What a topic to choose to start these blog posts! Deciding how to play Bach on the piano is a minefield of opinion and taste.
Let’s start by considering the two extreme approaches:
A – one performer might choose to treat the piano as a one-manual harpsichord. The performance would be crisp and articulate with no dynamics, no pedalling and an equal balance between the two hands at all times.
B – another performer might enjoy all the luxuries of the romantic piano. The performance would have surging crescendos and diminuendos, pedalling for bars at a time and would use rubato to bring out the climax of the piece.
I can’t imagine that Bach would adhere to either of these approaches if he were to come along to Finchcocks to play our grand pianos for a weekend piano course. He might start playing like our performer A, but he would soon experiment with dynamics and pedalling because he liked technical innovation. I am sure he would not go as far as performer B though, because his sense of metre, phrasing, articulation and musical rhetoric (all aspects of musical style) were so rooted in baroque tradition and are so essential to his compositions.
My approach to playing Bach is to understand the compositions as well as I can and then to try to convey this understanding to the listener. I do all I can to bring out motifs through dynamics and articulation; I consider which of my two hands should be more prominent at any moment; I avoid the sustaining pedal as there is rarely any need for it. These are the things that go through my mind while playing. Prior to the performance, I make decisions about fingering, ornamentation and tempo based upon what I know of baroque performance practices. Most importantly, I listen to live performances and recordings of other musicians who specialise in interpreting baroque music and I try to enter their soundworld.
If you want to explore Bach’s music some more, the writings of Bach’s contemporaries and immediate successors – Couperin, Rameau, CPE Bach and Clementi – are readily available online. If you want tailored advice on your piano playing by internationally acclaimed teachers in the unique setting of Finchcocks’ vaulted cellars, then please sign up for one of our piano courses and we look forward to meeting you.