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How should I restart studying Bach?

Discussion in 'Repertoire' started by hyenal, Feb 13, 2010.

  1. hyenal

    hyenal New Member Piano Society Artist

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    (I bet I'll get replies from at least three persons among: Chris, Terez, Alfonso, Andreas and Stan (maybe Sarah, too?) :lol: )
    Everytime I read discussions on our forums, I think I must study Bach... Bach seems to be THE solution to every kind of problem :wink:
    Here is my personal history concerning Bach (and my piano playing). I started piano playing at the age of 5 and if I remember correctly I learned all the inventions and sinfonias as an elementary school kid. It was a great fun and I prefered the sinfonias to the inventions. After several years I quit the piano lessons at the age of 13 and the first P&F from WTC were the last pieces. I found the fugue very difficult and never tried to learn alone the WTC further (even though I learned many Chopins for myself). As an undergraduate I restarted to get lessons and played the second English Suite with that teacher. I remenber a slow movement was very beautiful and that is all I can say now :oops: A long break again and I restarted with lessons again here in Germany. My teacher had me once asked if I ever played Bach's partitas and let me learn the fourth and the fifth partitas. In the fourth I began to warm toward Bach's keyboard music again but my LH and the difficulty of detached touch let me much frustrated. From the fifth only the Praeambulum and the Gigue appealed to me. The others were boring... (sorry for the disability to estimate the novel music :wink:). And the LH trills in the Gigue... that sucks :x That's my last Bach and it was in the year 2007. Now I don't take lessons anymore since I have a young baby and it seems I have to teach myself if I start to study Bach again.
    And here is my experience with Bach outside of keyboard pieces: I love to listen to solo violin pieces above all and like the cello suites, too. (Compared to them listening to keyboard music of Bach is rather boring at many times... I mean from a whole CD... I do like to listen to your Bach, guys :) ) Besides I had sung in a church choir here (about four years) and learned quite a few Bach cantatas. And of course heard many Bach for organ in that church, too :wink: That choir experience was very important to me - studying vocal works helped me immensely in understanding polyphony in general. As the last thing I like his Matthäus-Passion a lot but find the Christmas Oratorio boring :p

    Now my questions:
    Is it possible for me with such a poor experience with Bach to learn Bach alone? (Anyway I never had a teacher who is specialized in Bach-technique or Bach-interpretation, even though my German teacher is a Gouldmania.)
    With which piece schould I start?
    Which practice-methode is recommendable to benefit from Bach technically?

    Of course any other tips around Bach much appreciated!! :D
     
  2. Terez

    Terez New Member

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    LOL, you have played more Bach than me. I have played one invention (#1), one sinfonia (#15), one WTC set (b-flat minor, book 1), and one other WTC prelude (c major, book 1), and two partitas (2 and 6). I have played around with some other things, though, and partita 4 is one I have spent a bit of time with.

    I think I know what you mean about finding certain movements boring, because I often find myself in the same position with Bach. Sometimes his keyboard technique is particularly counterintuitive, and sometimes it's hard to get your hands on a good interpretation. Anyway, I have learned not to trust these intuitions with Bach. It's always good. Sometimes, the music requires a little deeper digging. I just started working on partita 2 recently, and the courante was the movement that I had trouble getting into. In partita 6, it was the gavotte. In partita 4, it's probably the allemande. Allemandes always seem a little harder to get into than other movements in the dance suites; they're not quite as profound and angsty as sarabandes (like that lovely one from English suite 2 that you liked), and they're not as catchy as the faster movements. I partita 4, I am quite fond of the courante. I will probably never be able to play it as fast as GG though, and that makes me sad. The minuet/passapied are also a lot of fun I think. Sometimes, the movements that are the hardest to get into are the ones I end up liking the most.

    A good tip if you are bored with one of the Bach dances: spend less time on the A section than on the B section (unless it's one of the rare non-binary ones). The real meat is always in the B section, and often the best bits of the A besides. Play hands separate, and voices separate as well. Play hands together, bringing out a different voice every time. And above all, I think it is helpful to think of your fingers actually dancing the notes of the dances, instead of just playing them. It makes it more fun to me, as opposed to just being work, and it also helps me keep out tension.

    I think that Bach can probably be a bit like a miracle drug for piano technique, but I think you have to get into it for it to work. I have always liked Bach, but I have always had a hard time playing most of his music, so I stayed away from it. I think a lot of pianists in the last 200 years have probably felt the same, because after the piano took over the harpsichord, no one wrote like that any more. Keyboard technique changed completely, in order to take advantage of the full range and percussive/expressive potential of the instrument. Mozart was conservative on those terms; Beethoven tried to orchestrate for piano; Chopin perfected the art of pianism, and his contemporaries weren't bad at it either; Chopin has a lot to do with why modern pianism is so different from Bach's keyboard technique, but at the same time, you can see how much of Chopin's technique was inspired by Bach's.

    But, most kids prefer the easier Chopin things, the easier Schumann and Liszt and Debussy and Rachmaninoff and maybe Mozart and Beethoven too, and generally stuff where you only have to lift the damper pedal every now and then, and it's all legato and essentially homophonic. And it's not that those composers are actually easier than Bach; they all wrote a good number of things that are fairly difficult that most kids would simply rather play...because they're flashier? Bach is sometimes flashy. Prettier? Sarabandes are about as rip-your-heart-out as they come, but they are harder to pull off on a piano, for sure. It's hard to describe, but Bach was old-fashioned even in his time, and he's certainly considered old-fashioned now, so old that he didn't actually write for our instrument! :lol: But, as a musician, I find his music the most rewarding to learn. Chopin is not far behind him for me, and sometimes I think I only put Chopin behind him because the stuff I want to play is so difficult. But the more Bach I play, the easier it gets to play Chopin, and since I suck at piano, I have just been playing the same Bach over and over again, and therefore haven't played much. :lol:

    So, to sum up:

    Yes!

    One that you like, and one that challenges you. A suite would be good, cause it will give you a wide range of music and technical problems.

    Make it fun for you. If it is boring, then spice up the articulation, suspend notes that aren't written that way, do crazy ornaments on the repeats. Bach is really flexible. :wink:
     
  3. techneut

    techneut Active Member Piano Society Artist

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    I have nothing useful to add to Terez' essay.
    Of course playing Bach is not the 'solution' to all 'problems'. It will not help your octaves and parallel scales. But as a rock-solid foundation both technically and musically, there is nothing better.

    I never understand the 'what should I play' kind of question. Indeed, something you like. Then again, I can't understand how you could not like any Bach piece, except maybe early or spurious pieces which can drone on a bit sometimes. I would actually recommend the Art Of Fugue. Maybe not all of it but the first couple of Contrapuncti are great examples of counterpoint.

    One tip which may help. Think like an organist and observe note values (and by consequence, rests) religiously. This tends to be hard for a pianist in the beginning, but should not have to be so for you. I find that this really helps appreciating the music and keeping the concentration.
     
  4. RSPIll

    RSPIll New Member

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    I would also add that to get started, you do not need to confine yourself to an entire suite. If a suite has some movements that you like and others that are not your cup of tea right now, do the movements that you like. Even in Bach's day, it was not a requirement to play all of the movements of a suite and those with more than one of a certain type, the performer could chose one or another.

    Also, (and I know some purists will want to shoot me for this) a lot of Bach grooves along quite well with an 8 beat pop or rock or Bossa Nova drum pattern in the background. It's certainly more fun than a metronome. If you have access to a digital keyboard with rhythms than you can use that or set it up near your acoustic piano. I believe that there are also some software "groove boxes" available on-line.

    Scott
     
  5. Terez

    Terez New Member

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    That was another thing I forgot to mention. Make sure you practice Bach on a decent acoustic piano as often as possible. He didn't write for piano, but his technique plays quite well into the percussive nature of the instrument, and the acoustic feel facilitates the best Bach-playing in my opinion. Some digitals are decent at imitating that feel, but I don't think any of them have quite managed it. I think all Chris meant about thinking like an organist is dealing with the suspensions, which are not typical of modern piano-writing, but after having listened to you play the Rach transcription, I don't really think this is something that you would have a problem with, and you are not exactly a Bach beginner anyway. :wink:

    @Scott....I don't usually do beats (I am rather fond of the metronome), but there are some sounds settings that I like to use for some Bach stuff (like strings, for the sarabande from the g minor English Suite, and pipe organ for the allemande in the c minor partita).
     
