JS BACH – The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One
John Chen (piano)
Memorial Hall, Paekakariki
Sunday June 23rd 2013
(based on notes prepared for a review on RNZ Concert’s”Upbeat” with Eva Radich)
I’m certain that Bach would have been highly intrigued and perhaps tickled pink to think of his music being played in a place with the name of Paekakariki!
It is alway a great pleasure to go to Paekakariki to hear music being played. Firstly, the surroundings, especially on a good day, are spectacular – and of course, if the weather isn’t good, there can be spectacle of a different kind, especially as the Memorial Hall, where the concerts are held, is situated almost right on the shoreline, with only the road and the beach separating the music from the ocean, and vice versa. It seems to me that the only thing that might give concern in such a situation is the prospect of a decent-sized tsunami, which would put an end to pretty well everything if it ever happened.
At Paekakariki there’s a concert series called the “Mulled Wine” concerts, organized by local musician and entrepeneur Mary Gow – each audience member receives a cup of mulled wine as part of a kind of “afternoon tea” after each concert. The whole process has a very attractive kind of community feeling about it, which reminds me of my own experiences in Britain going to some of the smaller venues along the Suffolk coast associated with the Aldeburgh Festival. The hall is a pretty ordinary community hall, but its location is picturesque, breathtakingly so on a fine day, with the ocean and the islands on one side and the coastal mountain ranges on the other.
It must be a unique kind of experience to have those images with you when you sit down to listen to some live music.
Yes, it all adds to the sense of occasion, which isn’t, of course, essential to the appreciation of great music, but which helps make one’s particular experience of it in this case distinctive. An extra attraction on this occasion was the presence of art-work on the walls of the hall, paintings and drawings by two of Paekakariki’s most distinguished residents, Sir Jon and Lady Jacqui Trimmer (present at the concert). Besides their extensive activities and experience in dance, both have worked in the visual arts for a number of years, painting, pottery and sculpture. Most of the paintings were by Jon Trimmer, some by his wife, Jacqui – not surprisingly there seemed in his work a preoccupation with the human form, and not merely engaged in dance.
What a wonderful use of artistic and creative resource within a community – now that is surely something which would have added even more distinction to the occasion!
Yes, and it all took place quite unostentatiously – no bugles, no drums, as the saying goes – everything was allowed, in a way, to speak for itself. So, there we were, in Paekakariki’s lovely Memorial Hall, the piano situated halfway-down the body of the hall instead of at one end, and the audience sitting in a half-circle around the instrument. One would imagine that in an empty hall the sound would be impossibly reverberant – but with all of us there the sound had a pleasant bloom without being too lively. After being introduced, the pianist spoke to us for a few moments, wanting to share with us just a few of his thoughts about the music he was going to play – which was, of course, Book One of the Well-Tempered Clavier by Johann Sebastian Bach.
I liked very much his spoken characterization of the music’s course over the twenty-four preludes and fugues. He told us that for him the music has three different aspects interwoven together – physical, emotional and spiritual – and its course represents a person’s lifetime, with the opening few pieces having a fresh, birth-like quality, and the second quarter of pieces filled with the energy and exuberance of youth. The later preludes represent maturity, with the last few spare and visionary, the energy of youth all gone, and a spiritual aspect taking over the sounds.
I know there’s a school of thought that says the artist shouldn’t talk at a concert, but just play the music, and let the composer do the talking, not the performer. What did you think?
In this case, I welcomed hearing what he had to say – it was impressive and even touching to hear such a young man (he’s only twenty-seven) giving voice to such thoughts. He also told a lovely anecdote against himself – he had been approached admiringly by somebody after a concert who marvelled at his playing of the entire First Book of the WTC from memory; but was mindful, in the face of such praise, how he had heard about Fanny Mendelssohn, Felix’s sister, who had memorized BOTH books at the age of 9; and even more astoundingly, about the German pianist Wilhelm Kempff, who also knew both books from memory, but could also play the complete work, every Prelude and Fugue pair in any key, also from memory. He said that he wanted us to have some kind of perspective about what he was going to do that afternoon – that “it wasn’t such an amazing achievement after all!”. I’m sure Chen would have undoubtedly been aware of the great man’s own response to some admirer of his keyboard prowess, which was, “There’s nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.”
