Johann Sebastian Bach was born in 1685 on either March 31 or March 21, depending on whether you go by the New Style or Old Style calendar, respectively. Without taking a stand in either direction, every year the Noontime Concerts™ series at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral schedules a concert to celebrate Bach’s birthday during the second half of the month of March. This year that concert took place today and involved a solo recital by pianist Hilda Huang. Huang received the top prize at the Seventh International Bach Competition in Würzburg in 2010 at the age of seventeen. She is now a freshman at Yale College, studying piano with Melvin Chen, while pursuing her other interests in philosophy, biology, and mathematics.
The program that Huang prepared for this birthday concert drew upon the first two parts of Bach’s major achievement in keyboard pedagogy, published under the title Clavier-Übung (keyboard practice). The primary work was the BWV 827 partita in A minor from the first part of the Clavier-Übung, which collected the six keyboard partitas (BWV 825–830) into a single volume in 1731. This was preceded by the “Italian” concerto (BWV 971), the first of two compositions in the second part, published in 1735.
Both of these pieces were model examples of Bach’s approach to pedagogy. As I have previously explained, that approach “rested on the precept that keyboard mastery required both physical proficiency in striking every key the right way at just the right time and the inventive proficiency to elevate every performance beyond any marks that happen to have been made on the score pages.” In performing the program that she had prepared, Huang demonstrated solid proficiency on both of these fronts. Beyond the certainty and clarity with which she executed all those notes that Bach had committed to notation was a strong sense of in-the-moment spontaneity, whether in the give-and-take between solo and ensemble (all distilled down to a single player at, in Huang’s performance, a single keyboard in BWV 971) or the elaboration of traditional dance forms in the movements of BWV 826.
Huang then went on to perform three encores all taken from another pedagogical document prepared for Bach’s eldest son, the Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. From this collection Huang selected two of the two-part inventions (BWV 777 in E major and BWV 784 in A minor) and one of the three-part inventions (BWV 789 in D major). As was the case with BWV 971 and BWV 826, these three short pieces were distinguished by the clarity of their execution and the imaginativeness of the “inventiones” (ideas) through which Bach strove to provide his son with “a strong foretaste of composition” (the quoted words coming from the title page that Bach provided for his set of two-part and three-part inventions.
This was definitely music for celebrating Bach’s birthday in the right spirit.