Let's face it: We may think of Daniel Barenboim as a formidable symphonic and opera conductor, or a storied pianist and chamber musician; as a humanitarian, or a peace activist, or even a controversy-courting campaigner for, say, lifting the unofficial ban on performing Wagner in Israel.
But most of us do not think of him as a Bach maven.
"I beg to disagree with you!" the maestro says jovially when asked about this. "I have played Bach all over the world."
Yet for all his love of Johann Sebastian's music, Barenboim's relationship with it has not been simple or straightforward. Having been raised on The Well-Tempered Clavier by his father (for years his only piano teacher), he left it, and the rest of Bach's work, behind for a quarter-century.
When he returned, it was with a new and thoughtful approach. Daniel Barenboim's recordings of the WTC on the grand piano may not suit period-instrument lovers, but they are colorful, deeply considered and, often, simply gorgeous.
In recent years Barenboim has performed Bach's encyclopedic masterworks on many a stage — and on January 20 and 21, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his Carnegie Hall debut, he'll perform both books of The Well-Tempered Clavier in consecutive concerts in Isaac Stern Auditorium.
Recently the maestro had a chat with Playbill about his long relationship with Bach's keyboard music, why he abandoned it for so long and how he approaches it now.
In the booklet note for your recording of The Well-Tempered Clavier, you talk about how your father taught you with Bach ...
My father made me play Bach because he very rightly felt that Bach develops not only one's musicianship but also one's piano technique. With Bach's polyphonic writing, you develop the independence of the fingers when needed, and the ability to voice and to balance the chords well. I was really raised on it very thoroughly.
And then, don't forget that in my years with Nadia Boulanger, every week I was made to transpose the preludes and fugues [of The Well-Tempered Clavier] at the beginning of the lesson, no matter what else we did.
Did she really tap your finger with a ruler when you hit a wrong note?
Yes, yes — but gently.
And later you gave Bach up ...
But then I left Bach alone — partly as adolescent rebellion, if you want. I went on playing it, I suppose, until I was around 20. But it was very much the time, in the '60s, when everybody was saying Bach has to be played on the harpsichord. Even somebody like Claudio Arrau, whose very last recording was of Bach partitas — even he came to that belief.
And I didn't feel comfortable playing Bach — the way I played it at that time sounded, I would say, almost like Brahms, and I knew this was not right. And yet I couldn't play it in any other way. So I decided to leave it aside.
I started, several years later, to study the Goldberg Variations, which I had not played as a child. That I played at home — I worked on them, really, for 25 years before I played them in public. I studied the Busoni edition, and every other possible edition ... and I really couldn't find my way with them.
And one day I stopped to think for a moment, and I said, well, when I play the piano, I always try to "orchestrate," to play the piano as an imaginary orchestra. This is true not only of the classics but also of the 19th-century repertoire — because the piano itself is a very neutral instrument.
And then, as an exercise for myself, I orchestrated in my mind each one of the Goldberg Variations — and differently at the repeat: you know, once thinking of an oboe and at the repeat of a trumpet, or vice versa.
And that's how I came back to Bach. That's what I'm doing now with The Art of the Fugue.
You're playing The Art of the Fugue in concert now?
I'm not playing it yet, I'm studying it.
Do you plan to perform it at some point?
I don't know — I don't know whether that is such a good idea ... The Art of the Fugue is all in D minor; I don't know whether a whole evening in D minor would be tiring for the ear.
What led you to decide to perform the Well-Tempered Clavier books whole in an evening — as opposed to, say, five or six preludes and fugues on a program with other types of music?
I believe that one of the most important elements of expression in music is accumulation. In Beethoven it's very clear when certain motives are being repeated; Bruckner sometimes keeps repeating and accumulates tension. And with the preludes and fugues [of the WTC], I think, when you play them all, you have the feeling of having gone through a major journey.
The first thing that the ear notices is that it is a prelude and fugue followed by a prelude and fugue; then the next thing is that you have the alternation of major-minor, major-minor ... and then you get the accumulation of going up a semitone each time. So that, by the time you get to the fourth or fifth prelude, I think, consciously or subconsciously you are in this process of accumulation. I thought that gave a wonderful feeling of growth in the music, and I thought that would be so for the listener as well.
I played the first book [of The Well-Tempered Clavier] many, many times all over, and then recorded it too; then I did the same thing with the second book. And I came to the conclusion that, in fact, what I would like to do is play them — obviously not on the same day, but either on successive days or with a day in between, in the hope that a great part of the audience would make the journey with me like this.
And this is why, when it came to make the program for this [engagement] — which is, to the day, 50 years from my first concert in Carnegie Hall — since it happened to fall on a Saturday, I said, well, why don't I do them in New York?
Have you played them on successive days in other cities already?
And it works? The audience goes along?
It works wonderfully, I think.
What difference do you find between the two books?
I think the preludes of the second book are, generally speaking, more elaborate and larger, and you don't have the huge fugues [of Book One], for instance. I think also that harmonically, there is a different idiom, more complex. I think there's 22 years between the two books — it 's a very long time.
Have you conducted much Bach?
In Chicago I did the orchestral pieces and the Brandenburg Concertos. But I have never conducted the Passions — I am still waiting for them. I hope to do the Matthew Passion in Berlin in 2009.
Is there any music of Bach that you would stay away from? That you don't care for?
(softly) No ... no, no ... There are always works of Bach that I don't feel up to — and don't ask me which ones, because I feel that about different ones at different times. But none that I don't like.
Matthew Westphal is editor of PlaybillArts.com.