Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, September 11, 2014


Sviatoslav Richter

When I learned to play the guitar, many years ago, I developed a near-obsession with the musical virtue of articulation. I’m not sure why; maybe because I found it so hard to play without slurring notes or missing them altogether, and without introducing unintentional variations in volume. I came to love guitarists, like Martin Simpson and Stephen Bennett, who managed to articulate every note with wonderful precision — but who did so without losing musical flow and flair.

(Simpson is above all others my guitar hero, and if you want a brief master class in mixed finger- and thumb-picking, slide-playing, and alternate tunings, just take a look at this video — and listen to the stuff at the beginning about why he plays what he plays. Also, don’t stop before the six-minute mark. If you want a closer and higher-definition look at what he does, check out this video — especially useful for guitarists interested in technique. )

Oddly — or maybe not so oddly, I don’t know — my fascination with articulate guitar players has affected my listening to other music. For instance, I have long loved Glenn Gould’s way with Bach: his pedal-free, hyper-articulated approach plays right into my obsessions — especially given his famous recording style, with the microphone stuck right into the piano. Gould’s Goldbergs, and his Well-Tempered Clavier, were simply my versions of those masterpieces for many years.

But … that humming. When I’m listening on speakers I can ignore it; but in the past few years I have been listening to music more and more often on headphones, and the extraneous racket increasingly got on my nerves. I decided I needed a new experience of listening to Bach’s piano music.

So I bought this: the performances that Sviatoslav Richter recorded in the 1970s. At first they were almost impossible for me to listen to: all that pedal! And the echo! — as though it were recorded … I don’t know, in a concert hall or something. What’s up with that? I huffed and sighed; Richter made me deeply uncomfortable. In comparison to Gould his playing seemed so florid and Romantic, thoroughly un-Bach-like.

But I kept listening.

And after I settled down, I couldn’t deny that Richter played with great intelligence and, yes, articulation; his playing wasn’t so stereotypically “Romantic” as I had first assumed; he was, I came increasingly to feel, simply adapting Bach’s music to the character of the instrument, which was, after all, not a harpsichord but a pianoforte. The magnificent architecture of Bach was still there, and in a way brought forth with a new clarity and beauty by Richter’s style.

And after Richter captured my imagination, going back to Gould was … well, not disappointing, exactly — but his way of playing Bach no longer seemed to inevitably right to me. Perhaps he was, at times, allowing a fetish for articulation to displace other musical virtues. On the other hand, I noticed that he did indeed sneak a little pedal in there, allow a few resonances — he was not as rigid a purist as I had thought. And Gould, who is famous for his fast tempos, can take things very, very slow as well: try listening to his version of the Prelude and Fugue in F-minor, followed by Richter’s: Richter takes the Prelude about twice as fast as Gould does — I have to listen with some care to be sure that they’re playing the same thing.

I still love Gould, but at this point I think I love Richter more. In fact, I don’t know that I own a record that I treasure more than Richter’s WTC. I do wish that Richter’s recording technique, as opposed to his playing, had been a little more like Gould’s; but he has somehow become my measuring rod, the performance against which I measure others. If only he had recorded the Goldbergs! But if I want contrast to Gould’s approach to that masterpiece, I have Murray Perahia ‚ and, more recently, Jeremy Denk.

Who knows what versions of Bach I will listen to the most over the coming years? But in any case I am immensely grateful to live in an age which offers me so many wonderful recordings, so many performances of such variety. In exploring this music in the company of multiple performers I draw closer and closer to its heart.


  • I grew up with a distaste for Gould's interpretation of Bach -- articulate, yes, but too rigid. (Perhaps there was also an inherited mistrust of the man and his eccentricities. My grandfather was a recording engineer for CBC radio and recalls how fascinating but often frustrating it was to work with Gould. If the room temperature was so much as half of a degree off from his specification, he would refuse to record.) But now, incidentally, I'm coming to appreciate and actually enjoy his articulate interpretations.

  • Music does not exist in a vacuum or idealized state but in endless instantiations that are either lost in wind (in live performance) or fixed using recording devices. Thoughtful appreciation is influenced by awareness that one might make music oneself, be up close in a salon performance, sit in front of the proscenium in a formal concert, and be surrounded by multiple stages in outdoor venues (e.g., Lollapalooza). The perspective on recordings varies all over the map, too, and often achieves results that are frankly unachievable in live performance. Gould’s up-close approach reveals different things than a recording made from a distance, which is actually how most live music is heard, even if it’s crushingly loud.

    The Baroque and Classical eras in art music are renowned for their articulate style, whereas Renaissance and Romantic musics are often a wash of sound, especially when performed in large venues such as churches. I appreciate the variety of different approaches, which is what makes hearing different renditions (live and recorded) of great interest and sometimes a frustration. Once in a while, a version comes along that is nearly definitive, but that’s always a matter of taste and judgment.

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