Well-Tempered, Yes. Well Played, Well…

United StatesUnited States J.S. Bach, Handel: Richard Egarr, Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York, 9.2.2015 (SSM)

Bach: French Suite No. 5 in G Major, BWV 816
Partita No. 6 in E Minor, BWV 830
Partita No. 1 in B-flat Major, BWV 825
Handel: Suite No. 3 in D Minor, BWV 428

The radical assumptions of the Historically Informed Performance (HIP) movement have long been absorbed by the traditional musicians and organizations who were initially the most opposed to anything deemed “authentic.” There are fewer zealous proponents of this approach to early music, and fewer negative reactions from the generally conservative public. Established orchestras and conductors no longer feel threatened by these “new” rules.

Neither group can claim victory. Those who thought that  they could discover, through careful readings of early scores, how Bach’ s music was played and how it sounded, now realise there are no definitive answers. Musicians and conductors alike accept the fact they cannot play Vivaldi with the same size orchestra that would play a Mahler symphony. The Metropolitan Opera picked up on City Opera’s successful productions of Handel and Rameau operas and even commissioned a pastiche of a Baroque opera. The audience no longer giggles when a woman plays the role of Julius Caesar, or a man dressed in military garb opens his mouth and out come notes in the tessitura of a contralto.

The performance by Richard Egarr of keyboard works by Bach and Handel and his commentaries before playing them brought these and other issues to mind. Egarr spoke about numerology and cryptography in Bach’s scores. These topics, although around for centuries, became grist for the early music mill. In his inexhaustible Bach in the Castle of Heaven, John Gardner mentions that Bach’s own cousin was aware of the use of the Bach name as either musical notes or as numbers. Egarr also brought up the cryptography on the title page of The Well-Tempered Clavier. Bradley Lehman decodes the decorations at the top of the page as a secret message meant to define the solution to both temperament and correct tuning pitch. Before the Web but during the Internet’s incipiency, BBSs (bulletin boards) were the way to communicate in chat rooms. One of them, The Bach Forum, was a podium for Lehman and others, and many issues that needed to be addressed were done so there.

In his 2007 recording of The Well-Tempered Clavier, Egarr took Lehman’s theories to heart and tuned his harpsichord accordingly. The results were impressive. Key signatures that pretty much sounded the same due to modern-day equal and even tuning took on individual colors. So much so that, with enough practice, even those not gifted with perfect pitch could hear the difference between B-flat Major and G Major as easily as most people hear the difference between major and minor keys.

The ambience and acoustics of the Weill Recital Hall were nearly ideal for the instrument played, and it was a pleasant recital. Egarr’s enthusiasm carried over to the audience; oddly though, the performance felt rushed and unpracticed. Egarr has recorded all the works on the program, so one is able to compare the studio performance to this live one. There were a considerable number of mistakes and occasional struggles with manoeuvering cross-handed measures. The most noticeable was in the Gigue of Bach’s first partita, where Egarr’s hands both floundered. In addition, his decisions as to which sections of the binary movements should be repeated were arbitrary: at one point he didn’t play the “b” section at all (in the same movement mentioned above). The use of the second manual and stops seemed arbitrary as well. In one movement of the French Suite, instead of the repeat of the b section, he only played its final measures.

He did provide additional ornaments as are normally applied to the second repeat of each section. Many were lovely and accomplished what they were meant to do: vary what was played rather than rigidly repeating the same notes. The question then arises as to how much or how little additional ornamentation is called for. The answer: enough to not impinge upon the structure of the work or its melodic line. Egarr was moderately discreet in most of the repeats, but the sarabandes, because their tempi are slow, suffered from an over-application of ornamentation to the detriment of the musical flow.

Stan Metzger

Leave a Comment