FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Keith Jarrett in the Landscape of Bach

by DAVID YEARSLEY

No keyboard player of this or any other age has been more wide-ranging than Keith Jarrett. His contributions to jazz extend from the endlessly astonishing treatment of standards to expansive and spontaneous explorations of the endless space beyond the limits of form and genre. Jarrett’s music-making as represented by his prolific output of recordings challenges the boundaries that separate classical from jazz, the improvised from the notated.

His choice of instruments is all-embracing as well: Jarrett’s double LP of 1979 Hymns/Spheres captures him improvising hymn settings and pastoral scenes on the magnificent baroque organ at the Benedictine Abbey in Ottobeuren in South Germany; the recording was finally reissued by ECM this year on CD.   Jarrett’s Book of Ways from 1986 stretches to two CDs and nearly two hours of clavichord ruminations. This is the medium that would seem ideally suited to a keyboard player such as Jarrett who listens with such depth and intensity: the clavichord is perhaps the only instrument that is best heard by the person actually playing it.

Jarrett’s performances on harpsichord, especially of the music of J. S. Bach, have been still more distinguished, even if the result is treated with skepticism by some specialists.  His 1989 Goldberg Variations arguably treated this epoch-making set of keyboard pieces with too much respect, thoroughly abjuring flashy virtuosity in favor of nuanced consideration. But this attitude yields its own marvels: the tender release of one note before the caress of the next; the cherishing of an unexpected harmony; the irrepressible and unexpected ornament; the thoughtful consideration of the contrapuntal logic between canonic voices. One has the feeling of listening to Jarrett listening to himself rather than performing for you.  Eavesdropping on his intensely intimate music making is revelatory.

The unsurpassed sensitivity of Jarrett’s keyboard playing can be heard equally on piano or harpsichord: while he understands the crucial differences between these instruments, these never hinder his search for expressive possibility. That he has recorded the two books of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier on piano and harpsichord respectively demonstrates that while the choice of instrument is not irrelevant, each provides unique means to the same end: the finely-shaped representation of musical thoughts ranging from the transparently beautiful to the densely complicated.

In the realm of chamber music Jarrett chose the harpsichord for his recording of the Bach gamba sonatas with violist Kim Kashkashian: thus a modern string instrument converses with an eighteenth-century keyboard.  The point of such combinations is an expansion of possibility that the use of different instruments encourages, especially when operated by a musician of Jarrett’s gifts.

For his recording with Michelle Makarski of Bach’s sonatas for keyboard and violin due out later this month from ECM, Jarrett is back at the modern piano, rather than continuing his survey of older jarrettbachkeyboards; I could well have imagined Jarrett at one of the clear and responsive early pianos of Bach’s own time. Nonetheless, Jarrett shows that under his hands, the carefully-voiced modern piano treated with taste and brilliance and recorded with the ECM label’s famed clarity and ambience is an appropriate, even if anachronistic, tool for this set of six sonatas of bracing allegros, erudite counterpoint, and celestial slow movements.

In these last years of the CD medium it is interesting to see how objects fast-becoming obsolete present music held to be timeless.  The cover of Jarrett’s forthcoming Bach disc is an atmospheric black-and-white photo of pond or swamp, in which a tree trunk is reflected, the tableau streaked through with misty, luminous swaths—perhaps the light of reason and interpretation penetrating the murky depths of Bachian consciousness? The disc contains no liner notes explaining historical contexts or current conditions for the music and its performance.  Nor are the performer’s bios included: it is as if the music and musicians will speak for themselves. Better not to set foot into the oily waters of history and scholarship.

Along the top edge the photo blends to black for the title: first comes the great composer then the title— “Six Sonatas for Violin and Piano.”  The performers are then given their due, violinist Makarski preceding the far more famous Jarrett in accordance with the order of the instruments given by the CD’s title.  Flipping two pages into the attractive booklet, which while it militantly rejects explanation and elucidation in the form of English prose has many vivid photographs of the musicians during the recording sessions held at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City, one encounters a facsimile of a copy of the sonatas partly in Bach’s hand.  In this manuscript the title of the collection, written in modish Italian that even transform Bach’s first name to Giovanni, places the “harpsichord obbligato” first, then lists violin solo. True, the instruments are variously partners and competitors through the varied genres and moods encountered in these six sonatas, but to think of them in modern terms as violin sonatas is a mistake.  Bach’s own son Carl Philipp Emanuel called them “harpsichord trios,” praising them long after his father’s death for their stylistic currency even against the very different tastes of the later eighteenth century.

In the twenty first century there is no need to defend these sonatas against the trends of  popular, or even classical music, culture. That they inhabit their own realm doesn’t mean that they are safe: they are replete not only with the Bachian traits of erudition, strangeness, and complexity, but also with a range of emotional registers that only the best musicians can draw out, whether playing mighty modern grand pianos, towering organs, or whispering clavichords.

Tremendous individual interpreters at their instruments, Jarrett and Makarski are also perfectly matched for collaboration. The ensemble playing is unsurpassed, from the radiant precision of fast trills to the tandem heartbeats of their elegant phrasing and articulation. There is exuberance here, but also plenty of reserve, Makarski using vibrato sparingly as a kind of ornament, that is, in just the way it was deployed in Bach’s day. Her intonation is unfailingly accurate, and the sighing diminuendo with which she rounds off many notes, especially long ones, is a touch that transcends stylistic appropriateness and captures, depending on context, both the fire and melancholy in the music.

