Switched On: Arandel: InBach Vol.2 (InFiné)


reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

The second instalment of Arandel’s InBach project comes just a year after the first. The French producer, who chooses to remain anonymous for now, has been discovering a wide range of raw material beyond last year’s reinterpretations, and has enjoyed the new perspectives offered by live performance of the first album material.

Now the music takes on more spoken word contributions, as well as using rare instruments recorded at the Musée de la Musique in Paris. The record also features Ondes Martenot player Thomas Bloch and the cello of label mate Gaspar Claus.

What’s the music like?

Extremely varied. Arandel has an orchestral mind, which means he can approach music from many different directions. The stripped-back woodwind of Invention 5, for instance, builds from almost nothing to a full, symphonic climax with electronic choral voices, showing how the French producer ‘gets’ Bach’s increase in intensity.

Concerto for No Keyboard, on the other hand retreats to the lower end of the spectrum and applies the sort of electronic squiggles you would expect to hear from Wendy Carlos – whose Switched On Bach was a big influence on Arandel’s working.

The starry-eyed Doxa Notes is a beautiful way to start the album, and develops into a lush palette of electronics, with a spoken word top from Myra Davies. It is a reinterpretation of Aux Vaisseaux, itself based on Bach’s 14 Canons on The Goldberg Ground, BWV 1087.

Spoken word is an important component of this album and Nos Contours is an even better vocal number. Developed from Bodyline, a track on the first album, it features bubbling electronics under Ornette’s low but steady vocal, both bending under the weight of increased percussion towards the end.

Arandel’s handling of Bach’s original material is always respectful but is more than happy to take risks. Capriccio is otherworldly but in a good way, a reworking of Bach’s Capriccio on the departure of a beloved brother which is in fact a memorial to Arandel’s own brother. Its spectral voicing is almost overrun by a large electronic choir, but is in fact swept up by its power.

Praeludium takes a dubby, four to the floor beat and pushes resolutely onwards, while the autotune of Fabula’s vocal over Bach’s Meine Seele Warter Auf Den Herrn will be more divisive, but it is nothing if not effective.

Confirmation of Arandel’s more adventurous approach can be found in Octobre, a pleasingly unconventional take on the famous Air. Luxurious in its Hamlet cigar promotion, this music is stripped back to a chamber organ and oboe sound here, together with well chosen atmospherics and a time-taken voiceover from the producer’s nephew, with a dreamlike story of an ominous gang of children.

Finally Myriade provides a soothing and rather moving close, with another voiceover – from no less than Bridget St.John – complementing the slow-moving, majestic harmonies.

Does it all work?

Yes. Some of the interpretations are more divisive than others, but this is a good thing, as Arandel is showing a wide range of possibilities when working with Bach’s music. When it comes to electronic music his is surely the most flexible of original material with which to work, and the fact it can be reproduced more or less faithfully says a lot about its staying power.

Is it recommended?

Yes. An essential purchase for those familiar with Arandel’s way of working, InBach Vol.2 suggests that the ideas are only just getting going rather than drying up! These powers of invention and imagination will surely serve the producer well as he moves on to even more ambitious things.



Playlist – Clare Hammond

It is with great pleasure that we welcome pianist Clare Hammond to the Arcana playlist section.

Clare has just released a new solo album, Variations. It is a typically thoughtful and inventive program of works from the 20th and 21st-centuries, ranging from  Adams to Birtwistle, Copland to Gubaidulina.

We invited Clare to complement her new album with a selection of her own favourite sets of variations, and she has obliged with some new discoveries. We begin with one of the greatest of all, the towering Passacaglia for organ by Bach, via Leopold Stokowski‘s colourful orchestration. Then we downsize for Louise Farrenc‘s Variations concertantes sur mélodie suisse, for violin and piano, before we hear from George Walker, the first African American to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Music, and only recently getting more exposure as a composer. Polish composer Grażyna Bacewicz, with her Theme with Variations, offers a strong contrast to the Farrenc, again for violin and piano.

