Bach ‘con discrezione’ by Peter Quantrill

When Jörg Demus died in April 2019, aged 90, he was remembered by one Austrian obituarist as ‘the ballet-master of ten fingers’. Many pupils from his classes at his own alma mater of the Wiener Akademie paid affectionate tributes to a dry and lively man, equipped with a cynical, quick-witted, typically Viennese turn of mind, and blessed with a memory that could have reeled off 50 different concert programmes. A mycologist at home in the Vienna woods, he was also devoted to the cultivation of roses, to dogs and to the pursuit of a bibliophile’s passion in flea markets wherever he travelled.

In fact, Demus thought of himself more as a collector of antiquities than a concert pianist. He was an equally discerning collector of anecdotes, to judge from the last section of his 1967 manual and memoir, Abenteuer der Interpretation. He remembered playing for a Ladies Musical Society in Ottawa, and launching his recital with the thunderous octave G to open Schubert’s Impromptu D899 No. 1. The ladies present mistook it for the opening G of God save the Queen and promptly stood, with a great rustling of skirts and charm bracelets (‘I’m particularly fond of those,’ noted Demus). Looking into the room and without missing a beat, he began to play the National Anthem. ‘Fortunately, after my second attempt at the Impromptu, no one got up.’

Jörg Demus was born on 2 December 1928 in the upper Austrian town of St. Pölten. He took up the piano at the age of six, spurred on by the playing of his brother: ‘In my case, even then, there was a certain inner urge.’ Music ran in the family, not only from his violinist mother but also his organist grandfather, whose improvisations during Mass would later be recalled as a formative influence.

As a child Demus loved Mozart above all, but the music of Beethoven and the Romantic-era composers came to hold increasing appeal through his adolescence, with Bach’s spirit exercising an ever more potent influence. Admitted at the age of eleven to the Wiener Musikakademie, he was coached by the professor of piano, Walter Kerschbaumer.

Much later on he undertook further study with Walter Gieseking in Saarbrucken and Yves Nat in Paris, always in pursuit of a performing style more classically ‘German’ and objective – the school of Clara Schumann – than the Italian-Lisztian strain of keyboard lionism. The fundamentals of Clara Schumann’s pianistic method, so influential on disparate later generations of performers, were built on the analysis and performance of Bach, and The Well-Tempered Clavier in particular, as pupils such as Harriet Cohen later testified.

Demus recalled that his own path to The Well-Tempered Clavier was ‘very simple and straightforward’. With disarming frankness, he observed that ‘Bach’s language has never caused me any difficulties. Since childhood it has seemed to me to be a natural expression of musical feeling and thinking, and I found it accessible from those early years onwards.’ As a student at the Wiener Musikakademie, he threw himself into his studies with a determination strengthened by troubled times: ‘I wonder if it would still be possible today,’ he reflected in a 1962 interview. ‘At that time we were almost favoured by the war. So we only had lessons in the afternoons or mornings. This left half the day free for studying music.’

Demus began his study of Bach in Nazi-occupied Vienna with the little dance pieces and miniatures from the Anna Magdalena Notebooks, as ‘a familiar and much-loved companion’. Then his teacher assigned him the Two- and Three-Part Inventions, in order to refine the transparency of voicing, neatness of fingering and consistency of rhythm. He moved on to the French and English suites: ‘A joy to play’. Once embarked on the second year of his course, he was finally let loose on Bach’s two-volume compendium of Preludes and Fugues.

‘I had to study a prelude and fugue every week, and my teacher allowed me to choose these pieces myself. I spent many enjoyable hours combing The Well-Tempered Clavier for the more gently paced pieces, which I then marked with a little line in the contents index of the Czerny edition. The original purpose of this marking was to give me a certain overview of my favourites; but the number of little lines soon increased and it was not long before all the preludes and joints were marked in this way.’

By the time of his graduation in 1947, Demus had memorised both volumes, ‘but this initial introduction had little to do with a real interpretation’. A more sophisticated approach evolved first of all by a closer study of the various editions available to him. ‘First of all, I made the devastating discovery that the Czerny edition I was using at the time contained error after error’ – most notoriously the extra bar inserted by a much earlier copyist into the C major Prelude of Book 1 (which in turn made its way into Gounod’s Ave Maria). He looked at the four extant autographs, and the more conscientious editions by Franz Kroll and Ferruccio Busoni, before settling on Tovey as a piece of exemplary scholarship: ‘the text is left completely original, with the valuable suggestions of the editor summarised in a preface’.

By the time he was 21, Demus felt ready to perform the entire cycle in public, which he did in four recitals at the Brahms-Saal of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde. The series formed part of Viennese celebrations in 1950 to mark the bicentenary of Bach’s death including Furtwängler’s highly personal vision of the St. Matthew Passion and Karajan directing the B minor Mass with shrewdly down-scaled forces and shapely articulation.