  6. sarah

    sarah New Member

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    I have nothing substantial to add after all of these wonderful suggestions. :D I don't think you need to be concerned about not connecting with all of Bach's music. (Shhh, I have the same problem :wink: ). I second the idea of playing what you like, as I would certainly think that is necessary to connect with the music and interpret it well. I've never been able to interpret a piece I disliked to my satisfaction, and that usually leads to a further dislike of the piece. :wink:

    I have recently been working on a P&F and partita with my teacher, and some technical things she suggested (you probably already know these things :wink: )were using a forward towards-the-fallboard motion when playing portato and always, always keeping curved fingers, even when navigating leaps.

    Something I experimented with in my last piece to make keeping track of the themes easy was to label each motif with a number, and each phrase related to each motif with the number and an identifying letter (1a, 3b, etc.). It seemed to help with fingering and memorization, too.
     
  7. hyenal

    hyenal New Member Piano Society Artist

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    Wow, thank all of you for the precious tips and wonderful ideas which have been unknown to me, my Bach-Specialists! I think it'll took a while for me to digest all these practical tips thoroughly. So don't blame me if I would come back to one of these tips after a year... :wink:
    BTW today is the New Year's Day after the lunar calendar and the biggest feast day in East Asia! In this sense Happy New Year to everyone :D I'm going to go to the Korean church to celebrate this day with others today, so I'm going to go into only part of your replies and will come back to the others later.

    Terez, thank you so much for your time and very practical tips which are based on your pedagogical understanding full with sympathy with my (rather primitive) problems! In this passage you wrote one thing is not clear to me. Is what you mean by "not to trust these intuitions" that I shouldn't give up a possible good interpretation just because it is not so easy to realize on the instrument? (I'm afraid I didn't get the right point...) BTW I liked the courante from the 4th partita, too! Yes, GG plays that in a very fast tempo, so I decided to follow the tempo of Tureck :wink: She plays that a bit slowly, but like a real dancing. Ah, I especially appreciate that tip of thinking my fingers are dancing! It would be really helpful.

    Oh, this idea is very interesting! Could I hear a bit more about it? And one question more about Bach's technique: It seems that many people think non-legato or dettached touch is ideal for Bach. Is it to justify by the historical argument or through the fact that in that way you can handle with his music (technically) better?

    Yes, we all know that you study a piece really intensively and thoroughly :) I have been looking forward to listen to your Bach (or Chopin or Shostakovich) already for a while! You are a music student, so I suppose the school exams or recitals could be recorded by the equipments of your school, or not?

    Oh, unfortunately I have no access to a decent acoustic now :( As I learned the two partitas, I practiced those on a decent Steinway and I still remember what I felt through my fingers. I have to play some of them on my digital and try to find how the digital on Bach is different.
     
  8. hyenal

    hyenal New Member Piano Society Artist

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    Thank you very much, Chris! I will come by a score of the Art of Fugue and give a look, since I never had its score. BTW isn't it so, that the Bach's intention in which instrumentation this set must be played is not clear? I think I read something like that somewhere. Could you find some differences concerning the playing technique (if it weren't composed for the keyboard, there could be one) as you played that set?
    About the second tip from you I think you don't worry about it. My German teacher was always unbelievably strict about all the note and rest values (in every repertoire) so I'm used to it. :wink: But when a long bass note cannot be played without a pedal (actually I don't know well there are such cases in Bach), is one allowed to use it? I think using pedals in Bach is another large topic, though.

    One question I forgot to write on the opening post is about the editions. Which edition is recommendable for Bach's keyboard works? Are the IMSLP scores ok, too? Or rather an expensive edition?
     
  9. techneut

    techneut Active Member Piano Society Artist

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    I am not sure whether or not Bach had (an) instrument(s) in mind. It's certainly such abstract music that it can be played by anything that produces sound. It would probbaly still sound good on steel drums :lol:
    And yet I find it immensely pianistic and very rewarding to play. There are some very awkward spots here and there, but none of them really unplayable, unless you have small hands (which I think you have, so some resort to pedal still be inevitable).
    On editions, I mostly have Henle Urtext for Bach. Not cheap but still worth the money. You don't want to play this music (which should be with you for al your life) from a4 sheets.
     