A Decca recording from 1993 follows, an early bit of recognition for the craft of Coleridge-Taylor and his substantial Variations on an African Air for orchestra. We go to piano for Lili Boulanger‘s typically concise and expressive contribution, before the wonderfully humourous, wacky and brilliant Variations on America by Charles Ives, in the orchestration by William Schuman.

Make sure you have a listen to this as well as Clare’s album, to be reviewed on Arcana soon. Our grateful thanks to her for an invigorating hour of music:

You can read more about Clare Hammond’s Variations album on the BIS website, and to hear clips and purchase from Presto Classical, click here

Talking Heads: Beethoven 250 – Angela Hewitt

interview by Ben Hogwood

When Arcana spoke with Angela Hewitt, we were just a few weeks into lockdown. Since then, she has been able to complete her recorded cycle of all 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas for Hyperion, concluding with two of the titans – the Hammerklavier, Op.106, and the final sonata, Op.111, both of which are due for release next year. She gave generously of her time so that we could discuss Beethoven’s works for piano.

For her recordings, Angela wrote all the notes accompanying the sonatas. “I put a lot of time and effort into those”, she says. “I enjoy it, and it’s important for me to know all those things, and there are so many interesting details. I try to make them notes that everyone can read, so that they’re not too technical. With so many notes that you read they can be boring, and you have no idea what people are talking about. I like to situate it within the life of the composer, what’s going on and how the music relates to it.”

The Hyperion cycle was carefully planned, placing a well-known sonata such as the Moonlight alongside others equally deserving, to give them more exposure. “I did that for two reasons”, she says. “One was because I thought it was more interesting than doing the groups together, like the three Op.10s or the three Op.31s and the last three, like everybody else has done, and because when I started the project there were some sonatas I had to learn. In the earlier records I put the ones I had played a lot, in my youth or up until then anyway. That’s partly why it worked out that way, but each record makes for a very interesting recital.”

When recording a new set of sonatas, does the pianist have to some extent ignore the recorded history around the pieces, and go with what they feel themselves musically? “Yes – very, very, very much so!” she says emphatically. “Especially with the famous sonatas but also with the others, there is so much taken for granted ‘because that’s how it goes’. When you look at the score it’s not at all how it goes, and not at all what Beethoven wrote. There are so many examples you could take, but one that comes to mind is the beginning of Op.10/3, with absolutely no crescendo before you get up to the ‘A’. That’s just one tiny thing, you really have to look at the score. I really enjoyed that aspect of it, and I am also determined to learn the Hammerklavier without going to listen to how every Tom, Dick or Harry plays it, because actually I don’t know the piece that well. It will be rather exciting to learn such a piece just looking at the score and learning it from what Beethoven left us.”

She was influenced in this way of thinking by other performances she had seen. “When I heard the early music people like Roger Norrington, and his Beethoven cycle back in 1987-88 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, I remember all those concerts vividly to this day. It completely changed my way of looking at Beethoven. Up until then of course I enjoyed it, but I didn’t quite get it. You hear a lot of the interpretations, and I was living in France up until 1985, and people used to say ‘Oh, C’est Olympien’ – it’s Olympian when anybody played it, you know, and I just thought it was incredibly boring!”

The orchestral concerts turned Hewitt’s thinking around. “I never really got it, but then I heard Norrington and John Eliot Gardiner do it and I thought ‘Wow, that’s what it’s about!’, with the excitement in it and not dragging those slow tempos. It was just an eyeopener and I remember going home after those concerts, going to the Beethoven sonatas that I already played, and applying that and thinking, ‘Now I realise what I have to do here. Not just with Beethoven but Mozart as well, but Beethoven especially. That was a huge stimulus to me and one where I took the best of what I heard and applied it to how I felt. It really gave me a different way of looking at them.”

