J.S. Bach - First Sonata, third movement/new recording

On 22 July 2014, I made new recordings of Bach's trio sonatas BWV 525-530. Contrary to previous recordings, I did not play them by heart, but from sheet music. Perhaps because of this and a relaxed mood of enjoying the holidays, I think I reached a next level of fluency and elegance. The weather was very hot; during breaks, I watched the Tour de France with its beautiful landscapes. See also A new approach to playing Bach 


Conversations with Jan Welmers 1 - the importance of playing the piano

After my organ and improvisation studies with Jan Welmers at the Utrecht Conservatory, we remained closely related, first as colleagues and later, when he retired, as good friends visiting each other a few times a year. For over twenty years now, we have been making long walks in nature, watching birds and at the same time discussing a variety of personal and musical issues. Regarding the latter, it seems to be a good moment now, as we said to each other a few days ago, to reflect on the studies and conversations by means of this blog, which may be of interest to anyone involved in the art of playing the organ and music in general. As there is so much to say, it will be a series of blog posts, to be continued over the years. I do not yet have a structured approach to present it and shall for the time being just write about what comes to my mind.

During our meeting last week, we discussed the importance of piano playing for organ students. Jan regretted the fact that in the late '60s, due to the rise of the early music movement, the side subject piano was often replaced by harpsichord. As a result, organists became less concerned about their toucher, which of course negatively affected the sensitivity of their playing. It would have been more appropriate and in line with general habits of the 18th century, to restore the practice of clavichord playing. A lack of refined toucher will show itself immediately when playing the clavichord or the piano, while it can be hidden in a certain degree at the organ or the harpsichord (not on a high level, of course).

This does not mean that Jan Welmers did not sympathize with the early music movement; on the contrary, the fully participated with it. What makes him rather unique, is that as a composer in the '60s and afterwards, he was also involved in the avant-garde. Being in the heart of two different fields largely contributed to his interesting, open-minded views on both.


Conversations with Kees van Houten about Bach interpretation

At the beginning of this year, I had very interesting conversations with Kees van Houten about Bach interpretation. I attended to a lecture of his and read his book on the Schübler Choräle, which I recommend to every organ student, professional organist and admirer of Bach's music in general. In April, during a rehearsal for the concert in Boxtel which was the subject of the previous post of this blog, he gave me some very good advice concerning the interpretation of Wer nun den lieben Gott lässt walten and Nun komm der Heiden Heiland. As a result, I played these pieces a little  quicker than before, more goal-directed (i.e. without lingering) and with a more detailed expression according to the required Affekt. The difference may be noticed in the following two recordings of Wer nun den lieben Gott lässt walten. The first was made at home with the digitalized sound of the organ in Arlesheim, the second is a part of the live recording of the concert in Boxtel.

J.S. Bach - Wer nun den lieben Gott lässt walten, version "Arlesheim"
J.S. Bach - Wer nun den lieben Gott lässt walten, live recording Boxtel


Concert Boxtel 13 April 2014 - A Different Way of Programming

For a concert on the Smits-organ (1842) in the basilica Sint-Petrus, Boxtel, on 13 April 2014, I made a program in which I abandoned the usual chronological order of pieces in favor of an order based on alternating four "themes": Bach, Haydn, German romanticism and pieces of my own. The idea was to constantly move between the profoundness of pieces by Bach, Brahms and Reger and the lighter touch of pieces by Haydn and myself, in which the organ is approached "differently". The program was as follows:

A few days before the concert, I decided to add my composition Stillness at the beginning, as a contemplative introduction to the pieces mentioned in the above program. The four "themes' are:

Theme one: Bach
Theme two: Haydn
Theme three: German romanticism
Theme four: Tanke

(it may be argued that the order of the program requires "Tanke" as the first theme, but in the company of such composers I would not dare to do this).

So we have the four themes alternating as follows:


This order shows a well-known rhetoric principle: firstly to make a statement (4-1-2-3 in this case), secondly to repeat this and thirdly to vary this (4-3-2-1 and the additional 4). During my analysis lessons at Rotterdam Conservatoire, I often refer to this as the "read-steady-go-principle", which also provides the framework for numerous jokes.

I took care to have a varied pattern of tone centres:

d - G - C - E
b flat - g - C - F
g sharp - d - C - c

Another thing to consider was were to put the pieces with a dramatic plenum: at the beginning just after the introduction (Bach), at about 2/3 of the total duration (Reger) and at the end (Tanke). As I used a small plenum in the last piece by Haydn, this implies also that every "theme" had its plenum moment. 

Of vital importance was placing Reger's dramatic passacaglia according to the golden cut ratio.

The program ran as follows: (all recordings were made during the concert, except Stillness):

With Tommy van Doorn, organist of the basilica Sint-Petrus and a very promising young musician, and my wife Anita as stop assistants, the concert succeeded and was very well received. 


The quest for "Empfindsamkeit": Bach's Second Sonata, slow movement ("Tholen")

In 18th century German music the word Empfindsamkeit, which perhaps not quite adequately translates as "sensitivity", is often used. The slow movements of Bach's trio sonatas offer excellent opportunities to find this quality. A contemporary of Bach (was it Forkel?) once said of these sonatas: "man kann von Ihrer Schönheit nicht genug sagen". I could never match that with the cold and rigid way these pieces are so often played.


Doubts about the tempo - J.S. Bach- Sonata in C major BWV 529, second movement ("Tholen")

I have been concentrating on the slow movements from the trio sonatas for some time.

P.S. 16 Augustus 2014: listening to this version again, my first thought was that is was just a bit too slow, but in the course of the piece I began to appreciate it. This must have been the tempo when I played it in Goes a few years ago, when Kees van Eersel said that it was beautifully performed, but a little slow. Still, I think I'll keep playing it a little faster in the future.


A new composition: "Vibrations" - versions Caen, Tholen, Arlesheim

Contrary to many of my pieces, there is no room for improvisation in Vibrations. I made a score which I intend to present with some other pieces to a publishing company. It is very difficult and only a few organists would be able to play it. Vibrations should not be performed like Ligeti's Second Etude for organ or Continuum for harpsichord. Ligeti's music is about a mental state of obsession which does not interest me. Vibrations represents oscillations in nature; in that sense I am more of an impressionist. Of course, the ostinato in the left hand is a reminiscence of my playing with African musicians in the late '90s.

Up to now, I recorded three versions at home, but never played it in public. The first version is with the sound of the organ in Caen.

The second with the sound of "Tholen":

The third with "Arlesheim":

Other instruments or human voices may replace the pedal part and the piece can also be played manualiter, without other instruments.


J.S. Bach - Jesus meine Zuversicht BWV 728 and Improvisation IV on "Birds, drums and signals"

Once more the idea of serenity on the one hand and excitement on the other. This fourth improvisation differs significantly from the previous three.

Bach, Improvisation III on "Birds, drums and signals" and native American Indians

Pima Indians, native Americans, believe that music is something that already exists in a supernatural world and has to be unraveled by the musically gifted. This appeals to me, more for instance than the romantic notion of expressing one's personal feelings through music. Accordingly, an artist may connect to an "external" idea of quietude or excitement, like in the following piece by Bach and my improvisation respectively. In a way, the Pima Indians' view is not so different from the 18th century concept of "Affekte".