In August 2007, I set off on a 14-month recital tour performing Johann Sebastian Bach’s masterpiece The Well-Tempered Clavier to audiences in 25 countries around the world. It took a lot of stamina — not just physically getting myself from one place to the next, but also going on stage and performing night after night, from memory, some of the most demanding music ever written.
Many things from that tour are unforgettable. A car in Seoul driving in front of the concert hall, its windows down and music system blaring out a Bach prelude (which I recognized as my own interpretation) as though it were hip-hop; performing in London’s Royal Festival Hall, knowing that my mother had died a few hours before in Canada; working with piano students in South Africa; asking the audience in Beijing to please be quiet; playing in the small country church in Dornheim, Thuringia, where the young Bach married his cousin Maria Barbara in 1706; and having a beetle slowly climb up my bare arm while playing a fugue in the Chateau de Chillon on Lake Geneva. What made the biggest impression, however, was the way Bach’s music is universally loved, in places as diverse as Macau and Bogota. Something in it speaks to all humanity.
It took me 11 years to perform and record all of Bach’s major keyboard works — a total of 17 CDs. When that project was finished, I began to receive e-mails asking why I hadn’t included his last, unfinished masterpiece, The Art of Fugue. This omission was partly because my record label, Hyperion, had already recorded it with the late Tatiana Nikolayeva, and also because Bach never specified that it was to be played by a sole keyboard instrument. He wrote it down in open score, one voice per stave, but it might have been no more than an intellectual exercise. It has been adapted for four voices, for strings and even saxophone quartet. But these were, I suppose, flimsy excuses for putting off what I knew would someday be inevitable.
Any performer knows that unless you have a fixed concert date in your diary for a new piece, it will rarely be learned as thoroughly as it must be for public performance. It was when I was approached by the International Piano Series at London’s Royal Festival Hall to give two recitals seven months apart, next month and next May, that I knew the time had come to push myself to learn The Art of Fugue.
One thing bothered me before I opened the score. I had heard extracts over the years, performed by various soloists and ensembles, but the work itself never seemed to grab me in the same way as the rest of Bach’s music does, on first hearing. Could it be that, at the end of his life, Bach had finally written something boring? It was hard to believe. I was determined to apply everything I had learned about Bach to see how I could make the work come alive.
My first hours spent with the first Contrapunctus (the title Bach used for the succession of fugues that make up this work) were not as I had expected. In late February, I was rushed to hospital in the US while on tour and had major surgery. For 12 days I was unable to do anything much but sleep, let alone think of playing the piano. Finally my strength began to return, and, being away from home and my scores, I printed out an obscure edition from the web — not something I would normally do, and it meant that later I had to transfer it all to a proper copy.