Saturday 8 April 2023

A multiplicity of possibilities: pianist Edna Stern on Bach and the art of Zen

Edna Stern
Edna Stern

Pianist Edna Stern's latest disc (on Audio Note Music) focuses on Book One of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, but the disc's title, Bach's Book of Zen, perhaps gives a hint at her particular approach to the music. This is expanded on in an accompanying book by Edna where she takes the reader/listener through each of the 24 preludes and fugues in Book One, giving an illumination both of the music and her approach to it.

Edna Stern
Edna Stern

Born in Belgium and growing up in Israel, Edna Stern began playing the piano at six. She began her studies in Israel with Viktor Derevianko, a student of Heinrich Neuhaus. She continued studying with Krystian Zimerman at the Basel Hochschule and with the late Leon Fleisher at the Peabody Institute and at the International Piano Academy Lake Como. She has been a professor at the Royal College of Music since 2009. 

Given that there are so many different versions of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier on disc already, I wondered why Edna had felt she wanted to record it herself. She points out that it is such a great piece, and one that holds a multiplicity of possibilities, and each version illuminates the work differently. And this is not to mention the various styles of instruments and changing approaches over time. Across the 300 years of the work's existence, there have been different movements in the way the piece is interpreted as well as very different instruments. So, you cannot really compare the piano on which Edna recorded the piece, a Bösendorfer, with that used by Edwin Fischer in his classic recording from the 1930s. And that is not to mention the changes to performance practice that happened between the 1930s and today, with the huge influence of period performance practice.

Edna sees a performance as existing in a particular place and time, testimony not just to her as a musician but to the time she lives in, and each version of the music shows how a particular time illuminated the work of art.

Her choosing the title, Bach's Book of Zen, is because she wanted to highlight what she sees as a certain reflective character in the music. She sees the Well-Tempered Clavier as being Bach reflecting and meditating on what it means to write for keyboard. She feels that this is clear from the first prelude where the arpeggios seem to be a meditation on how to help the player learn the piano, with the arpeggios putting the hand in a good position. Yet the music is a meeting between vertical (harmony) and horizontal (melody), a beautiful statement that mixes the two, a reflection of what it means to compose.

Whilst Edna is the first person to espouse the idea that music should exist on its own and not need explanation, as a performer and educator she is faced with people who want to know more - 'What did the composer choose to do that'. So her text aims to illuminate these questions whilst also enlightening about her own decisions about the music. She teaches at the Royal College of Music, and so understands that it takes a lot of time to understand everything that lies behind the music; there are, she comments, a lot of rules.

She counts herself lucky to have studied in Basel (with Krystian Zimerman at the Basel Hochschule) which meant that she had access to the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis as well as having her own great teachers, including a Bach specialist. And was able to hear period instruments and work with people who studied period performance practice. This means that she has gained a certain knowledge of Bach's music and how it might be performed. She wants to pass this on, not just in lessons to pupils, but to make it more generally accessible, even for those who are not pianists. It is these issues that her book aims to illuminate. 

She is also interested in what goes through the mind of the player when you are presented with a sheet of notes, just before you start playing. How to translate that moment when you look at a score and make a sound, how do you bring the sound into reality? Since her second disc, she has always written the liner notes, so now for Bach's Art of Zen she has expanded this into a book, with one chapter for each Prelude & Fugue, though she hastens to add that she has tried to distil the argument down to the essentials for each piece.

As a player, she has been very influenced by period performance practice, both by the studies that have been made and by the recordings, and she admits to being a huge fan of Philippe Herreweghe. The range of instruments that Bach might have been writing for in his keyboard music, organ, harpsichord, and clavichord, cover such a diverse and wide range, each seemingly completely apart from the other. But Edna believes Bach's music to be essentially vocal in character and she wants to bring out this vocality in Bach. Hence her greatest exemplars are orchestras and conductors. She is also interested in the idea of inequality (notes inégales) and she tries to bring these elements into her own instrumental practice.