I share my own experiences of ‘getting’ a composer, which can often begin with a quest to try and understand the music, waiting for the penny to drop. “I also think it’s very important when you approach Beethoven to go from Baroque training rather than when you go back to him from being a Romantic pianist specialising in Chopin, Liszt or Rachmaninov. That’s totally the wrong direction. When you look at his music as coming out of the Baroque and early Classical it completely makes sense. You have all the training in counterpoint and harmony, and his own love of Bach, having played The Well Tempered Clavier. When you look at his music horizontally like that and clean it up, you pay attention to articulation and get the fingering to match that. Beethoven was the first to use the pedal, and use it to great effect, but not just to apply it systematically. If you get that right it really makes a big difference.”

We agree about the importance of silence in Beethoven’s music, too. “You hear that in Op.7, in that slow movement – that’s one of the best examples of how expressive a silence could be. My music teacher said he was very good at that, and used to circle the rests on the score as expressive, you know? That’s something that is very hard to teach, because either a student feels it or they don’t, really. You can fill that silence with expression but it’s not an easy thing to do unless you feel it. Beethoven was a master of that, and yes, that Op.7 is a beautiful example.”

She notes the physical demands of playing Beethoven’s music. “After Bach I find him the most demanding of composers. People might say that Beethoven wrote stuff that is a lot more technically demanding than Bach, but in Bach you cannot cheat and it demands so much musical intelligence. You have to put everything in there yourself, you know. Bach is the hardest to bring off really well I think, but the problem with Beethoven is that the more you give to it the more you get back, the more you see what’s there and the more difficult it becomes, in a way! It’s quite easy to bash your way through the Pathétique sonata, but if you really want to play it well then that takes an incredible amount of work.”

Hewitt often pairs the two composers in concert. “Often, I will give Bach / Beethoven recitals, with a substantial Bach partita or suite in each half along with a Beethoven sonata. Those are always incredibly exhausting and demanding programmes, probably much more than people realise. I worked hard at the Beethoven Waldstein sonata and came to it quite late, because when I was young, I couldn’t stand everybody banging away at it, it just sounded so dreadful! When I got to it just a few years ago I could see what was in it and really enjoyed playing it. I don’t think it’s his greatest sonata but it is a wonderful performance piece when you can bring it off. If you look at every detail in it then it and want to play it well it is very difficult. I do find he is extremely demanding on the interpretative level but on many levels, not just technically to manage the notes which is often hard enough, but to make sense of it and find the right mood and colour.”

Does she get the sense of the enormous amount of Beethoven’s personality is in the music? “Of course. It’s totally different from Bach. Of course Bach’s personality is there, and there is great joy in his sense of the dance which is in every note he wrote. Beethoven really, when you play all the sonatas you realise what a personal document it is, what a personal confession. They tell of his whole life, because they start in his early years and go almost right to the end. What I wanted to say about that too is that the more you open up yourself playing Beethoven, and I almost mean physically when you’re playing, you have to think that you’re opening up your body and letting it in. The more you do that the more you see the incredible immensity of what he was saying, and also I think the diversity. He wrote music of such great tenderness too. We think of Beethoven as being ‘crash bang wallop’ most of the time, which he is at times, and you take something like the Emperor concerto where he is both. You take the piano writing after those opening flourishes, it’s marked dolce – which is gentle – which a lot of people don’t really do. A lot of that concerto is marked pianissimo as well, even in the brilliant movements. He had an immense tenderness, and the opening of the fourth concerto is an obvious example. Sometimes I think that’s lacking in interpretation.”

