The Revelation of Rosalyn Tureck Playing Bach


think . . . you are going to Washington Wednesday the 17th,” Elizabeth Bishop wrote to Robert Lowell, one poet to another. “—if not I was going to ask you if you’d like to go to a Bach concert Wed. night—a pianist friend of mine who is just about the best Bach player there is.”

Rosalyn Tureck’s all-Bach recital at Town Hall that night—November 17, 1948—featured the “little” preludes, the third English suite, three sets of preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier, and an encore sonata. The recital—recorded but not released at the time—marks a turning point both in the performance of Bach’s music and the transmission of it. Tureck, now thirty-four, is serenely confident of her approach to the music, which she meets and sponsors instead of trying to have her way with. After a thumping first prelude, she plays with gathering interiority, so that by the time she reaches the paired preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier she sounds alone and obsessive (the applause comes as a surprise). You can hear her making Bach architectural for the postwar years, replacing the upholstered surfaces of prewar Bach with straight lines.

At the same time, the crispness of the playing means that you can hear technology lagging behind. The recording was probably made onto acetates by a pair of disc cutters and then transferred to 78s. They are (the reissue producer says) “clean, well-recorded sides.” Still, they are 78s made by a microphone hung from the fly space over the stage. In passages played with anything but the lightest touch, the echoes and overtones smudge the pointed bricks of Tureck’s counterpoint. The right hand dances; the left hand clumps prosthetically along. When the two hands come together, it sounds like a player piano, the perpetual-motion machine that actual musicians set themselves against as something other than music.

Six weeks later Tureck went north to give a pair of recitals in Canada, again presenting Bach in a diverse program. She played two of the Inventions and the Italian Concerto as parts of a longer program at the Technical Hall in Ottawa. On Monday, January 24, 1949, she appeared at the auditorium connected with Eaton’s, an elegant department store in downtown Toronto, playing Beethoven, Chopin, Scriabin, and Bach: the third English suite, “Jesu, meine Freude” from the Little Organ Book, and transcriptions, possibly her own, of two chorales.

Glenn Gould was there. He was sixteen years old and in training for a career as a concert pianist. He had finished the standard course at the local conservatory, surpassing students ten years older. He had played at Eaton Auditorium himself beginning when he was twelve. Now he was studying daily with a private teacher, a specialist in the music of the Baroque.

Tureck’s playing was a “revelation” to him, he later said. But it was not a revelation vouchsafed to him all at once in the concert hall that night. He had Tureck’s records; he played them over and over, and heard in them not just piano-playing but an approach to music, especially the music of Bach. “She was the first person who played Bach in what seemed to me a sensible way,” he recalled. “It was playing of such uprightness, to put it into the moral sphere. There was such a sense of repose that had nothing to do with languor, but rather with moral rectitude in the liturgical sense.”

Through technology he was joined to her. “I was fighting a battle in which I was never going to get a surrender flag from my teacher on the way Bach should go, but her records were the first evidence that one did not fight alone.”

This essay excerpted from Reinventing Bach by Paul Elie, published in September 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright ©2012 by Paul Elie. All rights reserved.

Reinventing Bach is available at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, as well as Amazon.

Guest Writer Paul Elie is the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own (FSG, 2003), which was awarded the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction, among other prizes, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in biography. Born in 1965 and educated at Fordham and Columbia universities, he worked for many years as a senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and taught in Columbia’s graduate writing program. He is now a senior fellow with Georgetown University, based in the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.
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Copyright © 2018 Nancy M. Williams. All Rights Reserved.

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