  10. alf

    alf New Member Piano Society Artist

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    What a nice thread!

    HJ, you seem more attracted by Bach as a technique booster than his music. Am I wrong?

    I agree on many things said here, especially the Bach-Chopin connection. This connection is more evident looking at the didactic works (that is, WTC and Etudes). It's all about figurations and technical patterns, compare for example these two snippets:


    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]


    They are much the same, except that the Chopin requires a different technique. In other words, you can master that pattern in Bach and still have not a clue in Chopin. In fact, as far as piano technique is concerned, Bach is not the immediate predecessor of Chopin; Czerny, Moscheles, Clementi but especially Hummel are. One can fill the technical gap between Bach and Chopin by learning some etudes by those composers, if needed. So, why study Bach then? I can just tell you what I see in Bach's 'piano' music (especially the stricter one), from a technical standpoint. First, you have almost constantly think in terms of contrapuntal lines, learning to differentiate weight and touch -this is of paramount help in virtually all the piano literature. Second, a very effective workout on two underrated elements of piano technique that on the contrary I find extremely useful: finger substitution and finger crossing. Third, Bach's music is huge playground for the pianist who wants to experiment with articulation, dynamics, pedalling or tone production. There's enough to make it your daily bread, I believe. Plus, Bach never stales!

    That said, my idea for an advanced amateur pianist with a limited time at hand is that including in their everyday round bits from the WTC and Chopin's Etudes is more than enough to build up and retain a good hand mechanism. Notice that, while the WTC is perfectly doable by every AAP, one doesn't need to bring a Chopin Etude to the performance level. In fact the single most important thing is to tackle, understand and solve the technical problems exposed.

    My one advice about the practice method is: AVOID the metronome and use it only to check your tempi. Trust your inner clock instead.

    Happy New Lunar Year, Hye-Jin. It's a great moment to make new decisions!
     
  11. Terez

    Terez New Member

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    LOL, I would be lost without a metronome. :cry: Why do you suggest avoiding it?

    Hye-Jin, I missed your response to me, and I will be rectifying that shortly.
     
  12. alf

    alf New Member Piano Society Artist

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    I have most of Bach's keyboard music on Henle. I've recently bought WTC and Partitas in the Baerenreiter Edition (this is the Neue Bach-Ausgabe) and I believe it's the current best edition for Bach. I've just ordered the French Suites also, to replace my old (and broken) EMB score. NBA prices are in the 10-20 EUR range depending on which you want. AFAIK IMSLP doesn't have reliable scores for Bach. Also, this is not music for a quickie, it's music for a lifelong relationship.

    On a side note, last year I bought the volume VII 'Trascriptions' of the former Belwin-Mills edition of the piano works of Rachmaninoff (now Alfred Publishing). Well it started to lose pages just after the second or third reading. Some 17 EUR flushed down the loo.
     
  13. alf

    alf New Member Piano Society Artist

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    Because playing in time doesn't mean that you make every bar last as long as the previous and the next one, as practicing with a metronome would induce you to do. Would you practice Chopin, Liszt or Scriabin with a metronome? Why then should you do with Bach?
     
  14. hyenal

    hyenal New Member Piano Society Artist

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    Thanks for your really practical tips! The first tip really encourages a Bach-(re)beginner like me finally to tackle a Bach-piece who was scared by the idea of playing all the pieces in a Bach suite. Actually I always have had that idea (not always with a reasonable cause), so I tried to learn or to record all the movements in a sonata or in a suite which usually prevents me from a free exploration to a new repertoire.
    Your second tip is very interesting. Actually I have only a digital piano, so I'll search for that function. You know, I heard Argerich saying a similar thing in a interview. After a recital a jazz musician came to her and told her how much he liked her Bach and he thought that her playing sounded like a Swing :wink:
     
  15. Terez

    Terez New Member

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    I practice everything with a metronome, unless it is something that has no clear tempo (lots o rubato). Not always with the metronome, but at least part of my practice is with metronome. I use it less as the technique progresses....I just find that it helps me to keep the piece at a tempo I can handle, which helps with steadiness. Without metronome, I always want to play faster than is strictly wise. :lol: I still don't understand your reasoning for avoiding it.
     
