Friday, December 14, 2012

Personal vs. Vocal

The NYTimes critic reviewing Anderszewski's Dec. 6 performance gave it high praise noting, among other qualities, that his Bach was "personal."

I think I know what she was referring to, but I would have preferred "vocal."   The difference is that personal connotes idiosyncratic, self-indulgent, while vocal in relation to Bach describes a rich understanding of Bach's music for all instruments.

Vocal art was arguably the most highly developed musical art of the Baroque era.  The essence of great vocal composition lies in astute knowledge of the human voice, its registers, timbres, and specific intonation.  Instrument building of that time was spurred by the desire to evoke human vocal qualities with strings, winds, organs.  Bach died in 1750; the piano was invented in 1727.  Its astonishing vocal characteristics might have inspired a new approach to keyboard composition had Bach had a piano at his disposal.

It was Haydn who picked up on the vocal qualities of the instrument, using them as source material for many of his piano sonatas and chamber music

It was masterful of Anderszewski to find the vocal qualities in every movement he played, making it sound as if Bach had composed for the modern piano.  Most modern pianists are tempted to neutralize the vocal colors of the instrument for Bach, turning his music into a neither-here-nor-there abstraction. 

Having studied a great deal of Bach on the organ for the critical early adult years when I had "given up" the piano, I have found it problematic to play his work on the piano.  That began to change last summer, when I performed the Two- and Three-part Inventions in a series called Classics of Childhood.  Anderszewski's brilliant work inspires further exploration on my part.