Open to interpretation

I’ve had a spectacularly unproductive weekend: Aside from some halfhearted raking, the only thing I accomplished was to more or less clean out the duplicate files from my iTunes library.

Some of the “duplicates” were in fact different takes on the same piece, so I listened to each version to choose the keepers. I was most struck by the wildly different interpretations of Bach’s Prelude in C Sharp Major, BWV 848.

Here’s how the piece looks on paper. It’s pretty straightforward (other than the fact it’s in C sharp major), so you wouldn’t think there’s much room for interpretation:

But I compared the audio files anyway, just in case.

I started with the generic version that came on one of those “Best of Bach” grocery-store CDs. It’s crisp and clean, if a bit rushed.

Unknown pianist

Then I listened to Glenn Gould’s version. It was technically brilliant, but — to my taste — an interpretive disaster. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you “Bach on crystal meth.”

Glenn Gould

Finally, I listened to Liz Story’s recording. It took only two seconds to decide I liked hers best. It’s joyful and mellifluous, and the phrasing is lovely. A purist might want a bit more articulation between the notes, but I rather like Story’s gently languid approach.

Liz Story

People sometimes wonder why so many dancers and musicians go back to the classics again and again. “Why not try something new?” they groan.

After my little exercise tonight, I’ve learned the answer: Every reinterpretation of a classic is, in a sense, trying something new. And sometimes the result is wonderful.

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