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Bach and the pedal?
I recently returned from the Folles Journées de Nantes and as Bach was the topic this year, I took part in several discussions about how to play Bach. A recurrent classic question about playing Bach on the piano is whether to use the pedal or not? Bach piano players are divided into two groups, those who play with pedal and those who play without (or dry) pedal. I assume that those playing without pedal are attempting an imitation of the Harpsichord sound - Bach’s original instrument. Bach was an organist as well and I personally think that his music is beyond of any given aesthetic prototype that would limit it. That is, the pieces are not written for a specific limited sound but for a more general instrument, and the emphasis is on the musical structure and connections between the voices. So here I will just say my point of view on the matter of the pedal.

Using the pedal in Bach is a very sensitive subject - one has to be very careful not to put too much as his music is based on keeping the transparency, clarity and tension between the voices. Mixing too much the sounds with pedal would give a blurry effect that could go against the music (though as I mention before, as he wrote also for the organ, this effect is sometimes very useful and interesting). On the other hand, I find that what makes Bach’s music powerful is this combination between the rigidity of the structure, the vigor of the rhythm (a metaphor to life’s inevitability, to the beat of the heart) together with Hit Tunes that simply cannot go out of one’s head, conquering your mind through their beauty. His music calls, in my opinion, for a vocal interpretation, and like a singer who uses and vibrates his vocal chords, so would the pianist need to let the strings of their instrument vibrate - which means letting the damper up and use the pedal. As Alicia de Larrocha would say: Proportions.
Dear Edna,
I also returned from the Folles Journées de Nantes as  a listener and  music  lover. I have  got a  friend of  mine  who  lives  in Nantes and  it is  always  a great pleasure  for  me both to visit  him and to  be  immersed in the  particular atmosphere of  this festival. And  since  my friend is  not really familiar  with  classical music I am always very happy to  make  him  discover what  is  so  important  in  my  life. Last year the topic  was Schubert and this  year it was Bach. I am very  lucky  because I think they are my two favourite  composers (even  if  it is always difficult  to choose among all the  composers we like). My  pleasure  would have  been even greater if  I had  been able to  go to  one  of  your concerts  there. Unfortunately, while I was in Nantes, all your  concerts  were fully  booked.


Last July in Colmar (I live  in Strasbourg) I could  not  go  either  to the  concert you  gave  with Ophélie Gaillard but  in the  evening,  as I was walking near Saint Matthieu church before Grigory Sokolov's  concert, I crossed you and I crossed you later  at the entr'acte but, of  course,  I did not dare to disturb you. Fortunately the  year  before still in Colmar (July 2007), I could attend your concert  (Bach's Chaconne transcriptions  by  Busoni and Lutz, Intermezzo from  Vienna Carnaval  and  Symphonic studies by Schumann and as encores a  piece by Scriabine because  you told us you had listened  to  Sokolov play Scriabine in concert  the day before).It was  a wonderful  moment My vocabulary (maybe particularly  in English!)  is too poor to express how I enjoyed your concert. It sounded as though a thoughtful, analytic interpretation (where all seemed to be  weighed, analysed, worked on) was everything but  a  “cold blooded” interpretation and could  be a synomym for warmth, spontaneity, generosity, enthusiasm, narrative skills, huge variety  of nuances and  moods. After the  concert, I dared to disturb you this time to have the Chaconne CD I like so much autographed.

 Let’s come back to the  topic of Bach and the pedal. As an amateur pianist, I  find  it  very interesting to  know your point  of view. I agree entirely with  what  you said. Although using an adequate fingering sometimes may make  it  possible to  respect  the  polyphonic  writing and not to use the  pedal, why  not use  the  pedal  when it serves  music, expression, singing  voices? All is a question  of  proportions as  you said...and intuition maybe. Anyway, I think it’s a pity  not to use the pedal just to  get  closer to the harpsichord sound or  just because of  the  idea we may have of a  “genuine”, “authentic” interpretation  corresponding with  the  aesthetics  of  the first  half of  the 18th century! For  me, Bach  means  intelligence,  curiosity,  open-mindedness. For example should transcriptions by Busoni be rejected because they are not  “genuine” “authentic”? When I listen to  you  play Bach’s Chaconne transcription by Busoni, I think that you are far from being  unfaithful to Bach and you make  me  like Bach’s music  even more.

