Piano Men

By John Schauer

For many years, I avoided listening to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach—or that of any of his illustrious contemporaries—performed on the piano. My bias is perfectly understandable; during my sophomore year at Northwestern University’s School of Music (at that time it had not yet acquired the name “Bienen”), I began to switch my private keyboard studies from piano to harpsichord, and so I wanted to hear Bach’s music—which was composed for the harpsichord—performed on the harpsichord. I resisted (and still do) the notion that the piano is just a more modern and improved version of the harpsichord. They are two completely different instruments: the harpsichord plucks the string, while the piano strikes it with a felt hammer. Different sound, different technique, different instrument.

My preference wasn’t due solely to any highfalutin devotion to historical authenticity, I just loved the sound of the harpsichord, and I still play it regularly. Somewhat amazingly, about six years ago I made an idle inquiry at Northwestern and learned the university was interested in selling the huge concert harpsichord that had fallen into disuse since the music school discontinued its harpsichord program. So I am now playing the same instrument I studied, practiced, and performed on 40 years ago, and I love it.

When you love something as much as I love the sound of the harpsichord, it’s easy to slip into the invalid assumption that everyone else would love it, too, if they were only familiar with it. But that notion took a knocking about five years ago when I was going to lunch in a car with several of my 20-something colleagues at Ravinia. I had just acquired the most spectacular-sounding recording of Bach’s Concerto for Four Harpsichords, and I put it in the car stereo to treat my coworkers to that glorious sound. But within 15 seconds of the start of the piece, one of them requested firmly that the music be changed. They just didn’t like the sound, something I still find incomprehensible.

Nor, apparently, are they alone. I understand that an entire chain of classical-music FM stations in this country has imposed a “moratorium” on harpsichord recordings. I have my own feelings on why this sad state of affairs came about, but that’s a whole other subject. More to the point, these days most performances you can attend of Bach’s keyboard music will be performed on the piano. Indeed, some pianists specialize almost exclusively in performing Bach on the piano, a tradition that goes back to Glenn Gould and Rosalyn Tureck and continues today with such exponents as Angela Hewitt.

But truth to tell, I’m more interested in performances by pianists who don’t specialize in Baroque music, an interest that dates back to my Romantic music course at Northwestern, where we were studying Franz Liszt, possibly the most dazzlingly gifted keyboard technician of all time, some of whose music still can’t be played by other pianists. I was amazed to learn that he used to regularly include early-music selections on his piano recitals (a performance genre he invented), such as sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti or William Byrd’s The Bells. The mind staggers to imagine what that must have sounded like. That is how I want to hear Baroque music on a piano—not with the piano as an anachronistic substitute for the harpsichord, but as a viable alternative, a veritable transcription for a new instrument.

Ravinia audiences have two opportunities coming up to experience consummate pianists’ views of music from a distant age: On July 7 Jeffrey Kahane will undertake Bach’s monumental “Goldberg” Variations, one of the most imposing sets of keyboard variations of all time (my harpsichord teacher used to tell me that the Goldbergs are the last big work a harpsichordist should tackle); and on July 15 Igor Levit will essay all six of Bach’s Partitas. The term “Partita” had a different meaning in its early formative years, but in Germany, at Bach’s time, it referred to a suite of dance movements. But in his Partitas, Bach took the form beyond his other collections of “English Suites” and “French Suites,” expanding the scope and scale of the form, adding non-traditional movements and introducing each suite with an imposing introductory movement. They will be two evenings of the pinnacles of 18th-century keyboard music, viewed through the lens of the 21st century.