Practise: Prelude in C Minor No. 2 / J.S Bach

Something unexpected reared its head when I was listening back to the podcast I published on Friday night.

Although the conversation with Christina and Tom was warm and insightful, there were moments when as an audience member I felt like a bit of an imposter in the company of two professionals performers.

That made sense to me. After all, Christina and Tom both work in the same fields, have similar experiences and know their repertoire far, far better than I do. No surprise really. They live and breath it every day.

It got me thinking about what I could do to change that feeling of slight detachment I experience in the company of professional musicians.

Playing an instrument seems like a fairly simple way of meeting the imposter syndrome head on. So I dug out some music – the book of Bach Preludes and Fugues I had as a teenager at school – and started to play where the page fell.

So far, my pedestrian rendition of Prelude No. 2 in C Minor by J.S Bach is a painful process in comparison to Sviatoslav Richter’s lightning pace. It’s also going to take a long long while before I succeed in getting the motion as regular, tidy and painstakingly articulated as Glenn Gould. This comparison of eight different interpretations makes for an interesting listen too.

My playing was lumpy, slow, and demanded lots of slow practice underpinned by slavish concentration. It’s been a long time since I last played the piano (maybe 18 months), so the process was also quite revealing in terms of being able to notice what was going on in my head at the time.

What surprised me most was that there was quite so much internal dialogue interfering with my concentration as perhaps there had been in the past. I was able to quickly determine what the patterns were in the music. And, my fingers seemed to fall quite comfortably into position without very much thought too.

That’s not to say it was straightforward to play. There’s a sense of responsibility whenever I sit at the keyboard – the idea that I can’t possibly expect to play this up-to-speed unless I have invested a considerable amount of time making sure every detail has been covered over first. Faking it in order to play it feels like its doing composer and other performers a massive disservice. Approximating the music for the sake of tempo seems almost disrespectful.

That indulgence of practising slowly reveals the intense heat of the music – the industry in the semiquavers moving in contrary motion is incredibly satisfying. The proximity of the moving parts is also heart-warming. And the tiny shifts in harmonies from one bar to the next give proceedings a sense of elegance.

I’m going to keep on with it. A few bars at a time. Slow practice, with the movement as near to the finger joints as my concentration will let me. The meditative state that ensues is seductive, but I need to ensure I avoid over-practising. Through seeking perfection, I’d hate to extinguish the thrill of it.

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Review: Late Night Bach \ James McVinnie \ Spitalfields Festival

James McVinnie’s 45 minutes of Bach as part of the Spitalfields Festival this week was a sensitively curated selection from Books 1 and 2 of The Well-Tempered Clavier presented as a complete sequence without interruption.

In the dimly-lit Shoreditch Church interior (complete with its own resident cat), Vinnie’s prompt and energetic interpretation of Bach’s seminal work created a nourishing and reinvigorating experience.

Moving too. This in part down to the meditative qualities of Bach’s composition, but also to the energy that had been present in the church during the earlier event.

Here was an aspect of Spitalfields’ distinctive approach reinforced: a serendipitous personal experience borne out of one concert following another – a sort of meta-experience. Read my previous review for a bit of background.

It helped that James had been explicit at the top of the programme, asking us to resist applauding. An intensely intimate feeling inside the church resulted, bringing us closer to performer in the process.

What transpired for me was a rather dark series of realisations, the top line being that I have ben living day-to-day for the past five months with a low-level but constant sense of anger.

Some of that anger is evident (to me at least) in the subject matter which has inspired some of the posts on Thoroughly Good in recent weeks.

But going further (during the Prelude & Fugue in B minor BWV 869) was a really unexpected insight – the anger was borne out of fear.

And when I started to ask myself what exactly I thought I was fearful of, so the list started to populate itself with all manner of things, some consequences of a dramatic shift in my personal circumstances, others more global, universal and distinctly out of my control.

That a performance of something as so exquisite as music by Bach brought this about will come as no surprise at all to most. That’s what Bach’s music does. It’s not so much something you stick on in the background, as something you submit to on the basis that you’ll make something done to you.

To experience it in such an intimate setting where the connection is made not just with the performer but other members of the audience too made this a very special experience.

Late Night Bach was part of Spitalfields Music Festival 2017. It runs until 10 December.

#Classical365: 29 – Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier (I) – Prelude & Fugue No.4 in C sharp minor

Again, no time. Another busy day. Very productive. Left central London in a good mood. Win.

The fourth prelude and fugue has an entirely different mood compared to the others I’ve listened to. There’s a restlessness which I think must been rooted in the key, something I didn’t hear in the C minor prelude and fugue. It felt out of character in comparison with the others. Unsettling. At the end of it I had this feeling that a question was lingering unanswered. Quite eery that.

Gould sounding more prominently than in other preludes and fugues. Felt like I had a music teacher sad next to me encouraging by humming along while I battled at the keyboard.