We share a great love of the three sonatas Op.31. “They are all fantastic, aren’t they? I learnt the Op.31/3 first, and recorded it some time ago, in about 1988. It’s a wonderful piece, the Hunt. I must play that piece again, once I’ve learned the Hammerklavier I will go back and play the ones I haven’t played for a while. Then there is the Tempest, which I left until the year before I recorded it. I adore that piece, it is one of my favourites to perform, and the slow movement is so gorgeous. It’s unique among the sonatas, it is very declamatory, and it speaks in a different way to the others. Who knows about the title, but it does have something very special about it. Then the G major, which I never understood when I was young. I looked at this thing and thought, ‘What the hell is that’, you know?! Then after doing some work now I understand it. A musician friend asked me the other day to learn that slow movement again, so I could play it again. It’s very operatic and very, very difficult to do. It has to be very poised, and you have to be the orchestra too! That’s another thing in Beethoven – that you have to be not just the pianist but a really good conductor and orchestra too, because so much of this music you can hear the orchestra in it. I tell students that in masterclasses, I get them to play and then conduct, to sort out the timing. You have to be a pianist, a conductor, a singer, an orchestral player even!”

Hewitt has also recorded the sonatas for piano and cello, with Daniel Müller-Schott as her partner. “They are fantastic pieces too. The A major, Op.69, I played when I was living in Paris in my early twenties, with chums at the conservatoire. It is the most wonderful piece. I’m making my way through the violin sonatas as well; I’ve done four or five. I want to finish those eventually; I think it’s good for pianists to know those works as well.”

Of the Beethoven works that don’t feature the piano, Hewitt has her favourites. “The symphonies I adore, they are all fantastic. The Second Symphony has always been a favourite. There is some surprising stuff in the songs. I’ve done many of them, in the last year at my festival, and accompanied Anne Sofie von Otter and Anu Komsi. There is some amazing stuff in the songs. I found out the other day when I was writing the booklet notes for my variations disc on Hyperion that there are some 150 folksong arrangements, even Auld Lang Syne! I didn’t realise that.”

Her disc of the Variations was released on Hyperion in September, and she is keen to expand on the pieces. “Everyone talks about the Diabelli Variations, but the Eroica Variations has been one of my big pieces since 1990, when I first played it at the Beethoven festival in San Francisco. I also did the Piano Concerto no.4 with Sir Roger Norrington that year. The Eroica Variations are on the new disc, and there are some of the variations that are very amusing, too. I did the God Save The King and Rule Britannia ones as well, which were a hoot, and I did two Paisiello ones which were easy but charming, pieces that pianists can really work on and improve their way of playing. I also did the beautiful Variations in F major Op.34 which I did as a teenager. It’s great to capture the character of each variation and then to make a whole out of it. It’s a very important work and shouldn’t be put aside as a piece of lesser importance. It’s important to know how to play the variation sets well.”

The C minor variations, from my own concert experience, can be eye-popping too. “They are terrific really, and of course it’s a Baroque theme, with a chaconne rhythm and everything. When Beethoven heard them live, he said, ‘Who wrote that?’, and someone said, ‘You did!’, and he said, ‘What an ass I was in those days’, or something like that! It’s a terrific piece and makes a great impression. What an imagination he had, and what a sense of overall architecture. That is a really important thing when you are playing Beethoven, you need this sense of overall architecture, of where you’re going. It’s not enough just to play the notes well, you have to make a shape out of the whole thing. You see that especially in the later sonatas but also in the early ones. It was an interesting experience for me learning the Op.111 sonata last year. Like the Waldstein sonata it was a piece I had heard a lot in competitions as a kid, and I thought I never wanted to play it. Now of course I have had incredibly moving experiences playing it. I’ve only played it twice live, once as part of my festival in the beautiful church in Perugia. In something like the second movement variations you really have to find an overall shape, and in Op.109 too, which is very difficult to bring off. I found that very hard.”

She learned the shorter Bagatelles much earlier in life, “when I was a kid, at my first recital when I was nine! There is a Rondo in G major too which I used to play, but I haven’t played them for many years. The concertos of course I have played, and the Triple Concerto too. I have conducted nos.2 and 4 from the keyboard, with the Britten Sinfonia, which was wonderful – to get it just exactly how you wanted it. I’d like at some point to do the others like that. If you do have an extraordinary conductor that’s wonderful, but there are some things in the Emperor concerto where you would like some extra elasticity sometimes, and that isn’t really possible unless you’re conducting it yourself.”

