Many classical musicians can say that they have that one album that inspired them to really dedicate themselves to their instrument. You might hear some people say, “When I heard (insert album name here), I was so blown away that I wanted to start learning how to play the cello.” However, for me, the album that so moved me to pursue personal excellence in the classical guitar didn’t come until about 3 years after I started playing the instrument.
I grew up playing the music of J.S. Bach on the piano. I always thought of Bach’s music as very difficult, technical, and academic. I hated playing it, and I hated listening to it. It always made me think of mechanical machines at work. Too much going on to understand with no emotion in it, just complicated machinery at work.
Everything about that changed when I first listened to Christopher Parkening’s 1972 Angel Records recording “Parkening Plays Bach." When I first listened to it, and I mean REALLY listened to it in detail, I was completely blown away. I know that’s a cliche term to use for people when they describe something they liked a lot, but I’ll boil it down to a few points on why I was blown away:
A) This was the first time I heard Bach’s music performed with passion and “soul”. The dynamics, the colors, and the beautiful tones were sensational on this recording. When it comes to slow pieces, medium paced pieces, and the ultra fast, Mr. Parkening’s musicianship is just exploding on this recording.
B) The repertoire choice is outstanding. I was always used to hearing Bach albums have only full sets of one category of his works. Albums only had the full 6 cello suites, lute suites, Brandenburg Concertos, Well Tempered Claviers, or other full sets of one category. However, Mr. Parkening took the best and most beautiful Bach movements and stuck it in one album. With Bach “hits” such as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”, “Prelude No. 1” from the Well Tempered Clavier, and “Sleepers Awake”, how can you not enjoy the repertoire selection? The academic scholars might get mad, but hey I never considered myself one of those so I’ll take it.
C) YOU CAN’T PLAY ANY OF THESE PIECES. Let’s face it, Bach is hard. There’s no two ways around that. These specific transcriptions on this album (which are published in a folio) are some of the most difficult transcriptions to ever be played on the classical guitar. In the effort to stay as true to the original versions of the piece, Mr. Parkening even says that NO compromise has been made in regards to technique. But, regardless of how difficult the transcriptions are, Mr. Parkening plays them with such musicianship and control that one must wonder if his hands are even human or not. The transcription of “Sheep May Safely Graze” is one of the most difficult pieces ever because of insane stretches and jumps. He even got carpel tunnel from playing it! However, if you listened to the recording on this album, you would think it’s an easy, slower piece because of the beautiful tone and effortless legato.
I used to wonder, in my naive foolishness, why Bach was considered the “father of music”. I wondered why it wasn’t someone from the Romantic Period like Beethoven or Chopin, whose music I actually enjoyed playing because of its evident passion. However, this album opened the doors for me to dive into the world of Bach and his music. I have eventually studied more of his music and really came to love listening to and performing it. I used to think that Bach’s music was purely technical, and, quite frankly, somewhat robotic. “Parkening Plays Bach” completely reversed that opinion of mine. Dictionary definitions of the word “romantic” usually contains the words love, passion, and affection. Mr. Parkening exhibits all three of those characteristics in his playing of Bach. Even though J.S. Bach was not apart of the Romantic Period, if romantic means it contains love, passion, and affection, I consider Bach’s music to be romantic.