What made you decide to record an album of Bach’s Inventions and Sinfonias?
Well, I have in mind a multi-year project where I’ll
record all of Bach’s keyboard works, so I thought it would be
interesting to start with my first introduction to Bach. And for most
pianists, the first Bach pieces that they ever played were the
Inventions. So, as a kind of beginning of my own narrative of this
journey, I start with the ones that he himself wrote as a guide to
I understand that the Inventions have a great deal of meaning for you personally.
Well, my earliest memories of Bach have to do with the
Inventions and my own experience of playing them and wanting to play
certain ones that were beyond my reach at that point. I remember being
nine or ten years old, and friends of mine were able to play the D
minor Invention, and it was too hard for me. I was really jealous! I
think I learned so much, not only about how to play Bach but how to play
any kind of music on the piano by studying the Inventions, because
you’re learning how to balance and manipulate two voices that are
equally important. A lot of piano music isn’t written that way. A lot of
it places much more emphasis on the right hand having melodic dominance
and the left hand being more of a harmonic support. Learning something
where it’s so clearly outlined that the two hands are equally important
carries over to how you see all music. You start to see music as
being made up of multiple lines and how to think about music as many
voices, as opposed to one thick texture. The Sinfonias were pieces that I
listened to a lot as a teenager. I was really obsessed with Glenn
Gould’s recording of them, and I remember listening to them a lot with
my husband (who at that time was my boyfriend), and I guess I have
romantic associations with those pieces because I listened to them a lot
when I first met him.
In your opinion, what is inventive about a Bach Invention?
Well, there are so many things that are inventive. I mean,
in his preface to the works, he wrote about how this was a guide to
keyboard players or, as he said—keyboard “lovers”—as to how to think
about two- or three-voice counterpoint, and how to play cantabile
in a “singing” way. The Inventions go through different keys so it’s
also exploring the color of each harmonic area. And Bach, being Bach,
wrote these stunning pieces of music as practical teaching exercises.
It’s almost like all of his musical output has been concentrated into
two or three voices. Each one is quite short but they have very
different characters from one to another. Sometimes you’ll have
something that’s almost a double aria from a cantata or you’ll have
something that sounds like a movement of a Brandenburg Concerto that has
a kind of orchestral sound. I think there was a tremendous amount of
imagination that went into writing these pieces.
Since Bach doesn’t specify tempo in the pieces, how did you decide on the proper tempo for each one?
I think tempo is one of the exciting challenges about
playing Bach because you can really go many different ways. Sometimes
you have a particular type of dance in mind that would give you a sense
of a tempo—a fast dance, a slow dance, a walking dance, that kind of
thing—that gives you an indication as to what would feel natural in
terms of playing. Also, I think his choice of the pulse of what
kind of notes he’s using—sixteenth-notes, eighth-notes, 6/8 time
signature, and so on—those kinds of decisions also can give you a clue.
That said, I do think you can make the Inventions work at
many different tempos, and that points out a really fun aspect of
learning Bach: you can make an argument for many different ways of
playing the same piece of music. Also, some of the decisions I made were
based on the context of a particular piece being in the context of all
of the Sinfonias and Inventions. I think if I just played one by itself
it might make sense to play it in a certain way, but I wanted to make
sure there was enough variety between them. Also, I was working with
quite a temperamental piano. It’s really one of my favorite pianos and
I’ve used it for many recordings, but it’s old. It’s a 1903 Steinway and
it seems to want to do things a certain way.
How does your interpretation of Bach differ from what Glenn Gould has done?
His recording of these pieces is actually one of my
favorites of all of his work, but to be honest, I stopped listening to
it once I started working on my own. I feel like the way he plays these
pieces is extremely personal. The piano that he used was really a bit of
a “honky-tonk” piano which had all of these problems, and that actually
made that recording very authentic. Most people learn these pieces on
their family’s instrument, which is usually not concert-grade. So
there’s something very homey about Gould’s recording, and I like the
fact that the piano has imperfections. I wouldn’t even want to compare
myself to him because he’s such a deity, but I don’t think I think about
the music in the same way when I’m playing it myself. I think about it
as being much more legato. When I’m playing, I’m thinking a lot about
breath and shape and contour. My articulation is just completely
different than the choices that Gould made.