When recording her previous disc, Schubert on Tape, Edna moved away from the idea of the highly edited recording to using single takes, and this is something she has carried over in the Bach disc. Her last teacher, Leon Fleisher was fascinated by the fast notes in Bach's music and he would count how many there were without stopping until the next long note. This sort of numerology was apparently significant to Bach himself, but Edna believes that there is an importance to the musical continuity of such sequences. For her, a cut is still a cut, and she does not want to edit one of these sequences, feeling that each performance brings a certain something.

Another of her teachers, Krystian Zimmerman, always takes his own piano to a performance and adapts the piano to the music. But Edna feels that each piano comes with its own character and possibilities. She has recorded on many different pianos, Steinway, Fazioli, and Bösendorfer as well as period pianos from the 1860s and 1840s. Each instrument brings something to a piece that other instruments do not, and she likes to bring this sort of flexibility both to her performance and to the instrument.

Her repertoire is quite wide from the Baroque to contemporary, and she enjoys the huge analogy across time that this music represents. But Bach is special, for a start he was the first great composer whose music she studied and he laid the ground for piano pedagogy. She has played Bach's music since the age of seven. And she points out that you can find his influence in music from Mozart right through to Scriabin and beyond, all nationalities, and all time periods. Again, creating a dialogue between the time periods, and it is important for her to stay in touch with all periods.

Bach's Book of Zen - Edna Stern - Audio Note Music
She learned the piano from a young age and always wanted to be a musician. But she tells me a story about how, when she was eight, she was asked what she wanted to be and it was a choice between conductor and singer. Eventually, she realised that being a conductor was not in her character, and neither was she a singer, except that in her piano playing she tries to be both of these.

Her next release, Fire of Black and White on AudioNote Music, has already been recorded. It is a programme of great 20th-century piano sonatas with Samuel Barber's Piano Sonata and works by Gideon Klein and Karel Reiner, both of whom were in concentration camps during World War Two, along with music by Lili Boulanger, Britten and Martinu. This is an important disc for Edna, as it enables her to give a voice to those that are unjustly forgotten by the voice of history. And this is something she has done before, on her 2017 disc of music by the French composer and pianist Hélène de Mongeroult (1764-1836), recorded on an 1860s Pleyel piano (on Orchid Classics), and her 2019 disc of Piano Concertos by Johann Simon Mayr (on ARS Produktion).

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Elsewhere on this blog

  • The sheer sense of engagement from the young choral singers was a joy: Bach's St Matthew Passion from Choir of King's College, London at St John's Smith Square - concert review
  • Clarity & suppleness: Frank Martin's Mass & Maurice Duruflé's Requiem from the Maîtrise de Toulouse - record review
  • Hindemith & beyond: Trio Brax's debut disc takes the Trio for Viola, Tenor Saxophone & Piano as starting point for an imaginative recital  - record review
  • Imaginative programme & unusual repertoire: The Fourth Choir's The Only Planet at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse - concert review
  • Reclaiming Handel's first thoughts: Peter Whelan directs Irish Baroque Orchestra in the Dublin version of Messiah - concert review
  • Korngold looks back: the lushness & extravagance of fin-de-siecle Vienna evoked in The Dead City at English National Opera - opera review
  • Focus on Manchester:
    • A joy in telling stories in music: the Manchester Camerata, the Monastery & music - feature
    • Successfully integrated into the same eco-system, The Stoller Hall and Chetham's School of Music - feature
    • Let other pens dwell on misery and grief - a joyous ensemble performance of Jonathan Dove's Mansfield Park from RNCM Opera - opera review
    • The latest in Manchester Camerata's Mozart, Made in Manchester series featured a lovely creative dialogue between Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Gábor Takács-Nagy and the players - concert review
    • Henning Kraggerud & RNCM Chamber Orchestra in RNCM's Original Voices Festival concert review
    • Every phrase has a story behind it: Gábor Takács-Nagy on conducting Mozart and more - interview
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