A Pianist’s A–Z: A Piano Lover’s Reader, Alfred Brendel, Beethoven, cantata, chorale prelude, clavichord, coloratura, concerto, counterpoint, Faber & Faber Ltd, Fantasia in A minor, fantasy, fugue, Goldberg Variations, Handel, harpsichord, Mozart, opera, oratorio, partita, piano, polyphony, Schubert, suite, toccata, tone color, transcription
When Beethoven, talking about Bach, exclaimed that to do him justice, the master’s name should not have been Bach (brook) but Meer (the sea), his remark was relevant not only to the surpassing abundance and diversity of more than a thousand compositions but also to the creative power that had come together in this supreme exponent of the most widely extended family of professional musicians ever. I see Johann Sebastian Bach as the grand master of music for all keyboard instruments: the initiator of the piano concerto, the creator of the Goldberg Variations (BWV 988), the master of the solo suite and partita, of chorale preludes, fugues, and cantatas.
When, in the postwar years, Bach’s piano works were assigned exclusively to the harpsichord or clavichord, young pianists were deprived of the main source of polyphonic playing. To most of us, the assumption that Bach doesn’t fit with the modern piano is an outmoded viewpoint. On present-day instruments one can individualize each voice and give plasticity to the contrapuntal progress of a fugue. The playing can be orchestral, atmospheric, and colorful, and the piano can sing. To curtail in such a way a composer who himself had been one of the most resolute transcribers of works by himself and others might seem misguided even to practitioners of “historical performance.”
Alongside the boundless wealth of Bachian counterpoint the free-roaming creator of fantasies and toccatas must not be forgotten. In the spectacular Fantasia in A minor (BWV 922), to give just one example, no bar reveals where the next one will go.
Since the second half of the twentieth century something miraculous has happened: the complementary figure of George Frederic Handel has reemerged. The opportunity to familiarize myself with a multitude of Handel’s works has been, for me, one of the greatest gifts. The drama of his operas and oratorios, his vocal invention (by no means inferior to Mozart’s or Schubert’s), the fire of his coloratura, and his characteristic clarity and generosity now make him stand beside the figure of Bach as comparable in stature.