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An Uplifting Celestial Journey

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