Playing J.S. Bach on a Contemporary Piano

On Sunday, March 9, 2008, AMSF sponsored a presentation by pianist Betty Bullock entitled "Interpreting the Keyboard Music of J.S. Bach on the Modern Day Piano." Ms. Bullock began her presentation by explaining that in the 1950's musicologists who researched Bach's scores began to edit them so that they were truer to the composer's original compositions than were many editions from years past. Ms. Bullock also mentioned several contemporary pianists who are well known and respected for their interpretations of Bach's keyboard music: Rosalyn Tureck, Glenn Gould, Daniel Barenboim, Richard Goode, Angela Hewitt, and Till Fellner.

For AMSF members who play piano works of J.S. Bach, Ms. Bullock suggested they give thought to four primary issues when arriving at their own interpretations: tempo, articulation, ornamentation, and dynamics. As she discussed these topics, Ms. Bullock demonstrated her points by playing excerpts from Bach's keyboard works.

When deciding on tempo, Ms. Bullock urged audience members to consider the harmonic structure of a piece. Music in which harmony changes very little invites a fast tempo, whereas numerous harmonic changes suggest a slower tempo so that the music may be better understood and appreciated by listeners. Other details to notice in deciding on tempo are the variety of note values, the amount of ornamentation, the significance of tonality, the time signature, and the rhythmic vitality of the theme(s).

A pianist has a lot of room to vary his or her touch when playing Bach's keyboard music, and varying touch enables listeners to distinguish themes more clearly. Legato or staccato? Consider the distance of intervals. Scale passages should be legato. Larger intervals may be more detached. In playing bass clef passages, less legato keeps the music from becoming muddy-sounding and is easier to hear. In suites, pianists need to use touch to help capture the character of each individual dance.

In Bach's era, ornaments were used to fill out long notes, as the keyboard instruments of his time could not sustain sound like our present-day pianos. Bach's Table of Ornaments, which he wrote for his son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, may be found in many editions of Bach's works, including Henle editions. When adding ornamentation to a piece you are playing, be consistent in recurring themes. Also realize that today's pianos have a much heavier touch and adjust accordingly. Be flexible; it's fine to leave out indicated ornaments, and it's also O.K. to add extra ones.

When deciding on dynamics and dynamic changes, consider if there is a relation to other forms such as a concerto grosso, a solo aria, a trio sonata, or a broken style imitating the lute. Sometimes Bach indicated the use of terraced dynamics, and when he does so, this marking should be observed. Also consider the height of the melodic line and the spacing between hands.

As a part of Ms. Bullock's presentation, two AMSF members performed works of Bach. Yasunari Ishii played Prelude and Fugue in g minor WTC1, and Richard Smith played the Allemande from French Suite No. 3 in b minor. Ms. Bullock offered suggestions to each. A reception followed Ms. Bullock's presentation.