Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Anyssa Neumann’s Playlist Approach to BWV 988

Readers may recall how impressed I was by the Old First Concerts solo piano recital given by Anyssa Neumann at the end of this past January. As I observed at the time, the repertoire was extensive, with Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 933–938 “little” preludes at one end and Christopher Cerrone’s “Hoyt-Schermerhorn,” scored for piano with live electronics, at the other. Neumann’s education was divided between the United States and the United Kingdom, receiving her Bachelor’s degree in New York (Manhattan School of Music), her Master’s at Oxford, and a Ph. D. in London (King’s College). She is currently based in London; and, in all likelihood, her visit to San Francisco was part of a tour.

However, the timing suggests that, shortly after her tour concluded, she was confronted with the need to shelter-in-place in London. In order to deal with quarantine conditions, she decided that she would make a video of a performance of one of the “Goldberg” variations in Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 988, spending a single day on recording each variation. Two additional days would be devoted to the opening and closing statements of the theme. Neumann did not hold herself to playing all of these pieces on consecutive days; and, as a result, the opening theme appeared as a YouTube video on April 2; and the concluding repetition of that theme was recorded yesterday on June 1. All 32 videos were then collected into a YouTube Playlist with automatic transitions between the individual recordings.

When I write about BWV 988, I often like to remind readers that the music was published as the fourth and final volume of the Clavier-Übung (keyboard practice), the entirety of which can be taken as a comprehensive document of Bach’s approach to pedagogy. Whether or not the harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg would play individual variations because his master, Count Hermann Karl van Keyserlingk, suffered from insomnia is an amusing but distracting question. If BWV 988 is “about” anything, it is about refining skills of technical proficiency and expressive interpretation; and every movement of BWV 988 (including the theme itself) poses its own unique set of challenges.

As a result, for the attentive listener, Neumann’s playlist amounts to a “diary” of sorts, through which she documents her approaches to technique and expressiveness. Indeed, the texts that accompany each of the movements amounts to a more familiar diary of personal reflections. However, I have to confess that I have not read those texts in detail yet. I was more interested in what the listening experience would be like when enhanced by viewing, and that was more than enough to keep me occupied.

I should therefore begin by observing that all those of us (and, yes, I include myself) that are very insistent about sitting on “keyboard side” are usually confronted with a relatively impoverished view of the keyboard itself. All of Neumann’s videos, on the other hand, were shot from a single camera that afforded the best possible view of the relationship between hands and keyboard. This is not to say that I was unaware of what she was wearing, but it never seemed to signify as part of the listening experience. Indeed, the only thing that drew attention from the keyboard was the single candle lit for one of the variations that seemed to enhance the expressive disposition of the 25th variation:

I should also warn those listeners that like to be sticklers that none of the repeats are taken. Anyone leaping to shout “Sacrilege!” may wish to bear in mind that, in the recording of BWV 988 that he made for the Bach 2000 complete-works collection released jointly by Das Alte Werk and Teldec, Gustav Leonhardt did not take those repetitions either! Since this music was never intended to be played before a public audience, it would probably make more sense to assume that those repeats were just another aspect of pedagogy, obliging the student not to play the passage exactly the same way twice. As concert experiences go, obliging the audience to listen to two different ways of interpreting every section of all 31 movements would be more of an endurance test than a satisfying listening experience.

Thus, if the music is to be given what amounts to a “concert performance,” what matters is a clear sense of a journey from beginning to end enhanced by an equally clear sense of flow from one movement to the next. What is particularly striking is that, even though each variation was recorded on a different day, there is an easily accessible sense of flow across the entire performance. As might be guessed, the canons that unfold on every third variation allow that flow to be organized around “mileposts.” However, what particularly struck me was the way in which the “overture” variation clearly established itself as the midpoint of the entire journey.

Now I feel as if I should make the journey a second time. This time, however, I will probably opt out of the full-screen view. Instead, I shall browse the text commentary that documents each of the movements while it is playing!

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