Bach's Piano Music

Look through the classical section of any record shop, and you'll find lots of CDs of some of the greatest pianists of modern times playing Bach's piano music. This is very odd, because Bach wrote virtually nothing for the piano. He played around with pianos, and collaborated with his mate Gottfried Silberman on developing the workings of the new beasts, but only on very odd occasions did he actually play the things in public.

Bach's most famous collection, and the one most beloved of pianists, is "Das Wohltemperierter Klavier" - 48 preludes and fugues, each one written in a different key. The title translates as "The well-tempered keyboard". Like most jobbing composers, Bach wanted to maximise his sales revenue, so using the generic "keyboard" tag meant that he could probably flog a few copies to organists, and yes, anyone who had one of the new-fangled pianos. And that catch-all marketing tag is just the excuse that modern pianists need to adopt the 48 as piano music. But they were really written for the clavichord - or, if certain recent in-depth stylistic analysis is to be believed, the first 24 for the clavichord, and the second 24 for the harpsichord.

Most pianists have never heard or played a clavichord, and many of them think it's very similar to a piano. It uses hammers, doesn't it? Yeah. Like a mouth organ is similar to a cathedral organ. They both use air.

The clavichord is probably the quietest musical instrument ever invented. You can just about give a performance on it to five or six friends in a small room, if nobody coughs. It's a very subtle and delicate instrument, and it's capable of lots of things that just aren't possible on a piano. A piano, of course, is capable of things that a clavichord can't do. Like being audible in a room full of 500 people. They're just very different instruments. And, incidentally, Bach's piano was very different from the modern piano, too.

Look, I'm not a hardline authenticist. There's nothing morally wrong with playing Bach on a piano, as long as the people that do it don't complain when I release a CD of Chopin played on a cinema organ. What does depress me is that the general public NEVER gets to hear the 48 played on the instrument for which they were written. The BBC perpetuates the myth with late-night piano performances, and Classic FM (Classical music for the cerebrally challenged marketing executive - provide your own sick bag) invariably trots out the usual cop-out references to Bach's "keyboard music". Meanwhile, the vast majority of the available CDs are piano interpretations, and the sleeve notes are often full of screeds of self-delusion. Pianists lovingly discuss their approach to the music, and their own particular methods of getting closer to Bach's intentions. Cut the pretence, guys. Start with the right instrument and you might really get a bit closer to Bach.

If you do want to hear these glorious pieces in their original colours, I'm told that Amazon stocks CDs by Ralph Kirkpatrick and Colin Tilney.