Her interpretations usually draw positive reactions. “Orchestras have played those pieces so much that they are so familiar with them, and if you put in something different, really looking at the score and what is there, then you notice a point at which they sit up and think. I think it’s still possible to get incredible excitement out of playing a piece that is so well known from the musicians themselves.”

Away from Beethoven, Hewitt has an unexpected connection with Manfred Mann, who she met while travelling. “I was going up to Helsingborg to play the Goldberg Variations in a festival”, she begins, “so I flew to Copenhagen. I got on the train to Helsingborg and it was the rush hour. I had to run to get on the train and found the first-class compartment, and there was just one seat left. I got on just as they were closing the doors, and shoved myself into the seat and collapsed, you know. I noticed there was a man sitting across from me with this rather eccentric looking hat on, and he looked a bit eccentric. I thought he looked harmless! So, I pulled my laptop out and started typing away, and then at Malmo everybody got off except for a few of us. He stayed on, and he asked if the train was going on. I moved over to the table adjacent to us because there was more room, and I took a phone call. Then, at one point, I can’t remember how we started talking, but his opening line was, ‘Do you always work on your laptop with such good posture?!’”

She laughs. “Well, I used to be a dancer, so we got on to how I play piano, and he said, ‘I play a bit of keyboard’, and then he started asking me questions about fingering, if you’re playing an E flat major scale very quickly what would be your best fingering to jump up and back. So, then I guess I said I was going up to play the Goldberg Variations, and he said he listened to the Art of Fugue all the time and has an LP of it. Then he said, ‘Are you travelling all alone?’ I had to go to a hotel in Helsingborg, but it was close enough so that I didn’t need to walk, and I said, ‘Do you know which direction I should go?’ He said, ‘I’ll take you there’. He couldn’t believe I was travelling all alone with all my luggage. We said goodbye, and then the next day I went out to practice, and when I came back into the hotel, there he was in the hotel lobby! He was handing me a letter, which I read, and then through the letter he put his real name, which is Manfred. Through the letter I realised who he was, and there was an e-mail address, so I wrote to him and said ‘You should have told me! Anyway, I’m going to practice the Goldberg tonight, in a hall, if you’d like to come, I’ll play it for you. He and his friend couldn’t get a ticket as it was sold out, which was why he had written to me. I gave him a private performance of the Goldberg Variations, which blew him away, and at the end he said. ‘I used to think I was a keyboard player!’ He has written to me several times since then.”

Perhaps inevitably, talk turns to the dreadful mishap Hewitt suffered back in February, when her beloved Fazioli piano was dropped during a house move. She appears to have dealt with this incident with the same poise with which she walks out onto the stage at the beginning of her concerts. “As I wrote somewhere, I had three nightmare days where the press of the whole world was after me. it was absolutely incredible – I couldn’t believe it. I put something on Facebook because I had to put something about my plans and made sure I had written it really well so that if it was reused, I didn’t mind if the whole world saw. Then the next day the Guardian was phoning my agency and trying to find out who the firm was. There were only 4-5 people who knew who the moving firm was, and that’s been their whole life – I didn’t want to shame them, because it was a very unfortunate accident. It just ballooned, it was the top story under the Coronavirus – and then CNN called! I was marooned in Italy which was a good thing because it was isolated, so I couldn’t go into a studio. I had no peace for three days; I was completely exhausted! I couldn’t go speaking about it on television though, I didn’t want to say anything else. It was really a lesson in how the media works these days, and how careful you have to be with what gets out there. On the other side however, you could say it was terrific publicity which you couldn’t buy! In the early days I was walking around, and people stopped me and said they were so sorry about my piano. The press loves a story, that’s for sure, but I’m still so glad I didn’t give any of those interviews. I think a lot of people would, just to be on CNN – but one has to preserve one’s dignity, you know what I mean!”

