J.S. BACH “21” Elisaveta Blumina (piano) – MDG SACD904-2232-6, 2021. 71’39 *****
The title of this new release by German pianist Elisaveta Blumina on MDG is called Bach 21.The number may answer the question of how many tracks are on the cd, or perhaps it refers to this artist’s century of specialization, for she is well known for promoting new composers (Grigori Frid) as well as for championing the piano works of Mieczysław Weinberg. Finally it could be just a reference to this year of troubles which could use some powerful art to strengthen our spirits. Before we get to the specifics of the recording, we should consider the unique presentation of this issue. The pianist explains in her liner notes which include a half dozen of her paintings that she is a synaesthetic, that is a person whose auditory and visual faculties are wired such that she hears sound as color. It is not clear how this would benefit an artist, but it does point to an extraordinary sensitivity to the world of sound.
Analogies to color routinely serve the impossible task of describing music in words. Perhaps because music exists in an ambiguous metaphysical category. It is neither object (baby, wagon, sidewalk) nor property of a thing (fat, red, long and dazzling in the sunlight); It is rather an event, causally derived from other events as well as intentions. Moreover a special kind of event that plays over time and seems to join past and future into a seamless experience of formal unity. And yet all “tone” (as opposed to mere sound) contains meaning, or rather a huge variety of meanings. Where pleasure fits in with these meanings and the forms of intentional communication is likewise a puzzlement.
And yet here is a musician who directly “hears” color. No analogy but a direct bleeding over of one sensory realm into another. It has been documented before but is a real enigma still, especially as it might be a special form of insight into the music itself. Here is what she says about that in the liner notes
Have you ever given a thought to the term “tone colors”? Or “color tone”? I am fascinated by the idea of depicting on canvas, in color, music I am intensely engaged with. How does that work? Here’s an example: I see E as yellow. (On Scriabin’s “color keyboard”, intriguingly, D is yellow, his E is white). When I was learning Bach’s French Suite in E major BWV 817, I was at that time, quite unconsciously, painting pictures in predominantly yellow tones. I find this suite to be full of sun, full of light; sometimes I feel myself almost dazzled by the music’s brilliant cascades.
To document the reverse process, i.e painting the music, she gives us a half dozen of her paintings in the liner notes entitled such things as “Partita in c moll”, (seen here) “Kontrapunkt” and just plain “Bach”.
I tried my best to apply her “synaesthesia” to my listening to the recital but came up empty handed. Still, the effort prompted another analogy from physics: weight.
Music does seem to carry both “heaviness” and “lightness”. Bach is an extreme example of this, inasmuch as there is no music that carries so much harmonic tension. And yet the melodic intensity of every line propels the music ino exhilarating feeling of buoyancy and upward lift. At least it can be under the fingers of an excellent musician and this is exactly what Ms Blumina is.
In this recital we are given one piece each from the 3 most famous collections along with one extraordinary Fantasia which is distinctly Italian in flavor and virtuosic and extroverted. The recital is a good reminder that the names of these sets, English and French and Partita are completely arbitrary and come from the later history of publication. Saying that there are distinctly French elements in some of the pieces, at least to the extent that they are based on the dance suites; but they expand the content of the suite and introduce novelties such as the Sinfonia that opens the C minor Partita.
It contrasts very strongly with the bubbling energy of the Fantasia. From the outset it probes a series of dark questioning dominant chords struggle mightily for a liberation, setting free a sprinting melody over a walking bass line. It is among the jazziest of moments in Bach. I would suggest this as a microcosm of Bach’s keyboard art, for the movement then breaks into a brisk fugue thus wrapping together the signature stylistic elements of the Bach’s style in one movement. Within the six partitas this one stands above the others and has been a favorite of pianists presumably since C.P. E took it one the road. (According to tradition his father told him that as long as he mastered these pieces the world would open up to him.)
What is interesting then is that Ms. Blumina then follows this up, not with another partita but rather the 6th and final French Suite and the last of the English suites. Are there connections? I pondered as I looked across the street at the perfect new paint job on a nearby house. What a combination of colors. And then it occurred to me that the contrast in keys may be what it is about. E major for the French Suite and D minor for the much longer English suite. How many ways could these two keys interact? I endeavored to attend to color elements, but they only seemed applicable to the marvelous studio sound of the piano.
But mostly I just heard what I always hear in Bach: Sublime melodies, a relentlessly forward moving action. Change everywhere but something very big remains unchanged and permanent. Oddities too. The long 8 minute prelude on the BWV 811 deviates from Baroque models entirely. It feels experimental; the break from the slow introduction into a wild gallop is simply stunning.
Elisaveta Blumina tells us in her notes that she originally wanted to be a dancer but found herself after a prodigious growth spurt about a foot too tall. There certainly is no lack of dancing on these Suites. Nor lack of variety in the feel of the dances from stately Sarabande of the French Suite to the joyous Courantes and buoyant Gigues of the English Suite. What we don’t have in the fast section is the affected over-articulation that goes back to the signal influence of Glenn Gould and can be found in other super virtuosos such as Andrei Gavrilov and Lifschutz. Rather we have a pronounced penchant for legato playing even when as in the Prelude the lines race along in zigzags. It makes for an especially calm reading. Some might say that this subtracts a measure of excitement but I find this an enhancement.
The piano is a very famous 1901 Steinway, the “Manfred Burki”. It is a very fine choice for this recording; the exquisite balance of this instrument is then treated to the MDG recording process that shuns any but natural reverberation. Natural tone colors and sound dimension are the hallmarks of this label and here they are perfectly achieved.
In short, this is a fine recital by a unique artist who has departshere from her more typically modern repertoire so as to to measure herself against an absolute standard. She measures up very well indeed.