He looked at it and sang the opening phrase, and I instantly knew I had it. Since I couldn’t ask Bach, I asked Schoenberg; and I’ve always managed in this way.

Shinners also assigned me Fantasy on a Rondo, BWV 918. This is a near miss for Bach.  BWV 918 begins well but goes on and on in two part counterpoint. The master is working out how far he can modulate using self-similar material: Probably he wrote it at top speed, stuck it in a drawer, and forgot about it. BWV 918 is never included in piano recitals and I didn’t find a recording that I found particularly inspiring, especially on piano (honestly, this style of composition works much better on harpsichord). However, I did play it as a kid, so it’s not hard for me to relearn the notes. H’mm. Perhaps there’s room for me to add a bit more of myself to this lesser work? Come by the Bach Store tomorrow and find out…