That makes  me think  about your  post about xylophones playing  the  Italian Concerto. Bach’s music  is so rich  and beautiful that  we can be surprised and enjoy  it when it is  played   by  instruments  we  would  never have thought of.  As I was walking along the  hall of the  Cité des  Congrès in Nantes, I stopped  to  listen to Dmitri Makhtin (violin) and Henri Demarquette (cello) play a variation (the  seventh, I think)  from  the Goldberg Variations. That made  me think that polyphony is a  beautiful metaphor of life. We all have our  own life and the  interaction  with others gives to  our  life all its  value and all its beauty.

 As a  conclusion, I  would  like to react to your  post about Simone Weil. She  will be celebrated  this year because she would  have been  100 and  I wish to pay  homage to her.

If “to  philosophize is to think one’s life and to live one’s  thought” ( “philosopher, c’est penser sa  vie  et vivre sa pensée”-André Comte-Sponville), Simone  Weil is the example  of the  philosopher I admire. As a student, she was  admitted to the  most prestigious and selective graduate school in the French education system, Ecole Normale Supérieure (a lot of   famous French writers,  philosophers and scientists graduated from Ecole  Normale Supérieure). She taught and then she was admirable through her life and her social and  political committment that was pure, disinterested and demanding. She became a  worker because, from inside, she wanted to   live, know, write about and  improve the living  conditions  of the  working class.  She fought with the Republicans during the Civil War  in Spain  in 1936 and  at the end of her too short life she  took part in  the Resistance in Britain.

Her  philosophy is about ethics and aesthetics but also mysticism, faith, grace inspired by  Christianism. Even  if I am  not a “practicing Christian”(maybe a bad translation  from a bad French expression!), I am still sensitive to these notions certainly because the Christian education I received and  the Christian ethics rubbed off on me  and had a greater  influence on who I am than  I  can imagine.

I like  very  much Simone Weil’s quotation you  mentionned. And since you wrote  in  your  post about Simone Weil that religion and faith preoccupied you  because of  your  work on Bach  whose composition is based on  Christian faith, I would  like to mention an other quotation by Simone Weil :

 "Quand on écoute du Bach ou une mélodie grégorienne, toutes les facultés de l’âme se taisent et se tendent pour appréhender cette chose parfaitement belle, chacune à sa façon. L’intelligence entre autres ; elle n’y trouve rien à affirmer et à nier, mais elle s’en nourrit.
La foi ne doit-elle pas être une adhésion de cette espèce ?
On dégrade les mystères de la foi en en faisant un objet d’affirmation ou de négation, alors qu’ils doivent être un objet de contemplation."

 Translation into English….that  will  be , I  hope, as  faithful as  possible!

 “When  one listens to Bach or a Gregorian melody, all the  soul faculties become silent  and tense in  order to seize this perfectly beautiful thing, each  does  it their  own way. Intelligence  among these soul faculties ; intelligence finds  nothing in  it to affirm  or deny but intelligence is  fed with it.

Mustn’t faith be  an adherence of this  kind?

One  downgrades the  mysteries of faith by making them an  object of  affirmation  or denial, whereas they  must  be  an  object of  contemplation."
Hi Jean-Paul,

Nice to read your post. I especially liked the part about Simone Weil. I find your idea, of getting more transparency through finger holding instead of pedal, good, except that the kind of sound you will get from holding one note and not using pedal is different from the effect of holding one note and using pedal. It depends what you are going for and as you say, intuition is essential for these kind of decisions.
Hi Edna, Jean-Paul,

I read somewhere, I seem to remember, that Busoni supposedly played Bach using all 3 of the pedals simultaneously. I'm not at the level to try that, but Edna did you hear about it? Did you ever try to play using the 3 pedals simultaneously?
Busoni probably didn't play much original Bach in any case, mostly Bach-Busoni, but still it seemed like a very interesting thing to try. (I guess I did try myself but even one pedal is hard enough for me to control well).
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