  16. hyenal

    hyenal New Member Piano Society Artist

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    I think I read the story about the ambiguity of the intended instrumentation concerning the recording of Pierre-Laurant Aimard (on an interview or in a CD-booklet). Before that I just had known there are recordings of The Art of Fugue played by a small orchestra or a string quartett, so I was surprised by the fact that that set can be a part of piano repertoires.
     
  17. hyenal

    hyenal New Member Piano Society Artist

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    Sarah, thanks for sharing your teacher's tips! I knew nothing about them. But you know... I'm afraid to say I didn't understand what is the "forward toward-the-fallboard motion" :oops:
    I'll keep your second tip in mind and try to apply to practice :D BTW You seem to be a very analytical and scrupulous person which I'd like to be willingly :)
     
  18. hyenal

    hyenal New Member Piano Society Artist

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    Thank you Alfonso for the score example (I think it took you not a short time, which I really appreciate) and your explicit and helpful views!
    For now, you may be right, since my recent interest on Bach was mainly awaken by my frustration from the quite unsuccessful practicing of that Bach-Rach piece. I practiced and practiced, but I can hardly see any technical improvement between the recording in my last post on AR and my playing now. At first I thought I have to include some etudes in my daily practicing. But which etudes? Then it occurred to me it could be a Bach, Bach in original.
    On the other side I always had a fear of Bach's music, too, after I played his partitas. For the about five years in which I worked with my teacher I could experience various composers (including JC Bach, Janacek, Berg, Sibelius and Scriabin) and I think I learned how to face a new repertoire and to find my own interpretations. But Bach was not the case. I lost myself in the theoretically endless possibilities of interpretations. I could not choose which possibility is here to apply. In this sense one of your views impressed me:
    According to this, the uncountable possibilies could be wonderful stuffs which I can play with. Not the fearful things :D

    The word "finger substitution" caught my attention! I usually use that technique to play flowing legato. In what kinds of situations could it be applied on Bach? And do you mean by "finger crossing" here just that of 4th and 5th fingers or are there another cases?

    That is what I usually do. But you know, I find very often my inner clock is disturbed by the fright in front of the recorder! Once I turned on my digital metronom in "mute" (so that I can only "see" the beats") and restarted recording the same thing. And the result was much better. But somehow I felt as if I'm cheating... I don't know...

    Thanks Alfonso! :D Frankly speaking I was thinking only about the delicious things to eat for the feast day, not about making new decisions :shock:
     
  19. Terez

    Terez New Member

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    This reminds me....I am very interested in East Asian traditional music, and I wonder if you know anything about it. Also, happy new year!

    Okay, I will try to break down what I meant here. I am really referring to the inherent musical value of everything Bach wrote. I have found that every now and then, there are a few weak bars in Bach, but I can't call to mind anything in his published keyboard works (that is, the things he published when he was alive) that is sub-par. Not a whole movement, anyway. It's all good stuff. :D Sometimes, we get to know these pieces from other pianists, rather than from the page, and usually it's much easier to familiarize ourselves with pieces that way, but sometimes, none of the pianists we have available manage to sell the piece to us. That doesn't mean it doesn't have that inherent value, and that we can't make something of it.

    Your question actually has a great deal to do with the similarity between Chopin and Bach. Detached touch is certainly necessary to make Bach's keyboard technique work, but it is by no means the rule. Some of his technical problems simply require you to lift your hand off the keyboard and rearrange it completely, and it frequently happens in places where the passage is technically possible with a legato touch. The legato touch is simply not correct. And I'm not saying there is any rule on this you should follow - I actually prefer editions without fingerings so I can be forced to figure them out on my own, which I think is an important skill, though I have lately taken to comparing my fingerings to professional ones - but when you are practicing, it's a good idea to keep this in mind at all times. If something is awkward when legato, consider that maybe a detached touch will be better. A decent general rule is that, when there are two voices, one will be legato and the other detached. Because Bach uses invertible counterpoint, the voices will change hands, but the motives should be consistently articulated, barring occasional changes that you intentionally do for artistic reasons. When there are more than two voices, at least one of them will be detached, and at least one of them will be legato, as if you were an organist. If there are four voices, it's likely but not necessary to be 2+2, but very rarely does Bach use more than three voices intricately in keyboard music; in the 4- and 5-voice fugues, for example, the 4th and 5th voices are mostly used as harmonic filler, with rare exceptions, such as the return of the b-flat minor fugue in book II, where all four voices have the subject, quite an intricate one, at the same time (2+2 stretto, in thirds in each hand, and melodically inverted in the left).

