Sunday, April 8, 2012

Bach's "Ich ruf zu Dir"

Throughout my life, I have always loved Bach, but over the past few years haven't focused as much of my time or energy on playing or teaching his music. I think this is because it is less "practical" in the sense that it is less helpful in winning a competition, passing an audition, etc. than, say, the Chopin 2nd Sonata, or Beethoven op. 57. Lately I have been happily reminded of the fact that Bach is, as one of my students recently remarked, food for the soul. He is not only the great mathematician / architect / problem-solver portrayed in "Godel/Escher/Bach" but also the deeply emotional and expressive and human man brought to life in "Night in the Palace of Reason."

Since childhood I have found that Bach is the best therapy, at least for me. When I was growing up, if I was sick and home from school, I would listen to Bach because it made me feel better, even physically. This evening, I was feeling a bit down and happened upon a piece by Bach I didn't know: "Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ," which is originally (I think) for organ. I heard it first in a transcription for solo piano by Busoni, but discovered that there are also versions for cello and piano and a slightly different piano arrangement by Wilhelm Kempff.

As a pianist, I tend to ask my students to try NOT to sound like the piano, but in the end I have to admit I like the piano version better than the organ. But the cello and piano version may be the best of all. Here are a few for you to compare:

Grigory Sokolov - what an amazing sound!

Vladimir Horowitz - would have loved to hear this extraordinary singing sound live.

Tatiana Nikolayeva - very slow! But her laser beam of sound makes it possible to sustain the line even at this tempo. You may note that this is the third Russian in a row here. It seems that playing Bach transcriptions is and has been more fashionable in Russia than here in the US, where I only recently played a Bach transcription for the first time (Myra Hess's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring").

Murray Perahia - as if to disprove my assertion that Americans don't play these Bach arrangements, here is always poetic Perahia. He doesn't have that same bold sound that the three Russians do (perhaps by choice), but also shows greater care for phrasing, and more interest in the accompaniment.

Wilhelm Kempff - playing his arrangement, which to my ear is hardly different at all from Busoni's. He has some of the same singing sound that you hear from Sokolov, along with a nice way of shaping the accompaniment.

Anne Queffelec - a beautiful performance in every respect, and it's nice to see this live. It reminds me that as much as I enjoy recordings, there is something more engaging about seeing a live human being actually making the sound we hear.

On the organ now, by Ton Koopman. He can (and does) take this quite slowly, as the organ is capable of sustaining notes indefinitely, unlike the piano where the sound will, eventually, decay and die away, making too slow a tempo somewhat inadvisable. Note also that the pitch sounds a half-step lower (all the pianists sound like they are playing in F-minor, while this sounds like E-minor). I assume that this organ is tuned to a lower pitch than what we use today. I admit that I am not an organ aficionado, but I have to say the relentlessly sustained quality of the organ is almost hard to take for me in this piece.

And finally for two on the cello: first Pierre Fournier, whose playing is beautiful, even if I find the slides to be overly-Romantic (you might expect to hear something similar in Stokowski's orchestral arrangements of Bach):

Maurice Gendron's playing of a slightly different arrangement: his cello playing is wonderfully elegant and refined, and I like it better in this octave (Fournier starts the piece an octave higher than this, i.e. in the same octave as in the piano and organ versions). Somehow, being more in the "comfort zone" of the cello seems to suit the character of this piece better.

What do you think? Do you know of another recording that you prefer? I didn't know this piece at all before this evening, and now have listened to it about a dozen times - and I feel better than I did before I listened to it.


Stan said...

I love Horowitz bec it is Horowitz, but Nikolaeva's rendition is irresistible. Wow.

vp said...

I love that Horowitz performance. The high F almost screams with emotion!

Michael Lavocah said...

Unexpectedly for me, I love
Brendel's version. For me his measured calm reveals the emotion inherent in the piece.