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Re: GG: Alvarez&Brendel; levels of artistic interest

On Fri, 12 Apr 1996 Tcdemarco@aol.com wrote:

> Could someone please tell me what it really means to say that Bach is
> "better" on harpsichord or clavichord than on piano??  Sentences like these
> really puzzle me.  What is it that someone is saying when they utter such
> sentences??  One usual response is that Bach wrote his music in a time when
> the piano did not (or barely) existed.  So, his music was not "intended" for
> such an instrument as the piano.  "Better" however is an evaluative term.
>  How does one get an evaluative term from this historical (and somewhat
> trivial) fact.  If this is not what people mean, than what??

I'm probably the person you're referring to who used that word "better" 
sloppily.  Sorry for the ambiguous choice of word.  

What I meant by "better" in this case was "more natural" : the tonal
design and physical playing technique of an instrument determine how hard
the player will have to work to make an effective musical result, playing
a given piece.  (Now, that "effective musical result" is of course
somewhat subjective, but most people probably have a fairly similar sense
of the contrapuntal clarity, balance, power, etc. emanating from an
instrument.  It's obvious that Bach's cello suites sound better on cello
than on trombone.)

The instrument itself to a large part determines what aspects of a piece
are highlighted, plus the sensitive player can fuss with these balances to
some degree beyond what the instrument does as a basis.  By "better" I
meant that the player doesn't have to do much such fussing with balances,
and can devote himself/herself to playing with abandon instead.  Put two
different harpsichords side to side, and probably each will be better than
the other in certain kinds of music.  Same kind of thing if we're
comparing a harpsichord with a piano.  There are aspects written into the
music which automatically sound basically more natural on one, as opposed
to the other. 

Gould addressed this question himself, in his notes to the Bach Partitas
(in the old foldout 2-LP set).  He wrote about being able to play very
easily on the clarity that a harpsichord gives, while having to work
harder for clarity on piano.  (Gould was of course very good at
controlling such things.) There's an extra level of effort which the
player must expend when playing Bach on piano instead of
harpsichord...hence my comment that the harpsichord is in general "better" 
for Bach than the piano.  The musical gestures emerge more naturally, with
less attention needed from the player.  If the phrases are written with a
particular sound in mind (amount of decay, amount of volume, thickness of
sound, etc.), they will rarely sound as good on a different instrument,
unless the player compensates (and the compensation can go only so far).

To draw the analogy a bit further: I enjoy playing Villa-Lobos' guitar
music.  But I don't play the guitar, so my choices are limited to
harpsichord, organ, clavichord, and piano.  For that particular repertoire
I find that the instruments are ranked from best to worst: guitar,
clavichord, piano, harpsichord, organ.  The way the music is written
determines this (in this case, a lot of the concern is with varying
dynamics note-to-note).  Contrast that with earlier music, for instance
Luys Narvaez' pieces for vihuela da mano.  In the case of some of those, I
have to move the piano to the end of that list, because the organ really
does bring out some nice aspects of the pieces, while the piano with its
relatively less complex tone simply makes them sound boring or too thin. 
(And this is not surprising, considering the 16th century milieu of
Cabezon and others, where vihuela music was intended almost equally for
vihuela, harp, or organ.)

It's OK to play Bach on the piano; it's just harder work (in general) than
playing Bach on harpsichord, clavichord, or organ.

Does that explain my use of the word "better" better?  :)

Bradley Lehman, bpl@umich.edu       http://www-personal.umich.edu/~bpl/