A Lifetime with Bach

For some music lovers, it may be a relief when the 250th anniversary of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach passes on July 28. Though he has...

Harvard on Bach

Lutenist Hopkinson Smith '70 (see "Quiet, Please," January-February 1999, page 33) offers his own arrangements of three partitas and three sonatas on Naïve Astrée 8678. Robinson professor of music Robert Levin '68 contributes performances of the six English suites, book two of The Well-Tempered Clavier, the concertos for one or more keyboards, and the concertos for harpsichord, as part of the 169-disc set of the complete works issued by Bach Academy Stuttgart (Hanssler Classics). For Mason professor of music Christoph Wolff's new biography of Bach, see page 26.)

For some music lovers, it may be a relief when the 250th anniversary of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach passes on July 28. Though he has never been underrepresented in the classical music catalog, for example, this past year both Teldec and Hanssler Classics offered new, complete sets of Bach's music--a total of 322 CDs. (Harmonia Mundi France contributed a more modest 81 discs to his discography.) For harpsichordist Igor Kipnis '52, though, every year is a Bach festival, and he doesn't seem to mind at all. "The moment you talk about harpsichords, the figure of Bach looms," he says. Toccatas, preludes, partitas, fantasias, concertos, and sonatas: you name it, Kipnis has played it. About half of the recordings listed as available on his website (http://people.mags.net/kipnis/ikipnis.html) contain some of Bach's music. To coincide with the anniversary, Seraphim Classics is rereleasing Kipnis's two volumes of the six partitas, at bargain prices. Volume one includes numbers 1, 2, and 4; volume two, due out in August, completes the series.

When they first appeared in 1977, High Fidelity magazine called the Kipnis versions of the partitas "glitteringly bright" and "robustly sonorous" and said the performance of the first partita revealed "Kipnis at the height of his matured artistry." At the time, he may not have felt like a mature performer; he was still touring with his Rutkowski and Robinette harpsichord in the back of his Chevrolet van. Though Kipnis had studied piano since childhood, his father, legendary Metropolitan Opera basso Alexander Kipnis, had discouraged a performing career. But then the younger Kipnis heard Wanda Landowska's recordings and found his life's work. (Kipnis père had a change of heart and even bought his son his first harpsichord.) Though Kipnis did have mentors, like Thurston Dart, he is primarily self-taught on early instruments.

The partitas marked both a beginning and an end in Bach's career. Though he'd composed all the keyboard inventions, all the Brandenburg concertos, all the English and French suites, and the St. Matthew and St. John Passions, the partitas were collectively published at his own expense as his opus 1 and were thought to be his first works in print. The partitas also represented the climax of a musical form that eventually gave way in popularity to the sonata for the rest of the eighteenth century.

Each partita has six or seven sections, which include a core of Baroque dances--the allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue--and begins with an imposing introductory movement. The second partita, for example, starts with a sinfonia: a musical form, as its name implies, on a symphonic scale. Its opening sounds like Beethoven's "Pathétique" Sonata: a loud, broadly voiced C-minor chord that moves on to other chords by means of short fragmentary marches.

Landowska plays this and most of Bach with the bombast and high seriousness that people often associate with the composer. Renowned Baroque scholar and Yale professor of music Ralph Kirkpatrick '31 plays the movement articulately and evenly. Kipnis treats Bach more kindly and gently. He doesn't have as stiff a sense of time as Kirkpatrick, and uses subtle rubato to communicate the shape of the different musical lines.


In the harpsichord primer he wrote for Oxford University Press, Kipnis quotes a Bach biographer on the master's keyboard technique. Apparently, he played with an utterly efficient, almost undetectable motion of the fingers. On this disc, it sounds as if Kipnis has mimicked the approach. Especially on the first partita, his lines are fluid and played with such seamless legato, he must barely raise his fingers off the keys. When Kipnis releases a key, he means to: it's either to accent the following note, or to begin a new phrase. Kipnis also has a reputation for the beauty and richness of the ornaments he adds, and for the somewhat more controversial way in which he strips away the more complicated melodic lines, a technique that Kipnis says would have been natural to any of Bach's contemporaneous musicians. The approach makes intuitive sense to me. Whenever he repeats a section of a partita, it becomes more florid and complex; you never hear the same thing twice.

On a tour of East Germany in 1981, Kipnis briefly visited Leipzig; he had just one afternoon to visit Bach's haunting ground. "I just happened on the Thomaskirche [the church Bach served as music director at the end of his life]," Kipnis recalls. As he entered the building, he heard a harpsichord being tuned--surely symbolic, he thought--and, on exploring, discovered a tablet engraved with Bach's name. He took it to be the composer's grave. "For everything I've done to Bach in my career, I expected the veil of the church to be rent, for the grave to erupt, or just, somehow, for the earth to move," he says. "But nothing happened. So I thought, well, maybe Bach isn't all that upset with me."

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