Bach is my basic. It’s always back to Bach, the grand master. As a teenager, I played Bach’s Two-Part Inventions, then the Preludes and Fugues (from the Well-Tempered Clavier Books I and II), and then I discovered the French and English Suites, and I played a lot of both. Bach epitomizes everything that was great at that time during the Baroque era, which runs approximately from 1600 to 1750. He shows a real mastery with the French and English Suites, and the French Suite No. 5 is one of my favorites.
I played the Gigue from this particular French Suite, in concert, about 30 years ago. The Gigue is very difficult, with an extremely rapid tempo. That was 30 years ago: I’m dating myself right now.
Recently, I decided to pick up the Bach French Suite No. 5 and just play it through, and I discovered that the Sarabande is absolutely gorgeous. It’s more like an aria than the stylized, slow-moving sarabande dance, which originally emanated from Spain. It’s helpful to know, by the way, that Bach utilized existent dance forms for his Suites. When I play the Sarabande, I sing it in my head. I pretend I’m a singer, rather than a pianist. The piano, don’t forget, is really a percussive instrument, and you’re striking to produce a gorgeous sound. But if you imagine singing the Sarabande, it just becomes that much more melodious. Your breathing patterns produce a lyrical line that shapes the phrases.
The Gavotte from this Bach French Suite No. 5 is just fun. You can just see country folk in a tavern, and they’re dancing with their silk shoes and white stockings, and you can hear the thump-thump-thump on the dance floor, and see the lace and the pearls, and it’s just magnificent. That scene is what I try to evoke in my mind when I play the Gavotte—in fact, the entire French Suite. I’m transported back in time to the 1700s:
As a pianist, you’re only a medium, an interpreter of the genius of Bach, and you have to pull the genius, through the piano, an inanimate object, and through yourself. Once you play the Bach French Suite No. 5, you never lose it. You always come back to it, and believe it or not, you discover new nuances. You might play the Suite in a different way, and the music changes for you. It never goes stale.