Around the world with Bach
My touring plans (Bach world tour) were mapped out more than two years in advance. So this started in 2005, when my Italian agent asked if I would be interested in presenting the 48 preludes and fugues that make up Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier in a major venue in Italy. I said that of course I would love to, but I needed time to prepare for such a massive undertaking, and also I couldn’t do it for just one performance. If I were going to put all 260 pages and four-plus hours of music solidly back into my brain and fingers, then there had to be a bigger reason. The idea then came to me of offering it to major cities around the world during the 2007/2008 season.
I drew up a list of places that I was especially interested in, some familiar ones, such as Carnegie Hall in New York, some new ones, including South America and South Africa. The demand was such that I had to prolong the tour, extending it to14 months. By the time it finishes in Hong Kong this coming October, I will have made something like 110 appearances in 25 countries on six continents.
Why did I choose The Well-Tempered Clavier? When I first performed the complete “48” in 1999/2000, I realised the tremendous impact it has on audiences. It is such a rare event to hear it all at once. And to celebrate the completion of my 11-year project to record all of Bach’s major keyboard works for Hyperion Records, there seemed no better work to choose.
Of course I was aware that it doesn’t make for “easy” listening. It demands a huge effort on the part of the audience if it is to be followed and enjoyed properly. When listening to it on CD, our attention is usually not fully engaged. A live concert performance gives us the gift to experience it without distractions. A trained musician or a student looking at the score will be able to follow the incredible structure of the fugues and to identify all the tricks that Bach had up his sleeve. The untrained ear will not pick up all of that, but will experience the boundless inventiveness, joy, and sheer beauty of his music.
Many people don’t realise that Bach wrote hardly anything in the score in the way of precise indications about how his music was to be interpreted. Nothing tells us how slow or fast a piece should go; how loud or soft; how detached or smooth. One was expected to know these things if one had been well taught and had good taste. The search for absolute clarity in distinguishing the many voices that make up Bach’s miraculous counterpoint is never-ending, especially on the piano where you can produce different colours for each voice.
I am often asked what I think about while performing. I like to tell myself to “sing” every note. The connection between heart, mind and fingers must be complete and perfectly synchronised. Not a note should be played without considering its place in the musical phrase and its expressive content. With Bach, the concentration has to be unfailing. The slightest cough from the audience at the wrong moment is enough to derail you.
When I begin one of these performances, it’s as though I have to empty out all that is inside me in order to start afresh, filling my heart and mind with the spiritual food that Bach has so generously left us. No music demands more of the performer or is a greater test of musical intelligence.
Much music makes more noise and lends itself to more dramatic displays of emotion and virtuosity. Bach doesn’t need that. If music speaks to parts of the soul that words alone can
never reach, then Bach does it better than anyone else. — The Guardian