What does Kickstarter have to do with a work for harpsichord by Johann Sebastian Bach? Quite a bit, actually. In May of 2011, a Kickstarter campaign was launched to fund a new recording of The Goldberg Variations by renowned pianist Kimiko Ishizaka in conjunction with a new edition of the score. What sets this project apart is that both the score and the recordings are to be in the public domain — which means they will be available free of charge to anyone who wishes to download them. This Kickstarter project came to fruition on May 28, 2012, with the release of both the score and the recordings. Download them here or here.
I downloaded them earlier today and have been listening to them on my Windows Media Player all afternoon. I also burned them to a CD to share with my friend. Because they are in the public domain, I am free to do that. I could also download them to my MP3 player, phone, or upload them to the Cloud. Because they are on my computer, I could also upload them to my Rhapsody music library and play them through my Rhapsody app on my Kindle Fire.
Why is this worthy of a blog post? In the first place. I like Bach. I like solo piano. The Goldberg Variations are both. In the second place, Ms. Ishizaka has produced a crisp, informed rendition of the Variations. In the third place, the sound quality of the recording is excellent, with no extraneous sound to distract the listener. It’s pure piano — performed on an instrument that is more than equal to the task. Kudos are also due to Bösendorfer for making this top quality instrument available for the project.
Bach was a product of his time, and part of his time was the tracker organ, which Bach both played and wrote for. The tracker organ is to the modern electronic linkage organs as an old, purely mechanical, manual typewriter is to the modern computer keyboard. It required muscles to play a tracker organ. It also requires a precise attack to ensure that each note sounds. That, to me, is the essence of Bach on the keyboard: A firm, precise attack and a clean, precise technique, the ability of the performer to play each individual note as an individual note, be it whole note, grace note or trill, regardless of whether those notes are played on the piano, the harpsicord, or the organ. I like my Bach keyboard works celery crisp, with each note struck cleanly and clearly. I can’t stand mushy Bach.
But, by the same token, I don’t want robotics and I don’t want schmaltz. At one extreme is a mechanical sounding, clockwork performance like a music box, devoid of dynamics. At the other end is schmaltz, with overdone dynamics and surging tempi which are out of character for Baroque music. Ms. Ishizaka does neither. Her tempi are steady, and her dynamics remain true to the Baroque interpretation of the term. The aria is pensive and quiet, as are some of the less elaborate, slower variations, delicate in places, yet full of depth and expression. The more elaborate, more up-tempo variations have a restrained exuberance, rippling and sparkling like a brook in the midday sun.
At the same time, Ms. Ishizaka has also overcome the hurdle that lies in the path of anyone attempting to perform a piece of music on an instrument it was not intended to be played on. While the harpsichord and piano are both keyboard instruments, they operate in different ways and require different techniques to meet the demands of the music. In this set of recordings, I think Ms. Ishizaka has achieved the best of both worlds: a fully viable transplant of harpsichord music to the piano.
This is one instance where you are getting something — a high quality something — for nothing. It’s a rare opportunity. Take it.
Here’s a sample: