Friday, May 29, 2009

This is not a review

Last night Roger Woodward played the first of two Adelaide concerts organised by Recitals Australia. Tomorrow night is Shostakovich; last night was Bach, more precisely The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, which he played from start to finish with a short interval in the middle.

Woodward looked gaunt and appeared to be unhappy -- possibly with the state of the piano, a glittery and gorgeous Bösendorfer that a harried-looking person came out to tinker with in piano-tuner mode during the interval, with (to my ears) some success; certainly Woodward looked happier at the end of the second half than he had at the end of the first.

But the music was an extrordinary thing to be in the same room as. Weirdly I have in my small CD collection some Bach music for flute, for lute and for violin, but no keyboard or choral, the things he's best known for. And I don't think I've heard any Bach live since about 2003 when I was skulking in the back row of the Second Sops in the Adelaide Philharmonia Chorus and we sang some. But I recognised every piece last night and often knew what was coming next, so I must have owned some recording of it in some obsolete technology long ago.

The thing is, you recognise Bach straight away, at least with keyboard music. His music has always been my first example of what I'm talking about when I teach writing classes on style, a shameless pinch from Aldous Huxley in (I think) Eyeless in Gaza where some character talks about style and our recognition of it using Bach as an example. It's something to do with the signature mathematical precision and symmetry with which his subjects and countersubjects, his quavers and his demisemiquavers, his arpeggios and his single notes are arranged around each other; the principles appear to the amateur listener to be essentially those of geometry and algebra.

All of that was audible last night. There was the unrelenting logic of the sort of music that forces you to realise that all music is essentially about maths and physics: the displacements of air that determine the length of soundwaves; the regular fractions of time into which notes are divided and played off against each other, as in one extraordinary piece where what appeared to be happening was that the main melody was being played on the offbeat, like a shadow or an echo of its absent self.

But within that cage of logic, logic's enemies, passion and anarchy, resist its containment. Bach's music -- especially, again, the keyboard music, where the logic of each note is so naked and so clear -- is like a heart beating inside a ribcage, or like the idea of a perfectly regular and abstract triangle that has become a red canvas sail on a blue horizon, swelling into three dimensions with a beautiful pregnant roundedness, filled with moving air, the breath of life. Shapes with souls.


Armagnac Esq. said...

Bach really nailed the 'rules' I think. After Bach, the challenge was to apply them with sophistication, then, in time, to break and bend them. But he perfected the welding of those relationships...

Also, like the Beatles with pop, by writing Air on a G String, an absolutely perfect piece of music, he left everyone after with the challenge of coming up with that bit of extra. IMHO.

Stephanie Trigg said...

Hmm. Would you believe I'm listening to his St Matthew Passion as I read this?

That's a lovely description, and especially true of works for keyboard: great for listening to when writing, I find, as it gives the illusion, at least, of encouraging both clarity and fluency.

WV: palitaph, what you get when you scratch out an epitaph and carve something else onto the headstone?

fifi said...

oh my GOD that description was mesmerising!

The logic of Bach meant that it was the only music I could ever really cope with, yet under my humble fingers I transformed it into very abstract shapes. Tempo Rubato...

but I was Very Enthusiastic.

Anthony said...

"But the music was an extraordinary thing to be in the same room as"

That's also good: Yiddish? (I'm thinking of the 'what's not to like' construction)

Anonymous said...

Isn't that the amazing thing about Bach?

There's all that intellectual rigour about the craft of making music, and the fact that he got to the guts of explicating the formal rules.

But it's not music that makes you feel good just because it was done right. Bach also understood how to impart great emotional power to sound. I know that I can be in the midst of enjoying the contrapuntal complexities of a piece when a slight change of pitch, or a brief oblique reference to an earlier theme, can somehow be so poignant or so joyous that the experience is almost overwhelming.

Is Roger W doing the Shostakovich Preludes & Fugues Op 87? The set of pieces he wrote for Tatiana Nikolayeva after hearing her play Bach's WTC? Its an intriguing contrast. Unlike the Bach, the Shostakovich is quirky and idiosyncratic. He seems to have set out to show that one could flaunt the formal rules and still attain similar emotional ends.

Helen said...