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Bach is the greatest, even in China

It takes a certain temerity to mount an assault, even a loving one, on such a colossus of music as Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, which since 1722 (for Book I; 1744 for Book II) has left practitioners in awe its technical and expressive mastery. It is perhaps for this reason that, so far as we can tell, no composer of the later 18th and all the 19th centuries attempted it except in the very oblique fashion of writing sets of preludes only, taking advantage of the fashion for short piano pieces. It also takes a certain kind of composer to attempt a full-monty set of Twenty-four Preludes and Fugues in each major and minor key: for one thing, the composer has to have at least a dedication to the notion of writing music in keys (though not necessarily major and minor, as we will explain presently). That lets out a lot of composers since the beginning of the 20th century. And it requires that, instead of fixating on, say, the aura of an F sharp, the composer have a sympathetic approach to the polyphonic linear sequencing of notes in intelligible ways.

Only a small handful of composers have undertaken this challenge. While some 19th-century composers, like Mendelssohn and Schumann, produced the odd one-off prelude and fugue, only in the 20th century, with the reassessment of Baroque style, that anybody thought to embark on a systematic and comprehensive exploration of the prelude-fugue cycle. The first we know of was Hindemith, whose Ludus Tonalis (1940) proffered a set of preludes, interludes, and fugues in all the tonal centers; but since Hindemith’s acoustically-based compositional system did not distinguish between major and minor keys, only 12 numbers exist in this piece. He did, however, do something that Bach had not, in either set of WTC: seek to unify the entirety by means of a motto theme. This explicit approach has so far not found another taker, but when in 1950 Shostakovich produced his Preludes and Fugues, op. 87, listening to the entire set in one go produced the effect of hearing a single expressive cycle, with some techniques and structures salted throughout that achieved an apotheosis in the massive, symphonic double fugue at the end. Shostakovich  effectively re-set the bar for all subsequent attempts in this medium, and he also originated an alternative key organization for the work. While Bach arranged his sequence in ascending scale order (C, C sharp, D, E     flat, etc., in major and minor ending on B minor), with key signatures chosen enharmonically for convenient reading, Shostakovich arranged his by key signature, effectively using the cycle of fifths (C-A minor, G-E minor, D-B minor, etc.), pivoting at F sharp and coming back in the flat-signature keys and ending on D minor. All subsequent sets bar one have chosen between these options.

And just for the record, our researches indicate that full sets have been written since Shostakovich by Russians Rodion Shchedrin (1964 and 1970), Igor Rekhin (1990, for guitar!), Sergei Slonimsky (1994), and Nikolai Kapustin (1997, using an eccentric key sequence), Norwegian Trygve Madsen (1996) and American Henry Martin (2000). Of the ones we’ve heard at least bits of, Slonimsky’s sticks most closely to a Bachian esthetic; Shchedrin and Madsen espouse a richly chromatic harmonic idiom, and Kapustin and Martin deftly interweave jazzy elements.

Into this somewhat thinly populated tradition now comes Larry Thomas Bell, a longtime presence in Boston now teaching at Berklee and, quite pertinently, one of this area’s most prominent neo-tonal composers, the prefix “neo” being perhaps unnecessary, as his idiom is about the most retro of any composer we know of since the later music of Easley Blackwood. On Sunday afternoon, First Church saw the premiere of Bell’s op. 156, under the title mentioned above, performed by a tag team of four gifted pianists each doing12 numbers (counting preludes and fugues separately): Carmen Rodriguez-Peralta, Maja Tremiszewska, Jennifer Elowsky-Fox, and John McDonald, in that order. This team will repeat the feat in New York on March 16th at Merkin Hall. Bell is no stranger to these Bach-like compendia, having composed a set of Three-Part Inventions as his op. 121, with numbers from a variety of sources from folk tunes to Shostakovich to rock.