You can listen to excerpts from Angela Hewitt’s Beethoven discs on the Hyperion website here – and for more information on the pianist herself visit her website here

Talking Heads: Bing & Ruth

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

Arcana has the pleasure of half an hour in the company of Bing & Ruth leader David Moore.

He speaks to us on the phone from Brooklyn, where he has been holed up until now through the Covid-19 pandemic. Our main topic of conversation will be the ensemble’s new album Species, but for now Moore is coming to terms with the day. “New York is a little overcast, which is good as it’s been hot and sticky lately. I welcome a day when the sun hides away. I’ve not long woken up so I’m still working on my coffee as we talk!”

There is a break on the immediate horizon. “I just rented a little place in Woodstock for next week where I’m going to go with my wife and dog, as we actually haven’t left the city in three-and-a-half months. We were in Mexico City when all this started, and had a choice of ‘we either have to fly back tomorrow or we’re gonna be here indefinitely’, so we flew back and we’re very happy that we did.”

The new album, already reviewed by Arcana, complements previous long player No Home Of The Mind. Where that record, piano-based, had a fluid and almost liquid form, this one explores very different colours. Recorded in the desert, it inhabits a very different world. “A good friend of mine summed it up best when he said ‘It turned out different because we did it different’. This time around it felt like I was presented with a choice where I had developed my thing to a place where I could put a new record together with a little more ease, or I could try and go in a different direction. I opted to do that, as scary as it was, and continues to be!”

Moore uses the organ as the main instrument on this record, creating entirely new colours for Bing & Ruth in the process. Was that always the plan? “I got really into playing the Farfisa a number of years ago, and started writing what I thought was going to be a solo organ album. I took a walk one day, I was travelling and walking alone and I had this epiphany that what I had been writing for the last six months was actually a new Bing & Ruth album, and not a solo organ album. It all shifted about half way through, and it was, ‘Oh, this is what this is, and this is what I need to do with it’. So I called in Jeff Ratner and Jeremy Viner and we made it together.”

He agrees with the suggestion that Species sounds like the place where it was recorded. “It’s actually really funny that you say that, because when describing the album to people who haven’t heard it, what I kept saying was that it was a very ‘dry’ record. It was a very arid record, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact I was writing the music while living in and around the desert. It clearly rubbed off on me, so I’m actually really happy to hear that. It feels like a very different record for a lot of reasons, and one that was very important for me to make, for my own personal growth as a musician. That’s what you’re always trying to do, trying to move to the next thing, to keep searching and growing.”

With two of the tracks, Live Forever and The Pressure Of This Water, Moore is at ease working with bigger structures. “It’s interesting that you say that because generally when I’m working on an album it helps to develop a set of principles or philosophies, that can help guide you. One of the philosophies that I was really leaning on in this process was that every song on this record needed to be able to work as an hour-long performance. There are actually super-extended versions of all theses tracks in demo form. The idea was that we could play a show and do one song, and be on stage for an hour, hour-and a-half, and it would be a good and powerful show. If a song didn’t work after 20 or 30 minutes it wasn’t right. For the record we pared it down, created some forms and structure around it, and wanted to make something that was a full experience over the course of an hour. Clearly we’re not playing live, so that’s out for the moment!”

A tour was planned, but not surprisingly has been rescheduled. “Logistically I’m not very involved in the intricacies of the process; I work with my manager and am lucky to have a wonderful team that believes in what we’re doing and is willing to put in the work. Initially we had the two tours rescheduled, but then the US leg was cancelled outright. We’ve still got Europe planned in December, so fingers crossed that will work. It’s hard to see it, but nobody knows what’s going to happen next week, so who knows what will happen six months from now! They do a really good job working with the venues and promoters. I think the entire music industry right now is doing their best to accommodate everything that needs to be accommodated.”