#Classical365: 22 – #Classical365: 20 – Well Tempered Clavier (I) – Prelude & Fugue 2 in C Minor BWV 847

Lost my earphones. God only knows where. Suspect it was in the pub last night.

Yes, I went to the pub. So much for staying off booze during the week. Last night I caved in. Went to the Yorkshire Grey close to Broadcasting House to celebrate a colleague’s birthday. Said yes to a large glass of red, then had another. Was then persuaded to have a small glass after that. Nice to chat to people outside of the office surroundings.

That’s where I think I lost my earphones.They probably fell out of my coat pocket when I put it on to go home. Cycled all the way from the pub to Oxford Circus tube station and then realised I hadn’t got my bag with me. Pedalled like fury back to the pub convinced I’d left the bag on the pavement. I hadn’t. It was in the pub. Crying shame I didn’t keep an eye out for the earphones them. Really miss them.

So as a result, I missed out on listening to something yesterday. It was going to be Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.24. I shall save it for another day.

Today’s work was pragmatic. More Bach. The second prelude and fugue. They’re bite-sized indulgences which succeed in only a healing at the end of a long day.

By hard day, I’m not talking coal-mining-hard. Just really felt how exhausting constant interactions with so many different personalities really take their toll. There’s the anticipation, the actual moment, the reviewing, the reflection and then the subsequent follow up. Some go absolutely fine and are an absolute joy. Then there are those which are unnecessarily challenging, those when you feel you need to accommodate someone. Interactions that you bend like a reed in the wind.

I’ve listened to a few different versions of the C minor prelude and fugue. Barenboim is too fast – as though he’s furiously pedalling a spinning wheel. Pierre Laurent-Aimard’s interpretation is more to my liking although the ambience in the recording makes the fugue a little twee and reverential. Also tried the Helios Guitar’s arrangement of it – largely unsuccessful.

The dryness in Gould’s acoustic makes his the most appealing for me. There’s a fury in his playing despite the slower tempo he takes in the prelude – I particularly like the fact that I can still hear the gaps in between the notes. At the beginning of the fugue there’s a hint of sweetness in the air. The robotic style at the opening of the prelude is a distant memory – we may just get a smoothness by the end of fugue. We don’t. But, that doesn’t matter. Because we get a major key to round things off. A flash of order restored. Utter perfection.

I was listening to JS Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No.2 in C Minor BWV 847 played by Glenn Gould on Spotify.

#Classical365: 20 – Well Tempered Clavier (I) – Prelude & Fugue 1 in C Major BWV 846

Busy day that started off badly with a stupidly long delay at Hither Green station waiting for a train. Three cancelled in an hour, two delayed, seven staff on the station platform unable to provide assistance or direction, and one sarccy customer services chap on the phone only able to take down personal details and a brief description of my complaint. Seems so rotten we have to pay for a service that is so flaky. There were moments when I caught myself wondering whether life would be a little better out of the rat race. Stupid. I am turning into a cliche, if I haven’t already become one.

I’ve been obsessing a little about a comment made about me (and to me) last week which has, rather disappointingly, had an impact on nearly every interaction I’ve had since with other people. It made heavy weather of the afternoon. Turned what was already into a busy, noisy afternoon into one which felt like I was having to wade through treacle to get to the end. I need to feel like I’m coasting towards the end of the day or – preferably – that time has run away with me and that there’s nothing left to do but go home. The rather tiresome neuroticism meant time was taken up with unnecessary reflection. Usually helpful. On this occasion, it just got in the way.

Time had run out. The prospect of listening and then writing seemed like yet another thing which absolutely had to be done. Sat down on the train and pondered what to listen to in the now fifteen minutes I had remaining before I got home.

Bach. Keyboard music. Well Tempered Clavier.

It’s episodic – there are two sets of 24 pairs to get through – no each episode is short. Pick the Glen Gould recordings and there’s the added mystic of his murmurings on the recording too. Evocative. Music written for musicians wanting to uncover the heart of music itself. Small intense bursts of exquisite beauty played on one instrument by one person. Incredibly intimate expressions of the purist form of music, transcending its seemingly mechanical foundations.

Perfect as it was for the journey home, I ended up listening to it in the nth a few times. I can’t get my head around the idea of only listening to the first prelude and fugue in isolation. I’m so tied into thinking in three movement structures, that two movements throw me off course. If you don’t pause the playback quick enough at the end of the first prelude, you’ll steam into the next prelude in c minor. That stark contrast – the incremental key – is as arresting and addictive as the first gin and tonic. Bittersweet. Begging you to cling on for more, and more and more, until you’re bingeing on Bach and listening to the whole lot.

I’ll store them. Listen to them only when I’m pushed for time or so stressed I need a quick restorative escape.

I shall listening to the next one on Thursday. I know it.

I was listening to JS Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No.1 in C Major BWV 846 played by Glen Gould on Spotify.