The world-renowned Messiaen interpreter on why he’s branched out to Bach with his latest recording
Pianist Peter Hill has made a name for himself as one of the foremost performers of the music of Messiaen. But his new recording – out now on Delphian – is of the Second Book of JS Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier. So what's behind the change of tack?
Why did you decide to record this disc?
I’m better known for doing contemporary music but I’ve always played Bach – it goes right back to childhood. I remember at home we had the old Czerny edition of the 48 Preludes and Fugues (The Well-Tempered Clavier), which is now regarded with horror by everybody because it’s so inauthentic. I grew up with Bach and he’s always been a kind of summer holiday composer for me – somebody whose music I would play for fun. I got more and more fascinated with the keyboard works and started to play a few pieces in concerts. Then I had a meeting with Paul Baxter who runs Delphian and said ‘One thing I’d love to record one day is Book Two of the 48’ – and I suppose he saw the glitter in my eye, the light of battle. And here it is.
What have been the particular challenges of recording this work?
I think it’s by a long way the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do – much harder than Messiaen’s Vingt Regard sur l'enfant-Jésus or Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations or Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in the four hand version, this is all very difficult music of course but it’s nothing compared with the 48. I think it’s because you have to completely dedicate yourself to this music and you have to have a view about every single note – there are no shortcuts with Bach. It is so full of meanings, connections, geometries and you have to be a master of all of them. How you make a synthesis out of all your study into a performance is another great challenge.
But how important is an element of intuition in your approach?
All the time you’re listening to your intuition – any performance is a kind of collaboration between the performer and the composer. And you’re entering the lift at a pretty high level if you’re entering into a collaboration with Bach – every time you open a copy you get a masterclass in composition. You have to listen to your intuition and try to see what it is in the music that is sparking you in a particular direction, try to understand it and then hopefully you’ll then go further. Of course you educate your intuition – one’s not born with a musical aptitude for Bach, you acquire it as you study.
How did you go about making this recording?
I hate recording in short bits because I think they always sound like short bits when you edit them together. If you are going to edit it’s much better to edit from complete performances, because they have the ebb and flow that you get in a true performance. The difficulty of performing in short bits is that they’re all recorded at the same level of intensity – you can always tell, I think, when recordings have been made that way – they sound terribly hyper-active, whereas true performance has its peaks but also its moments of relaxation as well. So we recorded everything in complete takes – usually we recorded each piece three times and then selected the best of the three.
Did you come across any common ground between the contemporary music you’re known for performing and Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier?
I’ve been struggling to find a good musical connection with Messiaen. Messiaen of course knew Bach very well through his work as an organist – and they were both the great composers of sacred music of their age, no doubt about that. But one struggles I think to find clear stylistic or musical connections between them. But there are enormous connections between Bach and the music both that came before him and the music that comes after – he’s to my mind the great time-traveller of music. He seems to be this almost universal spirit that encompasses all humanity.
So will you be recording Book One of the 48?
We are indeed planning to record Book One probably in about a year’s time – it’s another enormous job. When the CD of Book Two arrived I looked at the time – 2 hours and 38 minutes. No wonder it was exhausting to do – but a wonderful thing. I think it’s something to do with passing the age of 60. You can, at a certain point of life, go on doing what you’re known for – go on doing the same things. But I think sometimes one has to strike out in a completely new direction and see what you’ll find – and I’m very glad I did.
Peter Hill's disc of Bach's 'The Well-Tempered Clavier', Book Two is out now and will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue.
Audio clip: from Prelude XXIII in B major