The Woman Who Understood Bach

November 27, 1993|By GLENN McNATT

Earlier this week one of the titans of the keyboard died, though her name probably is unfamiliar to most Americans. Tatiana Nikolayeva, the Russian-born pianist known for her inspired interpretations of the music of J.S. Bach and Dmitri Shostakovich, died of a cerebral aneurysm in San Francisco last Monday during her second American concert tour. She was 69.

That Ms. Nikolayeva was relatively unknown to Western audiences almost certainly was due more to political than artistic obstacles. Unlike other Soviet artists who managed to emigrate to the West, she had to await the fall of communism before becoming known outside Russia. She did not make her American debut until 1992, and it was not until October of this year that she gave her first New York recital. For most of her career she taught piano at Moscow Conservatory.

Some artists win fame for the breadth of their repertoire while others achieve success principally on the strength of their playing of one or two great composers. Ms. Nikolayeva was the latter type. She was one of the great Bach players of the century, comparable to such artists as Albert Schweitzer, Wanda Landowska, Rosslyn Turreck and Glenn Gould, all of whom built reputations as supreme interpreters of Bach's music. Like them, she was also something of an iconoclast.

In recent years, musical fashion has dictated that Bach be played on so-called ''period instruments'' and that the style of playing conform to ''authentic'' 18th-century performance practices. Ms. Nikolayeva played Bach on the piano, an instrument that had barely been invented in the composer's lifetime.

Ironically, both Albert Schweitzer and Wanda Landowska were leading proponents of ''period'' instruments and ''authentic'' performance practice in their day -- even though later research revealed both were wildly off the mark regarding their notions of ''authenticity.''

Schweitzer was a student of organ building as well as of Bach's music, and he was among the first to argue that the huge Victorian-era instruments of his day were inappropriate for the composer's works. Yet the instruments he chose bore little resemblance those of Bach's era and today his playing sounds ponderous compared that of contemporary scholar-performers like Anthony Newman or Helmuth Rilling.

Madame Landowska almost single-handedly revived the harpsichord, an instrument that had virtually disappeared by the time of Mozart's death. She insisted Bach's musical architecture could only be recreated properly by means of its characteristic mechanism, which sounds the notes by plucking the strings rather than striking them with a hammer, as in the piano. Ms. Landowska had an instrument built to her specifications and embarked on a messianic campaign to return the harpsichord to the concert hall.

She succeeded beyond anyone's expectations. Yet when builders like the American William Dowd began reconstructing the methods and materials of Bach's time it was discovered that Landowska's ''authentic'' instrument was anything but.

Ms. Turreck and Glenn Gould both played Bach on the piano, and both were regarded in their day as somewhat eccentric, albeit gifted, artists. Unlike earlier virtuosos who made reputations playing elaborate transcriptions of Bach's orchestral and organ works, they played the master's keyboard music exactly as he wrote it.

The results were a revelation. Ms. Turreck and Mr. Gould showed that even such apparently ingenuous compositions as the ''Two- and Three-Part Inventions'' and the ''Well-Tempered Clavier'' contained depths of musical expression and drama hardly suspected by the generations of student pianists compelled to dutifully trudge through their well-worn pages.

Ms. Nikolayeva grasped that Bach's greatness as a composer lay entirely in the spiritual content of his music. All the devices of harmony and counterpoint so skillfully deployed in his more than 1,000 compositions were calculated to serve one supreme end, the revelation through music of divine providence and grace. Bach's humble statement of his own purpose -- ''a well-regulated church music'' -- was in its way as ambitious as the task his near contemporary, the English poet John Milton, set himself in ''Paradise Lost'': ''To justify the ways of God to Man.''

That was what one heard when Ms. Nikolayeva played Bach, and it is why the world will be a poorer place for her passing.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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