Aware of the significance of the journey we were about to be taken upon, we sat, listened attentively, and let the music cast its spell upon us. From the beginning Chen’s playing impressed with its sheer beauty, the well-known opening Prelude sounding freshly-minted in the player’s hands, in fact as if reborn for our benefit. As he played, he gave each of the pieces the space it seemed to need, following the dictum of “where to hold, where to let go”, as fugue followed prelude, and new prelude followed fugue. Whatever the contrasts between the individual pieces, Chen made them work shoulder-to-shoulder, treating the transitions, both gentle and rather more startling, as though they were entirely natural progressions.
Perhaps the key to his success with both the individual pieces and the work as a whole was his “overview of the music’s character” which he spoke about before the recital – he seemed to be able to successfully bring those three aspects together in different proportions at every stage of the journey – firstly and foremost, there was the physical excitement of the music’s momentum, dynamic variations, tonal colorings and melodic contouring. Then there was the intensity of feeling arcing between the music and ourselves as listeners, feeding and stimulating our imaginations. And finally there was the spiritual aspect of the music, the sounds transcending time, place and station and imbuing our sensibilities with abstractions of thought and wonderment, suggesting eternities in and between notes, and through orderings and sequences leading to exalted states of being.
In a work this size, made up of so many extremely concentrated smaller pieces, the demands on both he player and the audience must feel throughout as though they never let up. Did it seem at any time like a long haul at Paekakariki?
I guess the infinite variety of Bach’s invention simply sustains the interest while the work is progressing. Certainly that sense of journeying, as John Chen put it, through a life-span, allows you to “pace” yourself and give yourself the energy required to keep the attention focused – and it must be the same for the performer, as well. The wonder is that over such a long span, the pieces can still stimulate a lot of difference and variety, rather than sound as thought they’re melting into one another. And of course a full-length concert can perhaps be thought of as a life in microcosm – energetic at the start, properly warmed up for the middle sections, where one is at one’s best,and then gradually waning as the energy starts to dissipate.
How did he manage with all of those life-stages? – quite a feat of imagination for someone in their twenties!
Yes, and such a gift to the rest of us, for what the music and the playing stirred within ourselves! What Chen did was to bring his own creativity to that of the composer’s and make it all come alive – so what we heard throughout was a marvelous amalgam of youth and experience, of energy and discipline, of inspiration and skill – I think it’s something of a picture of a person a young man aspires towards, in that respect. So the music, and its making, is confident, energetic, well thought-out, beautifully shaped and most of all, very alive!
Surely no one person performing this work can realize all of its aspects to the point where there is nothing left to say – do you think there were things left unsaid in the music?
Actually there was only one piece in which his playing didn’t really take me anywhere – but this is a bit of a problem piece, as I’ve heard quite a number of pianists who similarly go on a kind of “auto-pilot” as if they’re not quite sure what to do with the music except perhaps let it play itself, as opposed to a handful who have that “gift” – and I think it’s probably no coincidence that they’re all older and more worldly-wise. The piece I’m talking about is the very last Prelude of the set, No.24 in B Minor – I would call it an elusive piece, something almost not of this world, a glimpse into another realm – very much what John Chen was talking about in terms of the music reflecting someone’s lifespan, except that I didn’t feel that his playing of the music had gone there,in that particular instance – compared with everything else he played this seemed to lack a rich character. On the other hand, the fugue which followed the prelude was splendidly performed! This is quite all right – musicians, and artists in general shouldn’t be able to conquer worlds too easily – the achievement is in the journey as much as in the arrival!
Do you think he managed to express this spiritual dimension of the music in other places in the work?
Oh, certainly – I would expect anyway his playing to mirror his own life-stage, anyway, and being thus very true to his own self. So he seemed less in touch with the deeper, more reflective side of things, but able to express that more vigorous,here-and-now kind of transcendental spiritual joy with which Bach writes in some of the pieces. I would imagine John Chen will be playing these pieces at various times throughout the remainder of his life; and I would hope I get the chance to hear him perform them again, at some time.