How have the recordings of the Inventions changed over
time? How did you put your unique stamp on them in comparison to those
It might be better to talk about general trends in Bach
performance, not specific to the Inventions. Before Gould, there was a
much more romantic approach. If you listen to Edwin Fischer or Myra
Hess, when they played Bach on the piano, they were using all of the
piano’s abilities. In other words, they were using the pedal, they were
using a range of dynamics, and it was much more about seeing Bach
through the lens of their own period, pre-war and during the war, during
which people were really into individuality.
Then, Glenn Gould had a unique vision of the music that
was in sync with who he was. After him, I think there arose a
generation, even two generations, who thought he represented how Bach
should sound. But, of course, he wasn’t the norm. So, now I think
that playing Bach has become a little bit more uniform. People are much
more leery of using any pedal when they play, for example.
I just saw András Schiff perform the Goldberg Variations
when I was in Seattle, and he didn’t use any pedal at all. He is now not
using any pedal when he plays Bach. I think we’ve been very much
dominated by the movement of historically authentic performance and
thinking about how to make the piano sound like the harpsichord or the
clavichord, and that’s affected everything: tempo, articulation, tempo,
and dynamics. I guess I don’t really think of it that way when I’m
playing. I feel that I’m playing it on a piano and that I should
use the full range of the instrument because, to me, it only brings more
out of Bach’s music. It doesn’t take away from the music—it just shows
more layers of complexity.
What’s your favorite Invention and why?
At the least of my favorites is the Invention in B
flat major. There is such a beautiful feeling of openness and there’s
something about it that’s almost yielding. I think that about other
pieces he’s written in the key of B flat; there’s something about
that key that he just felt was open, warm, and almost like a hug. My
favorite Sinfonia is the one in E flat major, which is actually
very unusual. In all of the other Sinfonias the three voices are very
equal and they all trade off similar material, whereas in that one it’s
written differently, as the bass line is really like a continuo part. It’s basically a two-part Invention plus continuo, so it’s much more like a wind duet or a vocal duet. It’s so beautiful.
Which edition of the Bach Inventions do you think is best for the aspiring pianist to start playing?
The one that I use now is the Bärenreiter edition, which I
guess is one of the most recent and historically informed editions, and
it’s very nicely printed. But there is an edition for students that I
had used in the past that serves as a guide to ornamentation, and
provides other useful information. Now, when I’m learning a piece of
music, I don’t want to see all of that stuff. I want to be able to think
more freely about it myself, but when you’re a student, you really need
help in knowing how to look at a piece of music. You’re learning how to
be a detective.
What do you think is the most important thing that a pianist can learn by mastering these Inventions?
Well, the most obvious thing is that your left hand is
going to get an awful lot of attention. You’re learning how to play
complicated patterns and to play expressively with a left hand, and
that’s not usual. This is probably the first experience of having to do
that as a pianist. And the other thing you’re learning by doing this is
to multi-task your hearing so that you can hear two voices
simultaneously. That’s actually the hardest thing. What’s even harder
than playing them at the same time is being able to listen and
follow the two lines as they’re going along. We’re not used to that.
There’s really nothing in contemporary popular music that’s like this;
it’s all dominated by one voice.
I was thinking about the music that my son has been
listening to. He listens to hip-hop, and Jay-Z has done all of these
different collaborations with artists, so you’ll have something like
Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake, but they don’t ever sing at the same time.
If they do, one is very much subservient to the other, like a
call-and-response. Most pop music is like that, so we’re not used to
thinking that there could be two voices that are equally important and
that we actually have to pay attention to both at the same time. The
biggest thing any student will gain from studying Bach’s Inventions is
that it will guide them into that type of listening.
Given this “multitimbral” nature of Bach, what are some good practice techniques for mastering it?
I’ve noticed for many students that they should practice
hands separately. You need to know exactly what you’re doing with each
hand. I also think that with Bach, it can be really useful to sing one
of the voices while playing the other one. It’s hard to do and it might
not be practical in some of the Inventions that are hopping around, but
in some of the ones that are slower it could be possible. If one of my
students had a certain part where they had an imitation [i.e., a
repeating musical phrase] taking place at different times, I’d have them
play it as a unison just to hear and see that they’re doing the same
thing, just at different times. Obviously, the other thing is breaking
it down so you’re not taking on the whole piece all the time, but
instead practicing and mastering one section of it before you move on to
Continued on next page...