Just before my freshman year of college, my brother Jon invited me to drive the Alaska Highway with him, my sister-in-law, and a cousin. It would take twelve days from Kansas City to Anchorage, camping each night.
“No way,” I told him.” I can’t be away from a piano for that long.”
“What if we take along a piano?” he asked.
When I realized he was serious, I thought “Why not?”
I flew to K.C. We loaded up an old upright with decent action into the back of his truck and embarked on our journey.
On the second day, the piano’s pedals fell off, and my nightly serenades of our fellow campers had to be accomplished without the sustain pedal. I distinctly remember playing two pieces by Chopin: the G Minor Ballade and the B Minor Scherzo. In music like this, the absence of pedal is immediately noticeable in the left hand’s part, as there isn’t sufficient harmonic resonance. However, it was the long melodic lines that compelled me to raise the dampers with hands only, and this altered my sense of what was necessary to achieve a true legato.
The Ballade, in particular, inspired me to practice connecting tones entirely with finger legato. This was something I should have been doing already, but I hadn’t had that much training yet, nor developed adequate practice habits. Without the option of ‘faking’ the legato with the pedal, I was compelled to listen more closely at the note-to-note level.
Fast-forward to 2013:
Just before the end of my five-month séjour in Strasbourg, I completed a survey of J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II. Or said another way: I earnestly began my study of these 24 pairs of pieces.
My plan was to begin my daily practice sessions with at least one prelude and fugue from this collection, and to traverse the entire set two times before I left France. I wanted to become acquainted with these masterpieces both aurally and kinesthetically. I hoped to solve the technical challenges of fingering and voice distribution, and to play at least at a minimum tempo so that the music would be experienced with a continuous ‘flow.’
One reason I undertook this project was a result of practical circumstances: I had decided to bring a limited number of scores overseas with me. Even though it’s easy to find public domain music at sites like imslp.org, I prefer my own scores, especially my Henle editions of Bach. The WTC II nurtured my soul and imagination in ways that I had not experienced in a long time.
Since returning to the States, I’ve completed a similar foray through the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, and have returned with a greater sense of purpose working with Book II. The principal change in my approach has been the conscious decision to use no pedal throughout.
After discovering that András Schiff is in the middle of what he is calling, “The Bach Project,” I listened to his April 2013 performance of the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, and subsequently watched his session at New York’s Greene Space. Here he lays out the case for playing Bach without any pedal—even though he has, in the past, recorded Bach with some pedal.
András Schiff performing Bach’s
Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, BWV 903
My own position has been to utilize the damper pedal discreetly in Baroque music in general, and Bach in particular. This means melodic pedaling—often for only one sixteenth-note to smooth out a connection—vs. harmonic pedaling. (I also confess to previously allowing students to use it more fully in the arpeggio section of the Chromatic Fantasy – something that now feels rather unsatisfactory as I play this work.)
Now, influenced by my work in Strasbourg—and by memories of that wonderful Alaska adventure with my brother—I begin most practice sessions by playing at least one Prelude and Fugue of Bach. My conception of Bach has changed markedly. Perhaps just as important are the changes when playing Schubert, Beethoven, and Chopin—and even Rachmaninoff. In these later composers’ works, I practice more often without pedal, even though, of course, I am not forsaking the pedal in my conceptions and performances. This approach has heightened my sense of counterpoint, leading to a more euphonious balance of texture, voicing, and harmony.
I continue to employ detached articulation depending on the texture, intervals, rhythmic motives, and the spirit of each work, but my playing is undoubtedly more legato than before.
I encourage all pianists and teachers to maintain Bach in their practice, preferably daily—and without pedal. There is a cornucopia of literature at all levels, ranging from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena (even though not all of the pieces are actually by Bach) and Little Preludes, to the Two-Part Inventions and movements from the French Suites, to the beautiful and undervalued Sinfonias, to the English Suites, Partitas, Well-Tempered Clavier, Goldberg Variations, and other works.