Thursday, March 4, 2010

Bach Double

OK, just to prove that my mash-up ideas don't always work out so well (which some of you have, no doubt, thought many times before!), here we have a concept that, if it were a feature film, would go "direct to video." However, since MMmusing is basically a direct-to-video world, this gets pretty much the same exposure as more successful experiments. It's already made it through post-production, and our distribution costs are quite low. Still, I'm burying it as the third video link in this post.

The real news is this extraordinarily odd recording of a Bach gigue by none other than Mr. Wladziu Valentino Liberace. The Omniscient Mussel recently posted (videos are gone now, but one is preserved here) a series of videos from a 1955 episode of The Liberace Show in which the piano showman used our national airwaves to present a little history of keyboard instruments. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to fit a candelabra on top of the clavichord he plays for demonstration purposes, but play it he does. (Think of what a rare opportunity this would have been at the time - to hear this exotically private little instrument right in your own living room.)

He announces he's going to play for us a Bach Gigue, but instead of the lively rhythms of an Irish washerwoman, we get sweetly flowing triplets suggesting that perhaps the washerwoman is sunning herself while the clothes air-dry. (The piercing oboe (?) that plays along (!) definitely adds a hot, midday sun quality.)

In other words, this has to be one of the slowest gigues on record, certainly the slowest by a wide margin of this last movement from the B-flat Major Partita; it actually took me awhile to emerge from the trippy haze and recognize that I was listening to this:

One could almost imagine that the former is a 78rpm record played at 33rpm, although the pianist's voice is no lower than usual. It is more than twice as slow as any other recording I've been able to find so far. In fact, I had hoped I might find a recording almost exactly twice as fast because, since Liberace spares us the repeats, a recording with the repeats at twice the speed would clock in at the same 2:43 as Liberace's languid rendering - but, it turns out that even a 5-year-old plays it more than twice as fast. So my dream of a perfect mensuration canon with 1:2 proportions wasn't to be. (Yes, I could digitally manipulate recordings to make them time out, but that misses the point that these are real life interpretations. And just to show the great lengths I'll go to for quality blog content, I paid $0.99 for an Amazon download of Paul Badura-Skoda's 2:46 track - which turned out to have about 20 seconds of applause at the end.)

Aside from the lack of perfect proportions, the recordings paired below just don't sound that great together - maybe if Liberace didn't insist on having his orchestra play along we'd get more clarity, but the bizarre use of the clavichord's little-known "oboe stop" along with the other instrumental additions makes for a pretty thick soup. Still, I did toss poor Ray (all of 7 years old, and just a bit slower than most of the other recordings I sampled) into a Bach Double with Liberace, so you might as well check it out. [Note that the Double refers not just to the two performers, but the doubling of tempo.] If you have a way to adjust the left/right balance of your speakers, you'll find Liberace on the left and Ray on the right - you can create your own perfect mix!

It's not a very successful mashup, but the Liberace recording does provide some interesting food for thought. First, I just happened to be reading Jan Swafford's Slate article in which he laments the accelerating tempi that the Historically Informed Performance Practice movement has brought to Bach. Now, I'm not saying that Swafford is advocating what Liberace is doing, which is frankly just "way-out" beyond what I suspect any 50's Era pianist would have conceived. But I do find myself envying Liberace a time when Bach's music wasn't so well-known and ideas about how to perform it weren't as ingrained. Imagine having the freedom to just sit down and say, "I'll play it this way - on national TV." Of course, maybe he just didn't feel like practicing. By the way, it only just occurred to me that 1955 is also the year of Glenn Gould's paradigm-shattering Goldberg Variations record. Maybe if Liberace had listened to that
CDrecord, he'd have had different ideas.

But how wrongheaded is Liberace's approach? Sure, it's likely not what Bach intended and it doesn't fit in at all with conventional wisdom, but as music-making, it's kind of interesting - even refreshing. We usually hear this as a virtuosic, cross-hand workout, but at this pace, a lot of the darker chromaticism comes out much more clearly. Instead of just hearing these accidentals as leading inevitably through a chain of harmonies towards a cadence, we get a chance to savor them as little independent planets of their own. Having heard this gigue played many times but never having studied it, I can honestly say I'd never noticed how ubiquitously chromatic it is.

So, yes, I'll probably always hear the piece in a more sophisticated way now (as would also likely happen if I were simply to learn it), but I'm more intrigued by the idea that this might well be considered a legitimate way to perform it. This is assuming that performances be judged as legitimate based on their musical value more than on their fidelity to the composer's intentions. It wouldn't work as well as finale to the suite, but then Liberace isn't presenting it that way. It's often said that Bach's music is about as malleable as that of any composer, which is one reason his music lends itself so well to transcriptions - and, perhaps, dramatic tempo alterations.

Back in my days as a church pianist, I would every now and then take a keyboard piece by Bach, Handel, or Pachelbel and play it much more slowly than intended, or even change it from major to minor to create a new insta-piece. I'd never advertise this in the program - it was just, in a sense, a fairly unimaginative kind of improvisation. Greg Sandow advocated this kind of exploratory approach to performance a few weeks back (he proposes a much wider variety of ideas, but among them was to "play everything wrong"), and I think students could learn a lot by working outside the normal interpretive boundaries.

Don't get me wrong, I think interpretive boundaries have their place. If we all just played how we felt all the time and ignored the challenge both of following composers' directions and of considering time-honored ways of following them, we'd miss out on a lot. Still, in small doses, even Liberace liberties can be illuminating.

For a more compelling canon in two tempi, here's Callas and Fleming and Puccini.

P.S. Check out the Phantom-of-the-Opera-esque harpsichord (skip ahead to 3:50 in first video above) on which Liberace plays Mozart's Rondo alla turca, which he claims was written for the harpsichord. In fact, he describes Mozart as a composer who "wrote especially for the harpsichord." I don't doubt that these sonatas were played on harpsichords, but I suspect Wolfgang was thinking more piano by then...

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