‘Bach demands that you give it the best part of yourself’

This year the Kilkenny Arts Festival’s music strand focuses on the great composer. Here, five renowned interpreters reflect on his work



Mahan Esfahani


Plays Book 1 of The Well-Tempered Clavier, and The Goldberg Variations at Kilkenny Arts Festival



What was your earliest encounter with Bach?

“I must have been given one of the two-part inventions when I was maybe nine or 10, and I think I recognised immediately there was something special in them. I just couldn’t stop playing them. I was given a short piano arrangement of one of the violin pieces, really simple, for beginner piano. Even from that I could recognise that there was something special. I had a cassette of one of the keyboard concerts. I had to understand it, get to the bottom of it. Hearing or playing Bach for the first time was inextricably intertwined with obsession. It’s always been like that since.”


What matters most in Bach?

“Probably that he demands that you give it everything. That you give it your entire life, in a way. That you give it your entire attention, and the best of yourself.”


Which piece would it be hardest to live without? 

“Probably The Well-Tempered Clavier. It would be very difficult to imagine a world in which that doesn’t exist.”


Who are your favourite interpreters of Bach? 

I’ve always had a soft spot for what we now consider an older school of Bach performance. I’ve always admired Karl Münchinger. He made a lot of really seminal recordings of Bach’s choral music with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra back in the 1950s and 1960s for Decca. I’ve always had a lot of admiration for him, for Otto Klemperer, Wilhelm Furtwängler. That big, symphonic Bach tradition is quite compelling.”


The Goldberg Variations in three words?

“Never-ending story.”


Who might be the Bach of the 21st century?

“Bach was really not extraordinarily well recognised in his own lifetime.. We may be in a situation that we don’t recognise that person, and it will be up to later generations to point out who that was.”


Malcolm Proud


Plays Bach’s Clavier-Übung III (the German Organ Mass), sonatas with Maya Homburger, and concertos with Camerata Kilkenny at Kilkenny Arts Festival



Your earliest encounter?

“My mother playing the B flat Prelude and Fugue from the first book of The 48 on the piano. I was about five. She played it quite often. I didn’t burst into tears or start hitting her or anything.”


What matters most?

“It’s highly emotional music, yet the structure of it is so amazing. It draws all the different elements of music together; the ability to synthesise so many diverse elements at the same time.”


Which of his works would be hardest to live without? 

“The Chorale Prelude on Aus tiefer Not from the first part of the Clavier-Übung. But obviously the B minor Mass . . . and the passions . . . and the cantatas . . .”


Your favourite interpreters? 

“Gustav Leonhardt had this amazing ability to get the right tempo and pacing of the music, in Bach especially. When he was performing, you got the sense it was never about him, it was about the music.”


The Clavier-Übung III, in three words? 

“Greatest organ music.”


And the Bach of the 21st century?

“I can’t really think of anyone, of any age, of that quality, and of that consistency of quality, not even Mozart. I don’t think there is one.”


Maya Homburger


Plays Bach’s violin music and directs Camerata Kilkenny in concertos at Kilkenny Arts Festival



Your earliest encounter with Bach? 

“My first real encounter was starting to work on the sonatas for harpsichord and violin with Eduard Melkus in Vienna in 1979. It was at the same time that I fell in love with the baroque violin. I had to analyse Bach more thoroughly than I had done before. He made me aware of all the incredible intricacies within those sonatas. To do this together with discovering the baroque violin, which is basically not handled with pressure but with different bow speeds, and to bring out the polyphonic effects, that was the ultimate revelation.”


What matters most to you about Bach’s music and achievement?

“The spiritual effect it has. The way he can sum up not just the whole misery and pain in the world, but also the hope for peace and resurrection. How he can sum up the world and humanity, musically.”


Which of his works would be hardest to live without? 

“Being dedicated to his solo works, I couldn’t live without these. On the other hand, I understand the solo works a little bit better because of his cantatas. So I don’t think I could live without his cantatas.”


Your favourite interpreters? 

“For a long time I was really, really fond of Sigiswald Kuijken’s interpretations and was very influenced by them. In recent times there are really, really amazing young players, and in the baroque scene I admire French violinist Amandine Beyer most.”


The solo violin works in three words?

“Prayer for peace.”


Who might be the Bach of the 21st century?

“I don’t think it’s possible to have another. He was a one-off.”


Jeremy Denk


Plays The Goldberg Variations at the NCH on Thursday, February 4th, 2016



Your earliest encounter with Bach? 

“Most likely a Hundred Best Hits of Classical Music album with the Air on the G String. Then one of my earliest sheet music albums was The Joy of Bach, which had a psychedelic Bach on the cover, very hippie-looking. I remember playing one arrangement very often, Come, Sweet Death. It was my father’s favourite piece. When I was seven or eight I was always playing it.”


What matters most?

“It’s partly the joy of invention. People think of Bach as this incredibly serious and learned composer. One of the things that always strikes me about him is the energy and the sense of play. Once he has an idea, he sees all the possibilities of it, and he can’t resist exploring them all – even sometimes into very strange realms. For me, along with the learned philosopher Bach there is the child Bach, playing with musical notes.”


Hardest to live without?

“Probably the Magnificat for the vocal works, and the Partitas for the keyboard works, especially the Fourth Partita.



“I tend to gravitate towards Edwin Fischer. It’s basically very beautiful and direct music-making. He’s really attuned to the unfolding of the drama.”


The Goldberg Variations in three words?

“Gigantic jazz riff.”


The Bach of the 21st century?

“Among recent composers, it seems to me that Ligeti was one of the most rigorous and thoughtful in the same way. He also liked to steal from all the styles around him and create an incredible counterpoint of voices.”


Masaaki Suzuki


Conducts the B Minor Mass at the NCH with Bach Collegium Japan on April 12th, 2016


Your earliest encounter with Bach?

“When I started playing in church at around 12, I tried to play some of his organ music on the harmonium. Right after that I was given a recording of the B Minor Mass by Karl Richter. I listened to it over and over at night before I went to bed.”


What matters most?

“Sometimes I conduct Mozart or other composers. But I always come back to Bach, where I feel my home [is]. Bach’s music is the centre of my existence.”


Hardest to live without?

“The vocal music, the cantatas, the B Minor Mass, the St Matthew Passion, would be really hard for me to live without. I work on them regularly and repeatedly, and I never get bored with them. Any piece of Bach’s music is indispensable for me.”



“Karl Richter was the first encounter, but if I listen to it now, I don’t like it. For my professional career the recordings of the cantatas by Gustav Leonhardt and Nikolaus Harnoncourt were really meaningful. Their recordings really gave me a complete image of Bach’s vocal work.”


The Mass in B Minor in three words?

“Everything in one.”


The Bach of the 21st century?

“No one can be Bach in this century, I think. I’m very happy that he is in heaven and not in this world. And I’m very happy that he left his music with us.”


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