The closing track on the Species album is Nearer – and despite being the quietest of the seven new pieces it is the one with the keenest emotion. “That’s a track that sounds completely different if you’re just listening to that song, or if you arrive at it as the last song on the album,” Moore explains. “As a listener to the record – because ultimately I make records for people to listen to them and enjoy them as a listener – I have noticed when I wrote that song I really liked it but I wouldn’t say it was top of the pile. I started messing around with it and put it at the end of the album, and found ‘oh shit, this is like a really powerful closer after having been through the rest of the album’. There is a certain amount of contextualising with that song in particular.”

In the times that we find ourselves, does David look to certain music to help with what we’re going through? He considers the question for a little while. “My relationship with listening to music is very cyclical. I’ll go through periods where I’m listening to a tonne of new albums, then periods where I’m listening to a tonne of old albums, and then through periods where I’m not listening to anything at all. When the quarantine started I was listening to a lot of new music, and as it stretched on I haven’t been listening to as much music – but I have been making more. I don’t listen to a lot of my own music, so probably the two new albums I’m listened to most in this time are the new albums from Fiona Apple and Run The Jewels. The Fiona Apple album is in my top five at this point; it absolutely lives up to every inch of hype behind it. It’s very powerful.”

Talk turns to other world events of recent months, and as we speak Moore has been participating in a number of Black Lives Matter demonstrations in New York. “I’ve been to a lot of them, and I’ve done a lot of marching”, he says. “I don’t feel very comfortable talking about it because it’s not really my place but I’m 100% supporting the movement and want to be involved in whatever way I can. The marches have been really powerful and beautiful experiences, and it’s been inspiring to see all these people out in the streets for such a sustained period of time. It’s a really powerful moment in our history right now – and by that I mean the history of the United States. There is a lot of reckoning that’s been needing to happen for a long time, but that’s about as much as I’m comfortable talking about.”

He is enjoying encounters with classical music, and one composer in particular. “I am an absolute Bach freak. As far as the old timers go, Bach is my Michelangelo. He’s everything! As a student I studied him quite a bit, I played his music. I was classically trained and went to a conservatory before I switched gears and got into more improvised-based music. My relationship with classical music was always very academic and pedagogical. I was just with it for the learning, and when you’re sixteen and trying to pound out Bach, you’d rather be hanging out with your friends! It wasn’t until years later when I had stopped playing classical music that I really started to gain a really deep appreciation for it. I would always play the keyboard but the thing that really brought me in was the Violin Partitas. I remember hearing them one day and it was like I was hearing God’s voice for the first time. Sorry to be cheesy but that was how it felt. Still, today, it’s radical and subversive. The issue for me – and I don’t want to speak ill on anybody – is that it’s not very often I hear it played well. A lot of the recordings, the vast majority of them, are clearly done by extremely talented people but are a little too prescriptive for my taste. I think something that was really beautiful about his music was how flexible it was, and how much personality could be put into it, so when I hear recordings that are a little stiff or maybe just don’t resonate with my values of humanity, it’s hard! Then I talk to a lot of friends who are really talented and listen to a lot of Bach, and they say ‘No, you just haven’t heard the right one!’ It’s like the really annoying Frank Zappa conversation everybody had at the time, ‘you just haven’t heard the right record’. But it is true!”

He agrees with the thought that Bach is a really good way in to classical music. “Yeah. It’s very simple, as complex as it sounds. To use a term I don’t really like, it is minimalist. You can really break it all down. I can go full music nerd into all that stuff, but I try to avoid doing it any more, it can go a little downhill! It’s interesting that one of the first breaks we had in New York was getting invited to do something called The Wordless Music series. The guy who put it together was this brilliant man called Ronen Givony. His whole concept was pairing bands like indie rock bands with classical music that he thought was very sympathetic to the music of the bands. You would get some bigger bands playing. The first one we did we opened up for the Icelandic band Múm. I performed a couple of the Goldberg Variations on piano, and then Bing & Ruth played, then the pianist Hauschka, and then Múm. It was certainly the most creative bill I had been on up to that point, and definitely still has been. I think there is a lot of potential for people who are fans of my music to find some cool stuff in this other world. I think classical music can be intimidating for a people because it is a very insular world. At this point it is very tied up in class, which I guess it always has been, but that feels ever more obvious as the wealth gap gets bigger. But it is music for all the people.”

