Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Looking Bach on the Latest Piano Hero

We had our second Piano Hero of 2010 today - I forgot to post here about it ahead of time, but you can still see the high-quality poster:

...because, you know, there's not enough punning of Bach's name. Anyway, although this was a rather hastily assembled program, I'm rather proud of how well it worked. Previous Piano Heroes have focused on symphonic music from the 19th and 20th centuries, but there are some nice advantages to having four hands on deck for the contrapuntal complexities of Bach.

Actually, I was disappointed not to find a true two-piano version of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, which was our opener. We used Max Reger's 4-hand version, but laying the music out on one keyboard doesn't really solve the problem of all those intertwining voices. (The original score has 9 separate string parts.) The Reger version was trickier than I'd expected for sightreading purposes, but it made a great opener. (Definitely my favorite Brandenburg - with #6 as a close second.) My favorite part was the "middle movement." As you may know, this consists of nothing more than two simple chords that outline a Phrygian Half Cadence. I rolled out each chord in fairly simple fashion and then let Nathan "do his thing," improvising a couple of wonderfully anachronistic cadenzas, the second of which sounded like something out of Rhapsody in Blue. Good times.

Our next big piece was the strange and austere 6-part Ricercare from The Musical Offering. This is the kind of piece that would be very difficult to pull off on one keyboard, but this elegant arrangement for two pianos works beautifully. It was a wonderful experience to play this otherworldly music for the first time. In order to set it up, we preceded the Ricercare with the little crab canon from The Musical Offering, which of course is based on the same theme. Some of you may have seen my animation of this canon on YouTube.

I'd thought of just projecting that animation on a big screen for the audience, but then I had the better idea of printing out the entire canon (only 18 measures) in a single line in banner form. This turned out to stretch across 18 sheets of paper in landscape format. We taped it to the wall up over the pianos and then had assistants walk the progression of both the "forward" and "backwards" voices as we played - after having first demonstrated what each voice sounds like alone. (Kind of like in this underrated video.) Not only was this a fun exercise, but it helped get the tune in the listener's ears before setting forth with the very serious business of the six voices.

Next, to provide relief from the tension of all that counterpoint, we took a breather with a nice Victor Babin two-piano arrangement of Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring. Then, for a big finish, we played a four-hand version of the big organ Passacaglia in C Minor. Once again, a true two-piano version would have been more fun (we did use two pianos, even though it would have been playable on one), but it was thrilling to let the two pianos rip in dramatic organ-like fashion.

All of which is to say: Bach is the best. I don't know why I hadn't thought to feature him in the Piano Hero context before, since his music almost always translates well across various media. As an example, listen to that Ricercare a 6, first played by a single pianist and then in Webern's quirky, ultramodern orchestration.

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