Even in the capacious digital world of BMInt, it would be hopelessly exhausting, for reader and writer, for us to do more than give overall impressions of this massive undertaking, with just a few mentions of particular numbers by way of examples. It is telling that Bell’s program note mentions Mendelssohn and Schumann’s works in prelude and fugue form as models. Of the two, only Mendelssohn produced sets of preludes and fugues, opp. 35 (6) and 37 (3). Schumann produced none, but did write sets of fugues, op. 60 (6, on B-A-C-H) and 72 (4). In addition to the obvious and overarching influence of Bach, the influence of these composers is evident, but except for prelude no. 21, it’s Schumann who dominates. Bell also managed to slip in some references to Mozart: the fugues nos. 4 and 9 allude to the famous four-note motif from the Jupiter symphony’s finale—the former in minor mode—and the prelude no. 17 has a passage suggesting a major-mode version of the Symphony no. 40 opening theme. There are a few other either intentional or unintentional similarities, some logically enough to Chopin, one possibly to Bartók’s Mikrokosmos (either that or a Nestle’s commercial). These quiddities aside, the idiom Bell chooses comes straight from the European Romantic musical tradition, without Americanisms, and pretty much (though not entirely) without reference to the harmonic complications of the post-Debussy world (that said, the prelude no. 2 had a lovely static and stately affect like a Satie Gymnopédie that alternates with a scurrying passage that teases the listener into thinking the fugue has already begun).

Bell’s note also speaks of seeking a balance between duple and triple meters, but it seemed to us that his heart is with the latter; in fact, not since Hindemith have we heard a composer who seems so enamored of 6/8 (or other duple-compound meters). What’s more, though we’re prepared to be corrected on this point, although Bell often uses a skipping rhythm within his 6/8 as Schumann and Mendelssohn are wont to do, we detected little evidence of hemiola or other mitigations to the “beatiness” of the rhythm. In other respects, we heard ample evidence that Bell’s craft of fugue (and prelude) stands at a very high level indeed. One fugue enters with the subject played against itself in augmentation; the B major prelude starts in the B-flat- minor of the preceding fugue and works its way to the “right” key (we had a nearby friend gifted with perfect pitch, to thank for that observation). And there are inversions, pieces ending on half-cadences, and other fancy techniques in abundance, which will greatly satisfy those who pick up these pieces—Bell has taken Bach’s pedagogical intent for WTC to heart in this work, of which he will happily sell you a copy, with a convenient comb binding so it lies flat.

Composer Larry Bell

What sets the Shostakovich op. 87 apart from most other prelude and fugue sets, and makes it the stunning masterpiece it is, is its combination of its Bachian source with the powerful individual voice of the composer; it sounds entirely like Shostakovich, and displays this in individual pieces that run the gamut from ironic and saucy to sardonic, tragic and magisterial, culminating in a unique form of double fugue that has two complete fugues on different subjects merging in a powerful final section. We frankly don’t know Bell’s other work well enough to say whether op. 156 evinces such a stamp (the Inventions, for example, took its source material and put them through Bachian paces rather like Joshua Rifkin’s Baroque Beatles Book). The individual numbers vary in character, and some are stately, some earnest, some whimsical, one is stormy like Schubert. None can be said to be tragic or even seriously melancholy. The final six episodes build to a climactic finale, but with nothing like the emotional power of Shostakovich. In all likelihood, most times the numbers from the set will be disaggregated by performers and set up in sequences that make decent sets, which will give pleasure to players and listeners. Just don’t expect to be blown away.

Did the four estimable musicians who undertook this project deliberately sequence themselves by increasing intensity and volume? Rodriguez-Peralta sounded lightest in body but carried exceptional clarity of line; Tremiszewska’s gave her set more vigor; Elowsky-Fox interpreted with plummy tone, and McDonald went full-bore to the grand finale. It’s hard to evaluate things like phrasing, pedaling and dynamic shaping in unfamiliar music, so we will leave it with the observation that these interpreters very much gave the music its due.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.





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