Bach’s Concerto No. 1 in D Minor

I have to admit that a love for Bach’s music is fairly new to me. I felt Baroque music lacked emotion and was somewhat boring. Then one day I was perusing YouTube and stumbled on a video of Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Concerto No. 1 in D Minor. I don’t know if it was Gould or Bach, but I was mesmerized by this piece and listened to it nonstop for a week. This was Glenn Gould’s first public performance. He is introduced to the world by the one and only Leonard Bernstein, who is also conducting the concerto.

Composing music is somewhat similar to writing a play – you can be as descriptive or undescriptive as you want to be. Bernstein makes this point in the lecture preceding the performance. A playwright may write, “John walked into the room and said ‘Hello Martha.” Imagine if you were the director and that is all you had to stage this scene. You don’t know how old John is or how he talks. How he looks. You know nothing about the surroundings. There is a lot of blank canvas to fill in here.

Or the playwright could describe John as a middle-aged, balding, overweight New Yorker wearing dirty jeans with giant holes in the knees, limping slowly into an empty room whose linoleum floor is barely covered by smelly red carpet and whose walls have been carelessly smeared with peeling white paint. The more descriptive the playwright is, though, the less creativity and imagination are left to the director.

Though to civilians (like yours truly) all scores look intimidatingly the same, a composer also has the option to either just provide the outlines of a story and a few snatches of dialog, or to go to the extra mile in describing how the music should be played. The more descriptive is composer is in the score, the less room for creativity he leaves for the conductors and performers.

Mahler was incredibly precise with his music: He described every little innuendo of his symphonies. Bach was not descriptive at all. He left a huge space for interpretation of his music, and you can clearly hear that in this concerto.

Glenn Gould’s performance is vastly different from any other performance of this concerto. He plays it noticeably slower and accentuates the notes significantly more – his performance evokes melancholy where others deliver energy. Gould could not, however, have been able to slow down the concerto on his own; he needed an accomplice: Leonard Bernstein.

Glenn Gould’s debut performance (rewind to see Leonard Bernstein’s lecture)

Polina Osetinskya

Sviatoslav Richter

Murray Perahia

3 Comments

  1. Being able to watch the intensity of Gould’s playing adds yet another element to the performance. Absolutely captivating.

    I would be thankful for your recommendations (possibly in a YouTube playlist!) for more classical piano pieces. The composer’s familiarity does not matter as much to me as does the composition. Recently I discovered Tariverdiev and Kancheli, mostly unknown in the West, but very popular in Russia and the former USSR. I’m up for anyone, so long as it is a thing of beauty.

  2. I agree that Bach requires some effort. From my experience, most Baroque music is written with some mirroring effect and shorter phrases, rather than the longer sections and phrasings desired by the Classical and Romantic-era composers. Note how the different instruments are basically playing the same note patterns throughout the composition. When learning these compositions by Bach, I also got the impression that they were written with intentional difficulty for the performers. After Bach’s death, most of his compositions were ignored and forgotten for over 150 years, mostly for the reason that they were not kept in public performance, and also because his death marked the end of the Baroque era and its complex music and architecture.

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