»It goes without saying that there are concert halls where I particularly enjoy performing. And the Elbphilharmonie is definitely one of these.« A nice compliment – from one of the world’s best pianists! Piotr Anderszewski has already made several appearances at the Elbphilharmonie – both in the Grand Hall and the Recital Hall, solo as well as accompanied by the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra. Now the Polish pianist returns to Hamburg for a recital devoted solely to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. In a live stream he presents his own very personal selection of pieces from the great Baroque composer’s »Well-Tempered Clavier«.
»I assembled the pieces in a subjective sequence,« Anderszewski explains. »Sometimes based on keys, sometimes on contrasts that seem to pull the individual pieces together in irresistible fashion.« He already released this carefully thought-out selection of pieces on CD early in 2021 to considerable critical acclaim: »That once again suits Bach down to a tee,« praised Rondo magazine.
»In Bach’s music there is always a story, an emotional narrative.«
Piotr Anderszewski piano
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, BWV 870–893 (selections)
Uncompromising Standards :Piotr Anderszewski
One of his very first appearances turned into a symbol for his uncompromising standards: shortly before his international breakthrough, Piotr Anderszewski attracted great attention at the important Leeds Piano Competition when he stopped playing during the semi-final and walked off the stage – although he had a very good chance of winning, he was not satisfied with his own interpretation.
The pianist, who has since won international acclaim, has retained this humility and earnestness in his approach to music, and captivates audiences with his personal and sensitive interpretations. The Polish musician has deservedly been showered with prizes, among them the prestigious Gilmore Award and two BBC Music Magazine Awards.
»It’s important to always ask music questions.«
Through all the Keys :Bach’s »Well-Tempered Clavier«
»The Well-Tempered Clavier is the Old Testament, and the Beethoven sonatas are the New Testament; we have to believe in both of them.« Thus the great pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow about Bach’s famous keyboard work. And even Beethoven admitted: »Whenever I got stuck while composing, I looked at the Well-Tempered Clavier, and new ideas came to me without delay.«
The somewhat unwieldy title of Bach’s composition refers to an important musical achievement of his time. Scholars had been trying to agree on how best to define the distances between the notes of the musical scale since classical Greece – in other words, how the individual notes could be tuned to perfection. Early on, it was felt that certain important intervals like a fourth and a fifth ought to sound pure, but this in turn led to unpleasant distortions elsewhere. That meant that instruments only sounded good in certain keys. In the Baroque era, composers started setting all the 12 semitones within an octave in equal distances from one another – this was known as well-tempered tuning or equal temperament, and represents the ideal compromise, as it were: equal temperament sacrifices the perfection of individual intervals, it’s true, but it enables the instrument to be played equally well in all keys.
Filled with fascination about the new possibilities, Bach demonstrated the full potential of this tuning for all the keys in the two volumes of his »Well-Tempered Clavier«. Each volume contains 24 pairs of movements, a prelude and a fugue in each case, covering all the major and minor keys, ascending in steps of a semitone from C major to B minor. Within this strict order, Bach develops an immense variety of expressive forms.
»Let the Well-Tempered Clavier be your daily bread, then you are certain to become a competent musician.«
The E-flat major prelude has a cheerful underlying mood, which can sound like a brisk waltz or a pastoral melody, depending on the choice of tempo (Bach gave no explicit tempo markings). The four-part E-flat major fugue, on the other hand, is a piece with a pronounced cantabile character that one can well imagine being sung by a choir. Here, Bach makes use of a traditional style of composing that goes back to Renaissance music, avoiding dance rhythms and opting for calm and balanced melodies.
The natural flow of the D sharp minor prelude is structured as a two-part invention, i.e. a work that treats a musical idea (invention) by having two parts alternate in imitating one another, passing the melody to and fro between them. The four-part D-sharp minor fugue supplies a stark contrast with its earnest and deeply melancholy air.
The majestic prelude in A-flat major is typical of Bach’s late style, with its cerebral form of a Baroque concerto movement with flowing transitions, while the G-sharp minor prelude already hints at the gallant and sentimental style found in the works of Bach’s sons Carl Philipp Emanuel and Wilhelm Friedemann. This manner of expression continues in the three-part G-sharp minor fugue, which musicologist Hugo Riemann described as being »as nimble as a lizard«. The second volume, and likewise Piotr Anderszewski’s own selection, opens with the C-major prelude in the guise of a large-scale organ work, and the whole set comes to an end with the three-part B minor fugue, whose dance-like character forms a surprisingly light finale.
Text: Mario-Felix Vogt / Julika von Werder, last updated: 6 Apr 2021
Translation: Clive Williams