Jarrett never thunders on the big black piano, which gained its incredible size in the nineteenth century to fill increasingly large concert halls; he generally remains well below the loudest his instrument has to offer, exploring instead the many shades of softness. Yet his playing does not come across as overly careful, as it occasionally did on his harpsichord Goldbergs.  The sprinting tempo of the last movement of the first sonata in B minor gathers its intensity not just from its pace but also from Jarrett’s vibrant touch: the fingers of this militantly acoustic musician can be electric.

Jarrett and Makarski take the concluding Presto of the A major sonata at a challenging clip, but without losing the soaring grandeur of the movement’s melody nor blunting the spirited dialogue between the parts. One of the obsessions of Bach’s eighteenth century was the crispness and accuracy of ornaments: the devil was and is in such details.  Both Jarrett and Makarski have what contemporary English writers would have called a “crisp shake”—exact, vivid trills. These flourishes impart great energy to the proceedings.

If the duo’s brio raises the listener’s spirits, the slow movements make one recall that the eighteenth century was the great age of tears: find your baroque self and cry when you hear Jarrett’s threnodic accompaniment to the second Adagio of the E major Sonata, with Makarski soaring heavenward in the triplets above.  As always in Bach, the roles are then reversed, further depths plumbed and heights ascended.

To hear Jarrett and Makarski traverse the poignantly elegant Andante from the first sonata is to understand that beyond the fashionable pose of the piece lurks something deeply mournful. The intense beauty of this and other slow movements is almost painful. If you want to know music that can be haunting and hopeful at the same time, take in the plaint of the Largo from the C minor Sonata that opens the second of these two CDs and listen to how the slightest push or pull in tempo and dynamic from both Jarrett and Makarski constantly proves that this music must be interpreted with great care and intensity for it to achieve expressive meaning.

The duo’s reading of the fugal final movement of the last sonata in G major is a rousing, racing final stage of the pair’s uplifting journey through Bach’s landscape of invention and emotion. This moving twenty-first century recording of eighteenth-century music heard on what are essentially nineteenth-century instruments is timeless.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

Weekend Edition
September 23, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
The Meaning of the Trump Surge
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: More Pricks Than Kicks
Mike Whitney
Oh, Say Can You See the Carnage? Why Stand for a Country That Can Gun You Down in Cold Blood?
Chris Welzenbach
The Diminution of Chris Hayes
Vincent Emanuele
The Riots Will Continue
Rob Urie
A Scam Too Far
Pepe Escobar
Les Deplorables
Patrick Cockburn
Airstrikes, Obfuscation and Propaganda in Syria
Timothy Braatz
The Quarterback and the Propaganda
Sheldon Richman
Obama Rewards Israel’s Bad Behavior
Libby Lunstrum - Patrick Bond
Militarizing Game Parks and Marketing Wildlife are Unsustainable Strategies
Andy Thayer
More Cops Will Worsen, Not Help, Chicago’s Violence Problem
Louis Yako
Can Westerners Help Refugees from War-torn Countries?
David Rosen
Rudy Giuliani & Trump’s Possible Cabinet
Joyce Nelson
TISA and the Privatization of Public Services
Pete Dolack
Global Warming Will Accelerate as Oceans Reach Limits of Remediation
Franklin Lamb
34 Years After the Sabra-Shatila Massacre
Cesar Chelala
How One Man Held off Nuclear War
Norman Pollack
Sovereign Immunity, War Crimes, and Compensation to 9/11 Families
Lamont Lilly
Standing Rock Stakes Claim for Sovereignty: Eyewitness Report From North Dakota
Barbara G. Ellis
A Sandernista Priority: Push Bernie’s Planks!
Hiroyuki Hamada
How Do We Dream the Dream of Peace Together?
Russell Mokhiber
From Rags and Robes to Speedos and Thongs: Why Trump is Crushing Clinton in WV
Julian Vigo
Living La Vida Loca
Aidan O'Brien
Where is Europe’s Duterte? 
Abel Cohen
Russia’s Improbable Role in Everything
Ron Jacobs
A Change Has Gotta’ Come
Uri Avnery
Shimon Peres and the Saga of Sisyphus
Graham Peebles
Ethiopian’s Crying out for Freedom and Justice
Robert Koehler
Stop the Killing
Thomas Knapp
Election 2016: Of Dog Legs and “Debates”
Yves Engler
The Media’s Biased Perspective
Victor Grossman
Omens From Berlin
Christopher Brauchli
Wells Fargo as Metaphor for the Trump Campaign
Nyla Ali Khan
War of Words Between India and Pakistan at the United Nations
Tom Barnard
Block the Bunker! Historic Victory Against Police Boondoggle in Seattle
James Rothenberg
Bullshit Recognition as Survival Tactic
Ed Rampell
A Tale of Billionaires & Ballot Bandits
Kristine Mattis
Persnickety Publishing Pet-Peeves
Charles R. Larson
Review: Helen Dewitt’s “The Last Samurai”
David Yearsley
Torture Chamber Music
September 22, 2016
Dave Lindorff
Wells Fargo’s Stumpf Leads the Way
Stan Cox
If There’s a World War II-Style Climate Mobilization, It has to Go All the Way—and Then Some
Binoy Kampmark
Source Betrayed: the Washington Post and Edward Snowden
John W. Whitehead
Wards of the Nanny State
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail