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.