Erin Hales: A creative approach to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator, International Piano and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 29.12.2015

The perfumed prose of music criticism can sometimes be as annoying as it is unhelpful.  For a lesson in turning music into words, however, there is better, as I have found in reading analyses and opinions on Johann Sebastian Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. He brings out the best in us. 

A few choice metaphors, all of them justified by this extraordinary material, have been produced to describe a variety of pianists in thrall to the Bach WTC oeuvre:

-- The feelings range “from a brisk delight in muscular playfulness through harrowing depths of personal introspection …”

-- No. 4 starts with four notes, from which “Bach creates a Gothic cathedral. The grandeur is almost unbearable …”

-- The entire 48, whichever one might choose,  “have some quality or other of grace, humor, tenderness, vivacity, tranquility, high spirits, solemnity or Aufschwung – flight upward and away …” 

The emotions Bach captured in these short, perfectly polished pieces – and artfully described above -- are also played masterfully by the young American pianist Erin Hales on her new CD of Book I (Academy Productions AP4141), the first 24 pieces from 1722. Her Book II, the remaining 24, compiled some 20 years later, is in preparation.

Ms. Hales’ confident, mature renderings compare well with those by three other women, Angela Hewitt, Hélène Grimaud and Rosalyn Tureck, as well as those by men who have excelled in the same realm, Andras Schiff, Glenn Gould and Edwin Fischer, among others. They all take advantage of the wide range of legitimate variants – tempo, tone, voice, articulation, pedal and ingredient X -- the performer’s own personal magic.

But what makes Ms. Hales’s reading stand out is her courage in creative improvisation, a bold move to be welcomed as a freshener. Her cadenzas and added ornamentation are so Bachian as to be easily mistaken as his, not hers. She declares in her program notes:

“What I propose …  is a more fantastical, improvisatory style favored in Bach’s day by vocalists and instrumentalists alike … My sincerest hope is to offer an additional window into the vast universe of possibilities open to those who wish to explore this repertoire.” She calls her modifications “judicious use of ornamentation and even improvisation” to bring out what is already inherent in the text. 

The late Ms. Tureck (the “First Lady of Bach”), and perhaps the few other pianists who have had the confidence to improvise around Bach, would approve. She called embellishment of Bach’s piano music “a life study in itself”. No doubt true but Ms. Hales seems to have achieved, through her musicological interests, a depth of understanding remarkably early in her career. She explains: “Many interpretive suggestions lie within the fabric of the writing itself, even if few explicit indications are to be found.”

Erin Hales pictured by the author, Michael Johnson

In an email exchange with Ms. Hales I asked her how it felt to operate creatively on Bach’s perfect creations. She shot back:

“It would be presumptuous of me to claim to have gotten inside Bach's mind. Rather, I would liken the process to that of adding footnotes - corollaries to the theorems he posited. The intent … is to provide a commentary on the immense rhetorical potential of this repertoire, one that so far has not seemed to make it into many recordings.”

Listening to Bach’s broad musical palate in the first 24, I paid special attention to two of the preludes and fugues.  The preludes benefit from Ms. Hales’ feather-touch and her sensitive ear. Chords and single notes overlap and shimmer in the air. She controls every minuscule change. 

No. 4 in C-sharp minor calls upon Ms. Hales’ finely tuned sensibilities to create colors in slow motion. The fugue then seguës into five voices to complete the ideas. Her finger technique seems tight and appropriately loose at the same time.

No. 8 in E-flat minor opens with a quiet exposition echoing a tragic line that has been called heartbreaking. As in No. 4, Ms. Hales’ hyper-sensitive touch lets the music emerge of its own accord. The fugue then in equally quiet mode brings three voices to the fore, virtually singing the development.

For fans who know this material by heart, I can suggest No. 2 in C-minor and the bubbling No 5 in D-minor as containing her most interesting personal touch in ornamentation.

Ms. Hales’ teacher William Naboré, artistic director and founder of the International Piano Academy Lake Como, notes that Franz Liszt was one of the last of the great improvisers, leaving us with perfectionists who settle for note-perfect performances. “This is our loss,” says Naboré, who has encouraged Ms. Hales to take up the challenge. Other living pianists who combine Bach with their own ideas include the Russian virtuoso Konstantin Lifschitz.

Samples of Ms. Hales’ tracks are available on Amazon, please click here.

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