There is an exasperating misconception that Bach’s keyboard works should emulate the harpsichord’s sound and touch, and of course, no dynamics. Much evidence points to the fallacy of that opinion. We know Bach was not happy with the harpsichord’s sound limitations; he was, after all, an organist with many options of sound at his command. Moreover, we know that in writing keyboard works, Bach was considerably influenced by the sound and articulation of string or wind instruments as well as by the human voice. Finally, if all we have to do is imitate the harpsichord, perhaps a computer-generated performance would be more perfect than what a human can do. What would be missing is, in my opinion, the most important element in the music by Bach: the human Bach.
Bach’s genius was a miracle of the human mind. But Bach was also a human being like the rest of us, with the same emotions and faults. He was devoted to his church, he prayed, he loved, he smiled (though never in his portraits). He also had the ordinary displeasures, hostilities, maybe a little drink once in a while, money predicaments — and also 20 children. His music is full of expression both in his relation to God, and to everyone surrounding him.
Within the order of baroque traditions, Bach’s works are full of sentiments and imagery. His Well-Tempered Clavier is a Baroque Schumann; each Prelude and Fugue is a character piece, where pianists have the extraordinary freedom to interpret the way they feel. To play in an academic manner, that is, following the speculative traditional myths of Baroque interpretation can be boring.
All this brings me to the recital I heard (unfortunately not live but a recording) of Alberto Cato Smit and his playing of Bach in particular. He is an extraordinary musician, intensely personal in its conceptions, and most entertaining —precisely Bach’s intentions as related in the foreword to one of the WTC manuscripts (it was never published in Bach’s time). Cano Smit’s clarity of the complex contrapuntal writing is amazing. He has been gifted with a remarkable ear. His playing of Bach is full of expressive ideas, music that breathes, not with artificial rubatos or breaks, but a natural breathing like a human voice.
Cano Smit is ablaze with creativity. For example, the Fugue in Eb (Book II) is frequently (maybe always) played slower, somberly, but Cano Smit has a ball playing and dancing joyfully. Similarly, in the often-ceremonial Fugue in G minor of the same book, Cano Smit chooses to entertain his audience with drinking and festive celebration. Bach would have been happy to hear Cano Smit’s concert. More relevantly, listeners like me, were entertained and delighted, cheering good old Bach revealing both his spirituality, but also his adventures that would not be “kosher” for him to talk about except in his music.
The rest of Cano Smit’s program was just as wonderful. Mozart was exquisite. Albeniz, Messiaen and Ginastera, they all had their own personal touch and played magnificently. Listening to this concert gave me hope that we still have extraordinary young musicians in our midst, who think about music and not the Olympics-like show of frivolous physical perfection.