A Herculean task performing all 48 preludes and fugues
He actually did it! The Belgian pianist Alain Franco played all 48 preludes and fugues in one concert and he played it from memory. If you have ever learned to play even one Bach fugue from memory, you will understand what a Herculean task this is.
Franco came out in a woolly jumper looking a bit disheveled and played for four hours, seemingly oblivious to the audience. This is probably unjustified but I had visions of him in his pyjamas, curtains still shut, surrounded by dirty coffee cups and pizza boxes, whittling away his life playing only Bach.
An audience of Bach nuts
Of course the audience were primarily Bach nuts (and I include myself here); a decidedly cerebral looking lot and a little nerdy. There were probably more PhDs here than at a university graduation. The Bach nuts were sorted from “those that like to listen to the solo Cello suites in the bath with candles and a glass of red in hand and who thought this concert might be nice”. After the interval about a quarter of the audience could not face another two hours. No staying power I say!
As if someone had hit “shuffle” on the iPod
As to the music, there was nothing introverted or meditative here, unlike the recent Angela Hewitt performances for Musica Viva which were transparent in texture and horizontal lines were clearly voiced. There were many aspects of Franco’s performance which would have gotten up the nose of Bach purists. Firstly it was played on the piano; although I suspect Bach would not have objected to this, but the weight of the playing was not inappropriate to Brahms or Beethoven with liberal use of the sustain pedal. This did not sound like harpsichord music adapted to piano; there were quiet moments but often it was thumped out. He played the movements out of order which is not in itself a problem because the 48 were not intended to be performed as an opus, but the most problematic aspect of this was that he did not even keep the prelude and fugue pairings. As my wife said it was as if someone had hit “shuffle” on the iPod. Also he frequently interrupted the final cadence of a movement by abruptly starting the next, often in a totally unrelated key.
An experience to remember
I have never actually sat and listened to the 48 from beginning to end; when I put the Glen Gould recording on I am usually doing other things. So this was definitely an experience to remember and I am glad I went. With Angela Hewitt I would have happily gone back and heard the same program again the following night. With this program however, I would pass.
I need to add that I am impressed with the Sydney Festival actually scheduling this concert. In the past the classical pickings have been pretty lean, but the situation was much improved this year. This challenging concert was a brave move.
I certainly do not regret going.
JS Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier
Pianist Alain Franco
City Recital Hall, 18 January 2015