    Also, the 'detached touch' is not completely detached. For instance, you regularly find yourself in Bach with running 16ths in one voice. There are several different ways to articulate each group of 4 16ths, and it will vary depending on the piece, which works best. Connect the first two, making the final three detached? Connect the first three, making the final two detached? While sometimes there will be a mostly detached voice against a mostly legato voice, there are some times when both voices are a combination of detached and legato (for example, those fugue subjects in stretto), and the legato vs staccato effect from RH to LH is still a good general rule. It just gets a tad more complicated. :lol:

    So, I find in Bach a very strange independence of my fingers from the keyboard, that I did not find without Bach. The easier Chopin pieces did not in any way prepare me for the more difficult Chopin pieces - in fact, they gave me an entirely wrong idea of how to play the more difficult pieces. I don't really think that you are struggling in this area in the same way that I am, at all, but I also find in Bach a wonderful independence of my fingers that I don't think any other composer's music has given me cause to comprehend, and I think that this value is what most pianists find in Bach.

    For example: I am currently playing Chopin's 25/1 etude in A-flat. I have played it before: it was the first Chopin etude I played in public for anything (local competition). I had such an amazingly difficult time with it back then! I realize now it was because I did not know how to make my fingers fly above the keys. From the first time Chopin augments the A-flat chord on the first page of the etude, that technique was required. I played the etude without that technique before, and it was painfully difficult, and the piece did not come off so well, and never quite came close to performance tempo. Now that I have that ability, I can play the first page at performance tempo without having practiced it in the last 15 years at all, and most of my work on it will be learning the notes in the rest of the piece.

    I posted that recital a while back, but I posted it on the General forum, because none of it (not even one movement!) was good enough for the audition room. :lol: (It was in this thread, but not in the first post.....the links to the recital videos are further down.) One day I will get there, but I'm pretty patient in that area. Maybe I will get some recording equipment one day and record something decent when I'm not shaking in front of the audience. You should be able to see from those videos that I am pretty challenged on piano. I'm not happy with how the recital turned out, but nevertheless, I'm proud of the progress I made. I was really in horrible shape when I returned to school.

    Henle has some good notes on this question. I will type it out if necessary, but there's a chance Alf or someone knows of a digital version of the notes. Here is a tidbit for now:

    IMSLP scores, the Bach-Gesellschaft edition, are the closest thing you can get to urtext for free (and you can get bound editions from Dover for very cheap). The NBA has improved upon B-G greatly in correcting errors against autographs, etc., but the keyboard editions are really not bad, and most of the errors are in the ornaments from what I gather. There was one wrong note in the allemande of the c minor partita, but it was so obviously a wrong note that I couldn't have possibly thought it was right. :lol: I haven't found any other errors yet, but I haven't looked so deeply.
     
  20. Terez

    Terez New Member

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    I'm also going to butt in on your convo with Alf, as he's probably in bed by now and I think I know what he is talking about.

    Yes! This is exactly what I meant about making it fun, and Bach being flexible. There is more room to experiment in his music than in nearly anything else, certainly more than anything else with inherent musical quality. There is more freedom to put your mark on the music.

    This goes with what Chris said about thinking like an organist sometimes. It is a combination of perfect legato and clever portato that makes Bach's keyboard music interesting. I have to use finger substitution more in Bach than in anything else I play, but even that becomes part of the dance, especially in some sequential passages. One man passes his partner to another man; so one finger passes a note to another. :lol: And if we're talking about 4th and 5th fingers crossing....that is often necessary. I'm thinking right now of the last few measures of the organ passacaglia (not the fugue). Wow. It will take some practice to be able to play those few measures right.....but on a smaller scale, it is required in the harpsichord works as well.
     

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