I was brought up in an age when everyone played Bach on the piano with oodles of colour and expression, lashings of pedal and a wonderfully loose approach to pulse which often lent it a certain Chopinesque quality. Then along came the harpsichordists, insisting that Bach keyboard music could only be performed legitimately on their instrument, and so persuasive were they that, for the best part of 40 years, nobody questioned their claim; Bach on the piano was considered the ultimate in bad taste and musical gaucherie. But with the dawn of the 21st century, along came a new generation of pianists who, supported by scholarship which showed that the harpsichord was by no means as ubiquitous in Bach’s time as it was once thought and that, indeed, Bach actually had the piano in mind when he wrote some of his keyboard pieces, presented utterly convincing performances of Bach on the piano. Add to the mix the growing band of clavichordists who claim much of Bach’s output as their own, and you have a pretty muddled picture.
As an organist, I may have been immune from the raging piano/harpsichord controversy, but we had our own issues to contend with. I began my lessons blissfully unaware that swell pedals, heel/toe pedalling, registration changes and manual hopping were already being frowned upon by organists who believed the only legitimate way to play Bach on an organ was to pedal only with the toes, use only mechanical key action (the heavier the better) and, even, tune the organ to a temperament which rendered it useless in any other repertory. Luckily, I was sufficiently advanced in my studies by the time this came into vogue that I had the confidence to ignore it and live with the conviction that the old style of Bach playing would one day come back into fashion.
Rising above all this confusing and contentious matter has been, of course, JSB himself, whose music has managed to survive unscathed the countless revolutions in Bach interpretations. It is often said that Bach’s music is so well written that it works on any instrument, in any circumstance and at any time; and so it does.
That said, I am not sure that Bach’s keyboard concertos sound their best when played as a duet on two full-size Steinway concert grands; somehow the loss of detail seems more keenly felt. I have no doubt that Steven Tanus is an astute and intelligent Bach player with a fine grasp of the musical architecture and overarching structure of the first movement of the Concerto in F minor (BWV1056). However, it was not just the slow speed he chose for this which made his performance seem so ponderous at today’s lunchtime recital at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory. What disturbed me was the compete intermingling, to the point of confusion, of the two pianos, the intricate textures woven around the instrumental lines completely blurred by the lack of tonal variety between the instruments. At times it really was not possible to discern which lines were played by Tanus and which by his equally adept partner, Nguyen Le Binh Anh.
Jeong Han Sol took a brisker pace for the first movement of the Bartok 3rd Concerto, but here the playing, while excellent in its clarity and precision, never had the wit, lightness or delicacy which this movement so desperately needs. It went through the motions well enough, but somehow never came alive, Dolpiti Kongviwatanakul’s handling of the orchestral arrangement was highly competent and showed a good understanding of balance, but even he could not do anything to make the ending seem anything other than a horribly damp squib.
The trouble was, all four performances were of concerto 1st movements. How I yearned for something complete or, at least, something which ended convincingly instead of all these stillborn concerti. At least the bassoon of Zhang Zhaoqi offered a welcome change from the potential pianistic overdose Tackling the extremely demanding Hummel Grand Concerto, he certainly kept his head above water and, discreetly supported by pianist Kerim Vergazov, kept the piece moving along briskly. It seemed a little bit of a struggle in places and the extended passagework left little room for genuine interpretative input, but he certainly showed a solid technical command of the instrument.
Trombonist Xia Zhengwei took a very different approach with his 1st movement; taken from the concerto by the Danish composer Launy Grondhal. I remain unconvinced by this as a worthwhile piece of music, and perhaps Xia was right to disregard accuracy and precision in preference to a performance which was high on dramatic delivery. He certainly had some intriguing ideas – getting someone to carry the instrument on stage for him and then refusing to touch it until Low Shao Suan had launched herself into the introduction – but it all seemed a little too scrappy and uncoordinated to be really effective. He is a very good stage performer, but the challenges of the chosen piece were not fully addressed today; it deserved just a little more TLC.