Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Trills in Bach B-Minor Fugue

This article deals with one detail of the interpretation of the B-Minor Fugue by J.S. Bach from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Anyone not interested in either Bach or piano playing might feel compelled to skip this whole thing. I won't be offended if you do.

As a little update to my earlier post on this fugue, Learning the B-Minor, I am pleased to say I've actually learned it. I've been playing it fairly confidently, with the prelude, for a few months now, but I'm still in the process of memorizing and trying out possible interpretations. In particular, the trills are still giving me some trouble.

Only one trill is actually indicated in the score: a half-note trill in the third measure, at the end of the first entrance of the subject. In my Peters Urtext edition, the trill ends with two grace notes. By implication, that same trill (and arguably the same grace notes) should be played at the same spot in the subject wherever it occurs, heightening the subject's recognizability and preserving its character. But that simple goal gets mighty tricky, mighty fast.

In a couple places no trill is possible--there's simply too much going on and too few fingers to play it. In four cases, the trilled note is harmonized by one or two sustained notes in the same hand, making a trill difficult but not impossible. In two of those four cases, and in one other place, the trilled note doesn't resolve down but is tied across the bar, making the ending of the trill necessarily different than all the other instances.

The rule of thumb in cases like this is to look for what is consistently possible. But in this case, no solution was going to work in all instances.

I decided to do a simple survey of performances available on YouTube to see how others players handled it. I really thought there would be one agreed upon standard with a few variations, depending on the player and the instrument. So wrong! The variety of interpretations is stunning. Here are a few. These don't constitute my recommendations necessarily, as you can probably tell by my comments. They're just a random collection of performances that were available for free online:

  • Ashkenzy's approach is the most logical. He makes a couple small changes in the trill (starting on the main note, not the upper note as I was taught, and excluding any grace notes at the end). He then uses this same trill at every possible place except the notes that are tied and the two places where the note is harmonized as a three-note chord in the same hand.

  • A German pianist named Friedrich Gulda is the most ambitious, using the trill (again starting on the main note) in every possible place, including the tied notes--even the terrifying (to me) trill between the 4th and 5th fingers in bar 15. He even throws in a few more decorative trills here and there, particularly on held notes. His trills are undoubtedly impressive, but in general, his interpretation strives for glory through crescendo and comes across as merely abrasive.

  • Pianist Joanna MacGregor uses only the clearest opportunities for trills, excluding all the trouble spots I mentioned above. She also has a dramatic shift in dynamics between the statements of the angular subject and the mellow, more melodic episodes. The effect is as if a person struggling with some inner demon occasionally stops to listen to the voices in the next room. Her approach is interesting, but strikes me as an exaggerated interpretation.

  • Harpsichordist Kenneth Gilbert includes the most obvious trills during the exposition and skipping the trouble spots, before abandoning the trills altogether. In the last half of the piece, the only trill he includes is one of the tied notes. It's interesting to hear the difference in pitch. The lower tuning of Gilbert's harpsichord (and Belder's, below) is probably the more historically accurate, compared to the standard pitch of modern piano tuning. This clip includes both the Prelude and the Fugue; the fugue starts at 4:17.

  • Pianist Bernard Roberts plays all the trills, without exception, including one of the impossible ones, which he makes possible by truncating it. (Oddly, he includes the grace-note finish in each trill, even in the cases of the tied notes.) His trills are strictly 32nd notes, slower than the others on this list.

  • Glenn Gould's version is, of course, completely whacked. First, he plays the fugue at a lightning tempo, staccato, in defiance of all logic and Bach's own tempo marking. Given that, it's still interesting to note that he takes all the possible trills except one, altering the final notes as needed to execute the tied versions.

  • Harsichordist Pieter-Jan Belder, in a 2008 recording, takes what is possibly the most radical approach: he plays the first trill, the one that's notated, and that's it. It's surprising how popular this reading of the score is, particularly with pianists. To find it with a harpsichordist is even more remarkable. It must be added however that Belder's interpretation is really beautiful. Along with Ashkenazy's, it's my favorite of this group. Further, Bach was known to have bridled at performers who took liberties with the ornaments in his scores, so there is adequate historical defense for this purist interpretation. (Belder's tuning is about a half-step lower than standard, but still noticeably higher than Gilbert's.)

And in the end, the result of my survey probably could have been predicted at the outset: It's up to each performer to decide for themselves. This flexibility only highlights the beauty of this music. Played with skill and conviction, nothing you can do can mar that.

Unless you're Glenn Gould, in which case, Bach and I both forgive you.

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