Species by Bing & Ruth is out now on the 4AD label, and it can be heard and purchased here. David’s playlist for Arcana – including the music of Bach, naturally – can be accessed here, and you can click here to see what we thought of the album.

On record – Tatyana Nikolayeva plays Bach: Die Kunst der Fuge (First Hand)

Johann Sebastian Bach
Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of Fugue) BWV1080 (c1740-50)

Tatyana Nikolayeva (piano)

First Hand Records FHR95 [87’58”]

Producer/Engineer Pekka Purhonen

Live recording, 26 April 1993 at Sibelius Academy, Helsinki

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

First Hand Records follows its earlier release of Tatyana Nikolayeva (Athens 1989, FHR46) with this performance of The Art of Fugue, recorded in Helsinki just seven months before her death and capturing her singular perspective on Bach’s unfinished swansong to potent effect.

What’s the music like?

Fanciful notions of Bach labouring over this compendious sequence literally on his deathbed may have long been put to rest, but The Art of Fugue remains the last in a succession of ‘late’ works – following on from the Goldberg Variations and The Musical Offering – in which the ageing composer sought to distil a lifetime’s accrued knowledge into music of rigorous, some would say arcane abstraction. Certainly, what Bach himself seems initially to have envisaged as a technical manual for the perfecting of fugal technique duly became a treatise as has been likened to Cicero’s codifying of Latin – beyond which, no further evolution seemed possible. Even the means of realization has remained conjectural, but a keyboard instrument arguably ‘translates’ the content of these increasingly intricate constructions with the greatest clarity.

Uncertainty also surrounds the exact order of the individual components: specifically whether the four canons should be placed immediately prior to the final fugue, favoured by C.P.E. Bach in the first published edition, or interspersed between those fugues at regular intervals so as to demarcate actual groupings – as indicated by surviving autograph sources and followed with increasing frequency in recital. Nikolayeva rightly opts for this latter premise, and while one might have preferred for the Canon alla decima to have been situated after Contrapunctus 13 (itself rendered prior to Contrapunctus 12), the formal focus and cumulative expressive intensity of her performance cannot be gainsaid. Bach clearly intended a methodical increase of complexity to be perceptible ‘in real time’, and this is exactly what Nikolayeva conveys.

As to Contrapunctus 14, that likely quadruple fugue left unfinished by Bach at his death and which has been completed by numerous composers and musicologists (notably Donald Tovey from among the latter), Nikolayeva plays this as it appears in Bach’s manuscript – breaking off at bar 239 as though any continuation might be sensed though not realized. It is a credit to her sustained conviction that the audience, which has stayed with her for almost one-and-a-half hours, is momentarily caught unawares by the sudden silence which ensues – thereafter responding enthusiastically. Credit, moreover, to FHR in utilizing the extended duration that has long been feasible on CD and so presenting this account as the uninterrupted span it was experienced as at the time. Few musical works need to be heard thus, but this is one of them.

Does it all work?

Yes, despite a smattering of memory lapses (as detailed by Jonathan Summers in his booklet note) and rather dry sound whose perspective nonetheless renders Nikolayeva’s pianism with commendable naturalness. Those wanting her interpretation of the work need look no further.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. David Murphy has done an excellent job in opening out the original recording without detriment to the rapport between pianist and audience during what was a memorable occasion. Hopefully, there may be other such Nikolayeva performances still to be found in the archive.



You can discover more about this release at the First Hand Records website, where you can also purchase the recording.