Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Beatrice Rana Takes on a Major Bach Undertaking for her First Solo Album on Warner Classics

This Friday Warner Classics will release its first solo album of Italian pianist Beatrice Rana, winner of both the Silver Medal and the Audience Award at the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. This will follow up on her debut album for Warner Classics, featuring concertos by Sergei Prokofiev (Opus 16 in G minor) and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Opus 23 in B-flat minor) in November of 2015. The new album already has a Web page on Amazon.com; and it is available for pre-orders. It consists of only one composition, Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 988 set of (“Goldberg”) variations on an Aria theme.

I should probably begin by getting my primary misgiving off my chest, which is the booklet essay that Rana provided (translated into English by Ian Mansbridge) whose English title is “Beatrice Rana on the Goldberg enigma.” I appreciate that a noun like “enigma” tends to attract attention; but I have always been one to deal with BWV 988 at the level of mundane pragmatism. Johann Nikolaus Forkel’s story about harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg and his insomniac patron Count Hermann Karl von Keyserlingk is probably a myth (although a favorite Italian saying is, “It may not be true, but it is a good story!”). However, the value of BWV 988 can be found in the less romantic fact that Bach published this set of variations as the fourth and final volume of his Clavier-Übung (keyboard practice) series; and Rana’s most interesting observation is that Bach’s Aria may well have been an elaboration of a chaconne theme for which George Frideric Handel provided 64 variations.

It is that Clavier-Übung project that disperses any “fog of enigma” that one might wish to attach to BWB 988. Just as Ludwig Wittgenstein took, as a fundamental premise, the principle that the meaning of any word resides in how that word is used, the very language of Bach’s title asserts that the essence of music resides in how it is made, rather than in any of the artifacts (such as pages of notation) that may facilitate the making. In other words every page in Bach’s mammoth publication project is there to serve the pedagogical act of a teacher guiding a pupil on those practices that provide a “toolkit” for making music at a keyboard. (The full scope of the Clavier-Übung includes organ keyboards as well as those of “clavier” instruments.)

The recognition of pedagogy as a significant act adds a new alternative to a bipartite distinction discussed previously on this site. This involves that transition around the turn of the nineteenth century between the private and public practice of making music. Pedagogy is a practice that is not private, but it is more limited than what might call a “public” practice. As Cantor of the Thomasschule zu Leipzig, Bach had to be an educator, as well as a working musician; and his educational practices probably involved one-on-many (as when preparing performances of his cantatas), as well as one-on-one practices he had previously experienced in educating his own sons.

The point is that BWV 988 is best approached as the work of Bach-the-pedagogue, rather than Bach-the-composer or Bach-the-performer in either a private setting (such as the gatherings of the Collegium Musicum at Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffee house in Leipzig) or a public one (such as the sanctuary of the St. Thomas Church). Rana’s “Handel connection” is particularly apposite to this pedagogical point of view. As we know from the title page that Bach provided for his two-part and three-part inventions, pedagogy was not just a matter of clarity of execution. It also involved cultivating the craft of “invention” as “a strong foretaste of composition;” and what better way to explore invention that by observing one composer applying it to the work of another?

However, there is another pedagogical aspect that emerged here in San Francisco when pianist András Schiff performed BWV 988 in the final program of his six-concert Bach Project, which took place in October of 2013. Schiff provided his own notes for the program book, suggesting that Schiff-the-performer up on stage was sharing attention with Schiff-the-pedagogue providing those in the audience with guidance on how to listen. Those notes observed that listening to BWV 988 could be approached as embarking on a journey; and, to make sure that the listener did not lose his/her way, Schiff’s essay postulated a basic underlying rule, “Always follow the bass line.” If Rana’s conjecture is correct, then that bass line had its origins in Handel (although Bach’s first act of “invention” was to extend its length).

Nevertheless, while Rana’s perspective may be one of the best brought to BWV 988 since Schiff’s decision to prepare that music for recital performance, her execution does not always live up to her insights. Most importantly, her somewhat varying attention to that bass line does not always make it easy for the listener to follow it. Thus, while there is no questioning her dexterity in mastering the many complex patterns that emerge out of Bach’s capacity for invention, it is unclear whether or not she accepts Schiff’s journey metaphor as an approach to listening to her performance.

Clearly, she is not obliged to follow Schiff’s rules in her own execution; but it is worth asking whether she wishes us to listen to her album as an integrated beginning-to-end experience. The answer may lie in her appeal to that journey metaphor in her own booklet notes. Judging from the printing of the track listing, it may be that her journey has less to do with chaconne-like recurrence of the bass line and more to do with Bach having organized his variations in ten groups of three, each of which concludes with a canon on an increasingly widening interval. In this case the risk is that there is a one-thing-after-another repetitiveness to the “guideposts” that threatens to obscure both the diversity on the surface structure and the sense that the journey is actually going somewhere.

Does this mean that Rana’s recording amounts to an alternative journey struggling to be recognized? That would probably be an unfair conclusion. After all, when played in its entirety, BWV 988 is a major undertaking; and this applies to the listener as well as to the performer. Anyone who decides to purchase this recording should not leave it on the shelf to gather dust. This is a performance that deserves multiple listening experiences, because it will only be through gradual acclimation that the serious listener will be able to decide for himself/herself whether Rana has established a convincing journey or was just playing with words in her booklet notes.

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