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Playing Bach on the Piano: pedal or no pedal

Decisions, decisions about whether to add the sustain pedal to Bach's ethereal Prelude 1 in C from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1.

I thought I was dazed silly on this topic, ready to bury it in a time capsule for generation Z Baroque scholars to quibble about while the polar ice caps have their ominous, final meltdown.

No such luck. A hot debate is brewing on Facebook, of all places, and the posts are surviving annoying POKES.

Bottom line:

What does it take to convert a pianist who always played the first Bach Prelude in C, Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One, WITH pedal. (Remember how it became the sonorous underpinning for the religioso “Ave Maria”) Should we therefore trade a rich bed of harmony for a bare bones framing?

I was a cynic, if not a blatant heathen, refusing to surrender my precious RIGHT pedal in the interests of PURITANICAL purity, even if Andras Schiff adjudicated my aesthetic decision about Prelude 1 on the Final Judgment Day! (Schiff's Bach performances were notoriously sustain-less)

With stubborn resistance, I would stick to my pedal, holding it down as long as I needed to….

That is, until I had a consciousness-raising in the days following my recent trip to New York City.

Seymour Bernstein, celebrated pianist, author, scholar and composer, weighed in at the piano, while Elaine Comparone, world-renowned harpsichordist demonstrated at her music/love/repository.

Two side-by-side playings with commentary fed my intellect and spirit.

Seymour advocated a pedaling that was NOT at the beginning of the measure, in the usual legato bar-to-bar sequence, so commonly embraced, especially by those who were into the harp-like effect. His mid-measure pedal depression after the first E of the opening broken chord, with an echo effect driven by sub-groupings of notes, was inviting. In a unique way, it allowed a counter-voice in the bass/tenor to have a clear and defined outline, and for the first time, I heard a separation of voices reflected in a pleasing counterpoint.

http://youtu.be/8jvOyhAe6dg

The uppermost soprano line had also gained more prominence through this approach.

Finally, Seymour’s revolutionary impulses were registered in a decision to make the CLIMAX of the prelude the final secondary DOMINANT of the Sub-Dominant in measure 32 right before the Coda. He insisted that this very CODA would “lay an egg” otherwise. (Would I chuckle and go along with the menu?) I always considered the peak of this composition to be measure 29 at the PRIMARY DOMINANT juncture after which I tapered off to a relative whisper in a silky diminuendo. (using judicious pedaling so as not to muddle the notes)

Seymour chose to leave the coda entirely pure.. no pedal underfoot.

Juxtapose his interpretation with Elaine Comparone’s. But why should we compare what the harpsichord might say in its own unique language? Still, harpsichord-inspired ideas swam around my head for days in the wake of my NYC departure.

**

Harpichordists used finger pedaling at times to create desired sustain. And I watched Elaine hold down notes as she played the Prelude in C both at the harpsichord and then at the piano. Sandwiched in were performances that were improvised in a charming way to flesh out hidden appoggiature. A cascade of FOUR voices emerged to my astonishment!

The video below provides more detail and explanation.

http://youtu.be/ooRj-W_-eb8

The upshot of this touchdown was my having second thoughts about my former pedaling choices that were framed in legato style, but had become modified by Seymour’s awakenings.

Where would I ultimately settle along the pedal/no pedal spectrum?

As I resumed my practicing and teaching schedule in California, I was wooed to the following performance rendered by Irena Koblar, a favorite of mine in the Scarlatti-playing universe. Naturally, I was more than curious about her feel for Bach, a Baroque contemporary:

http://youtu.be/bOTW2VS4w5w

While I loved her singing tone, I felt something was missing in the counterpoint. (She used legato pedaling through the Coda) and made the climax at the predictable PRIMARY DOMINANT measure, with a nice tapering to the end.

Last year, one of my student’s used the same legato pedaling in our annual Spring recital, producing a lovely reading. Naturally, at the time, the fruit didn’t fall far from the tree.

http://youtu.be/3YNy0KHgE8M

Into the present:

At the request and prodding of a FACEBOOK friend, Louise Hullinger, and having absorbed Elaine Comparone’s example at her Knabe grand piano following the harpsichord rendition, I decided to try Bach’s Prelude in C without pedal. It was the first time I ventured into a drier yet equally satisfying universe.

Enlightenment! I didn’t feel stripped of the piano’s soul. And I could follow voices, without undue attention to my foot pedaling activity.

http://youtu.be/wLtqSK9U6Fo

While the final verdict is not yet in, I’m going to separate from my pedal companion in a civilized manner.

Who knows what the future might bring? It could invite a reconciliation or change of heart in the Baroque cosmos of performance practice.

For certain, the sustain will not be completely banished from my playing universe. I’ll continue to embrace it in the good company of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and their heirs who followed in the long line of musical masters.

LINKS:

http://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/12/06/my-nyc-visit-with-seymour-bernstein-pianist-teacher-author-and-composer/

http://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/12/04/a-visit-with-elaine-comparone-at-her-harpsichord-palace-in-new-york-city/

http://www.harpsichord.org

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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