In both, a broadcast made for Suddeutsche Rundfunk in 1954 and then this recording for Westminster four years later, there is a personal and contemporary encounter with fast-moving trends in Bach performance which would seem to place Demus closer to Karajan in approach, but in fact the pianist esteemed in Furtwängler – and in the conductor’s Bach performances – what he regarded as the goal of every performer to touch the audience, and ‘to form a community. Only this can be the purpose of a concert as opposed to a recording, no matter how technically perfected’.

Even more than these teachers, editors and conductors, however, the musician whom Demus seems to have revered in Bach above all others was Pablo Casals. In their conversations together as reported by the pianist, Casals apparently traced a modern grasp of Bach’s output in toto back to French organists and teachers such as Franck, Widor and Pierné. Demus replied that he found the distinctively ‘French’ Decca recordings of the keyboard concertos, conducted by Georges Enescu and with Céliny Chailley-Richez at the piano, quite dry and pedantic.

‘Well, you see’, Casals replied, ‘this is another one of those cases. Enescu was a thoroughbred musician, a kind of gypsy in his lively sensibility – I was close friends with him. But no matter how splendidly he played and conducted on the violin and the piano, whenever the name Bach was mentioned, the shutters came down: he thought he had to suppress his native musicianship. We had a heated discussion when he had his student, the then prodigy Menuhin, play a Bach suite for me. I admired Menuhin’s enormous talent, but I could not help myself from reproaching Enescu for the excessive strictness, even pedantry, with which he had forbidden the boy any expression of emotion. To justify himself, Enescu mentioned techniques and strokes that had not yet existed in Bach’s time: spiccato, sautillé, barely even vibrato; he talked about curved bows and flat bridges. But I think it is the most self-evident and supreme command: with such an immense figure as Bach, everything we have at our disposal must be placed in the service of our attempt to bring his music to life.’

By the time of these recordings, Demus had performed The Well-Tempered Clavier as a cycle in locations from Sassari in Sardinia to Princeton (New Jersey) to Tokyo – always on the piano, though he found it rewarding early on to play the clavichord which was most likely Bach’s instrument of composition at home, and he took organ lessons. In any case, Demus’s Viennese education, and his own study of Bach, resulted in a rejection of dogma at a time when the battlelines in Baroque-era performance principles were being drawn up by musicians of his own generation – such as his fellow Austrian Nikolaus Harnoncourt – who were driven to make a more revolutionary break with the present in order to come closer to the past. Demus was not in the business of writing or issuing manifestos. ‘In Bach’s case, there are far more important questions than the technical, ‘material’ problems that are so hotly contested, such as the piano or the harpsichord, the use of dynamics and agogics, the use of the sustaining pedal, the execution of ornamentation and the like.’

He proceeded to outline some of these more fundamental issues: ‘Do I let a subject speak “for itself” or do I emphasise its character? Do I give pride of place to polyphony, to the drawing of lines, or to harmonic fullness, especially in the four- and five-part fugues? Do I “vulgarise” some of the preludes when I realistically accentuate a latent dance rhythm, or has everything here already melted into timeless – cosmic, as it were – material? [CPE] Bach says, especially with regard to the execution of the ornaments, that personal good taste must always guide the player and will never completely mislead him.’

Even in his mid-twenties, Demus had begun to formulate his responses to some of these fundamental issues, not only in performance but an influential essay published in the January 1954 issue of the Österreichische Musikzeitschrift, guided by what he regarded as the most important element of good Bach playing: ‘declamation’, or rhetoric. He refers in this context to a remark by his teacher in Paris, Yves Nat: ‘the finger speaks’. He also makes a tripartite division, rhetorical in itself: ‘the delineation first of the small motives and then of the larger phrases resulting from their coherence in each individual voice, and then bringing them to life through dynamics (relationships of strength), agogics (relationships of movement) and articulation (relationships of binding and separation).

‘On instruments that do not permit individually shaded dynamics,’ Demus continues, ‘even more careful agogic and articulation can make up for this. The piano, however, commands each of these three components: as performers we are therefore obliged to make extensive use of them. Even if it is not possible to avoid a mannered exaggeration of all these nuances, their complete omission would make the music played appear anaemic. “Con discrezione” is one of the rare authentic performance indications in a Bach fantasy; it may serve as an ideal motto for everything that follows.’

