Thursday 31 January 2013

Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier Volume 1 - Complete - Live

Kimiko Ishizaka
The pianist Kimiko Ishizaka made her appearance at the 1901 Arts Club in London, last night (30 January 2013) playing Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Volume 1 complete. Around two hours of music, played from memory, enabling us to hear Bach's genius complete. Ishizaka, born in Germany of Japanese heritage, is perhaps best known for her Open Goldberg project where a her high-quality recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations is available for free download, along with the score. This is part and parcel of her fervent advocacy of the idea of making the music of Bach accessible to everyone. Her performance at the 1901 Arts Club is one of a number that Ishizaka has been making of the complete Well-Tempered Clavier, Volume 1 and this will also lead to a recording.

JS Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Volume 1 (Das Wohltemperierte Klavier) was probably not written with the idea of public performance. He assembled the first volume in 1720 and it circulated in manuscript, presumably with the idea of personal performance, though many of the pieces are technically challenging. Bach espousal of all the chromatic keys implies that he was promoting some sort of equal temperament, certainly some of the pieces would sound very odd played on harpsichords in the temperaments then in use.

Bach in 1720 was certainly writing for harpsichord or clavichord rather than piano and the problem for contemporary pianists is how to address that. Ishizaka played a large modern grand, and did not shy away from using it to the full. But she completely eschewed the use of the pedal. There was no sense of historicism here, as she still used legato techniques which would be alien to a harpsichordist. But with her firm dexterity giving the passage work beautiful crispness and evenness, there was a hint of the harpsichord.

Ishizaka seems to have a very firm touch with great strength, she did not shy away from volume when it was called for. But she also had a very poetic touch, and seemed to have a wide variety of colours at her finger tips. She combined this with a wonderful feeling for the structure of Bach's pieces, bringing enormous clarity to the fugues and bringing out the architectonic feeling of them.

This was an evening of contrasts, because innately Ishizaka seems a very intense, poetic player and her rendering of some of the preludes was intensely moving and not a little romantic. But her command of structure in the fugues went beyond impressive, she was able to bring poetry to the fugues without blurring their structure. Some of the minor key fugues in particular were most glorious in their intensity. She was also open to the other-worldly and mysterious aspects of Bach's art, bringing out the strange intense worlds which some of the fugues go into.

Generally tempi were steady, with a copious use of rubato in the preludes. Bach's use of unequal bars and other devices led her towards a freedom which could almost have been improvising. The preludes really were a free form introductions which contrasted strongly with the more architectonic features of the fugues. But tempi were only steady because Ishikaza wished them, she demonstrated enormous technical capabilities and in one or two pieces was suitably fast and furious.

Even with an interval this was rather a long, intense sit. But it was also rewarding as we heard Bach's thought processes unfold so that by the time that Ishikaza reached the glorious final B minor fugue we all felt that we had been on a journey with the extended fugue as its culmination.

The 1901 Arts Club is not huge, the performance area only seats 45 people so that there was a real feel of hearing Ishikaza in your own living room. This was not an every day experience. Whilst my preference is still to sit and listen to a few of the preludes and fugues at a time, Ishizaka's stupendous achievement at playing them all in one sitting in performances of great power and structural beauty, drew you in. I look forward to the recording.

You can learn more about Kimiko Ishizaka at her website and at the Open Goldberg project website.

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