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How should pianists perceive traditional performance expectations that are not written down, or cope with playing famous works by composers that turn out not to be by the composers after all? These and other questions are raised by two new books.

Walter Fleischmann, professor emeritus of piano at the University of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna, was a pupil of pianists Paul Weingarten, Emil von Sauer (a Liszt protégé) and Richard Hauser, who studied in Vienna with Weingarten and Saur and later taught, among others, Mitsuko Uchida. In 2017 Fleischmann published a short book whose title might be translated as Music from Piano Playing: Principles and Laws of Music and the Limits of Musical Notation (Staccato Verlag). Focusing more on performance art, this original title was more indicative of the brief but cogent text’s content, now expanded in a lucid English version by the London-born, Austrian-based composer Robert J Crow.

Fleischmann notes that Haydn, for instance, ‘frequently writes no indications of articulation, the player must decide what articulation is suitable for the phrase. The composer expects an appropriate musical insight and feeling for the right expression from the player, as these articulation marks are only intended as a regrettably inadequate indication of the emotional content and are never to be taken literally.’

Composers from Haydn to Brahms, as well as Prokofiev, Ravel, Rachmaninov and Fauré, are discussed comparatively for such insights on dynamics, articulation, agogics, pedalling, and notation not explicitly indicated in print.

Whether pianists today choose to follow these traditions, it helps to know about them. This quietly informative approach reflects Fleischmann’s pedagogic style, which he describes as mild-mannered investigation guiding students to ‘awareness of the functionally correct movement from the fingertip to the spine’.

For pupils who have absorbed mistaken interpretive notions from star pianists’ recordings or misguided teachers, Fleischmann cites dynamics implied in the second movement of Haydn’s Sonata No 53 in E minor Hob XVI/34, divided bar by bar. The sonata becomes quieter for the second bar before dynamics are increased, only to calm down again: observations nowhere stated in the score.

If, when playing Liszt’s Tarantella (Venezia e Napoli) from the second volume of Années de pèlerinage, pianists do not pay heed to articulation, the result may sound like ‘stuttering’ or ‘barking’, Fleischmann warns. Performers who ignore implicit tradition do so at their own peril.

Entirely more explicit are David Yearsley’s observations about the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach (Notenbüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach) prepared by J S Bach for his second wife, an able keyboard player. Yearsley, a musicologist at Cornell University, has performed on historical instruments and with the US synthesizer ensemble Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company, which recorded American minimalist composers for the Musica Omnia and Loftlabels.

Sex, Death, and Minuets observes about the maximalist composer Bach that ‘since their late 19th-century publication, Anna Magdalena’s Notebooks have remained icons of domestic music-making and family values, accordingly cleansed of their joyful sensuality and heartrending sorrows’. These elements are restored by a fresh re-examination of Bach’s music from literary, social, theological and political perspectives.

Long relished as a dainty epitomisation of the Baroque era, if not of Bach’s creativity, the Minuet in G major (BWV Anh 114) was reattributed by researchers in the 1970s to Christian Petzold. Yearsley observes that in this minuet and others in the Notebooks, the ‘regular phrases, straightforward two-part texture, easy details, and graceful ornaments of the miscellaneous keyboard pieces mostly in Anna Magdalena’s hand were suitable not just for beginning keyboard instruction but for domestic dancing. The 1725 Notebook was as much a forum for the dedicatee’s personal musical pleasure as it was a souvenir album for her and her circle.’

The mention of sex in the book’s title does not imply a Carry On film transplanted to Leipzig, though Anna Magdalena did give birth to 13 children, so some degree of eros was surely present. Most significantly, her role as a female musician is examined sensitively.

By contrast, the fictionalised autobiography Little Chronicle of Magdalena Bach (1925) by the English author Esther Meynell, who studied piano at the Brighton School of Music, is dismissed harshly.

Meynell’s Anna Magdalena was a subservient helpmeet, but Meynell herself, a niece of the poet and suffragist Alice Meynell, deserves more credit for consciously evoking 18th- century German Lutheran sensibilities in the passive portrait that she painted of Bach’s wife. The British edition of Little Chronicle included the caveat that ‘certain episodes in the book are imaginary’, a warning removed in the German translation, whereupon it was embraced as a prewar ode to Teutonic domesticity.

Yearsley’s book too, despite some self-conscious ‘woke’ references conveying a whiff of American collegiate seminars, winningly harmonises sacred and secular aspects of Bach’s life and work.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica


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