During the course of the following quarter-century, Demus assembled a collection of keyboard instruments far outstripping that of Bach himself and including 45 pianos, the earliest being a 1770 fortepiano, as well as a Kirckman two-manual harpsichord, two spinets and a harpsichord. In conversation with Peter Philips (founder-director of The Tallis Scholars) in the Early Music journal of October 1980, he resisted the notion that a modern-instrument performance in a modern hall necessarily distorts earlier music. ‘I really don’t think so. The old masters were the first ones to transcribe their works. Bach himself did not scruple to take a contralto aria and make a harpsichord movement out of it. If the ingredients of music – harmony, rhythm, polyphony and so on – are clearly preserved, then they can be brought to life again just as well under modern conditions. If this happens in a big hall, a big setting, then it will be much better with modern instruments. Our ears have become accustomed to this scale: we cannot measure crescendos in terms of pure decibels. Very often I have recorded the same pieces twice – once on an authentic instrument and once on a modern one, and I am equally attracted to both.’

Demus undertook many of these early-piano researches and restorations in league with his friend, contemporary, fellow Viennese and Westminster colleague Paul Badura-Skoda. They performed as a duo as often as their busy solo careers permitted, and made records together for over half a century, including treasurable surveys of the piano-duet classics by Mozart and Schubert. When they began to make music together, Demus remembered, ‘Both of us had just escaped physically and spiritually sound from the turmoil of war; one thought of creating a new world of the beautiful and the good, both of us at least in music. We had a unique generation of great masters to look up to: Wilhelm Backhaus, probably the greatest of all Bösendorfer players, Walter Gieseking, Edwin Fischer – we were even afforded the opportunity to study together with him in Lucerne in 1948.’

In Abenteuer der Interpretation, Demus recalled the sessions for this Westminster album of Bach concertos ‘with a conductor known as a purist’. These concertos present greater stylistic challenges than their genteel, polished surface might suggest – ‘especially when played on the piano’ as Demus notes. ‘We had agreed beforehand to let our “pianistic” wishes be known in turns,’ he remembered. ‘So Paul stood up at the rehearsal: “Please, Professor, let us make a little diminuendo here. Immediately afterwards, “Please, Professor, a little crescendo here.” On it went, soon a little tenuto, soon an accent, a pause for breath, a phrasing. Finally, the maestro turned around, not unkindly, but confused: “But, gentlemen, you are surely also followers of terraced dynamics for this music?” “Yes,” we replied, “but not just with a single terrace.”’

Demus points out that Bach set such store by his six keyboard partitas that he had them engraved in copper and published as his Opus 1, at the age of 45. Each of the six partitas has a sharply differentiated character from the others, achieved not least by means of their tonalities. He found it striking, when considering the Second Partita, that Bach did not regard C minor as the heroic key of fate, as Beethoven did later, but rather as the natural environment for the cultivated music-making of the stile galante. The D major of the Fourth is ‘the key of bustling festivals, the key of the Fifth Brandenburg and the Fourth Orchestral Suite: how could it begin otherwise than with a French overture, with its characteristic, freely resolving double-dotted rhythms, with an orchestral registration of sonority and the concertante swing of a 9/8 metre.’

Demus then links the Fifth Partita to the Goldberg Variations, ‘Bach’s most virtuosic work for the keyboard’, via their shared key of G major. Another resonant trans-historical link is made between the E minor of the Sixth, ‘the grandest and most powerful of the partitas’, with Brahms’s last symphony in the same key. He cites the theme of the Partita’s opening Toccata as ‘the musical epitome of lament (later encountered in Liszt’s Fantasy on Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, in César Franck and others). The fugue theme of the Toccata opens the sequence of improvisations on dances that continue in each partita in the spirit of the attitude adopted in the opening movement, as it were as ‘Variations on No Theme” or, as in the First Partita, with its constant turning motif of B flat, A, B flat, over such a theme.’

More than six decades on from Abenteuer der Interpretation, when early-music performers no longer work in isolated bubbles, and different, era-specific playing techniques have become common practice, Demus now looks like a musician ahead of his time. His thorough, practical grasp of Bach’s keyboard writing – on all the instruments available to the composer and those with refinements developed later – would be less remarkable without the palpable pleasure he takes in the tonal possibilities of the modern piano and the light they cast on the ‘modernity’ of Bach’s keyboard writing. ‘Pianists will also enjoy encountering supposedly “pianistic” innovations of the nineteenth century in the course of the variations, when they find figures associated with Beethoven (the “trill” variation No. 28, cf. Sonatas Opp. 109 and 111), with Schumann (No. 29, cf. Kreisleriana), with Brahms (No. 23, cf. Handel Variations), and even with Liszt (No. 29, cf. No 10 of the Transcendental Studies) and Debussy (No. 23, cf. “Les tierces alternées”) in a harpsichord work from 1742. Perhaps then the boundaries between harpsichord and piano techniques may seem blurred and too narrowly drawn, and we will start to realise that it is, above all, the music that matters.’ Casals would surely have puffed away in agreement.

Jörg Demus – The Bach Recordings on Westminster