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Interview with Małgorzata Sarbak

img  Tobias Fischer

When it comes to Bach, Małgorzata Sarbak doesn't believe in coincidences. In the booklet to her recently released 3CD-boxset of the composer's partitas, harking back to a famous quote by German poet and Bach-contemporary Christian Schubart, she refers to Bach as an 'original genius', describing his music as an exquisite riddle for the brain – in which everything has been expertly planned, organised and designed and to which our body "may give us clues by surrendering to rhythms". Certainly, her own rendition of the partitas re-kindles this riddle, managing to sound fresh and respectful, energetic and detailed, contemplative and physical all at once. The album is the result of many years of performing the piece in public, of myriads of post-concert conversations with listeners and of finally realising that she might have, inside of her, a personal vision of a collection of pieces about which everything already seemed to have been said. It was integral to this vision to not only treat each individual partita as a story onto itself, but to bring out the intricate relationship between the different chapters, to unearth the hidden path that turns the music into a mesmerising trip rather than just a collection of technically challenging pieces. Little wonder, then, that the packaging of the release mirrors this holistic approach, coming in a smart, interleaved digipack featuring perfectly contemporary photography and insightful liner notes. Other artists might have delegated these aspects to the label and ended up with yet another exchangeable, forgettable release. But when it comes to recording the music that is closest to her heart, Małgorzata Sarbak won't let anything up to chance.

What does Bach mean to you?
Actually I can’t remember the time without him. Even as a kid who could barely read the music, he was already present. From year to year the difficulty-level grew and his pieces would always be the ones to be scared of most. If I had nightmares before the piano exam it would be about the struggle with the unprepared fugue. Never about Beethoven’s Sonata, Rachmaninov’s Prelude or Chopin’s Nocturne.

So I was always aware that Bach compositions needed a special attitude, patience, knowledge and high technical skills. And it was during the harpsichord studies when I just started being delighted with all those puzzles waiting to be solved. I feel that there is still so much to discover that it would be enough work for one life. Sometimes, when I am in a trap of some issue I imagine Bach having this brain beyond our grasp, being the one making fun of us, as we would devote our lives to come into his head trying to find the truth. But there is no truth and we are not able to replay or reconstruct the music in a shape it was when composed in the XVII or XVIII century. We play it today in accordance with our constantly changing feel of aesthetics. We can’t experience the pain or shock the Bach’s first listeners experienced. And that’s kind of a shame.

So what's his relevance today, do you feel?
I feel that he becomes younger and fresher. Stealing Bach’ music from philharmonics and allowing it to materialize in the uncommon and non-orthodox spaces makes him more accessible, more human, especially for that part of the audience which is curious and open-minded but absolutely frightened to trespass the threshold of the classical music temple without the proper state of know-how. 

The first set of partitas have often been overshadowed in Bach's oeuvre by some of his other works. What do they mean to you and how would you rank them compared to, say, Die Kunst der Fuge?
I am not really sure if I would agree that they are underestimated or overshadowed. All of Bach’s huge volumes are a big challenge for a musician and a fantastic ground for his artistic statement. Beside the common features, which can be found in any Bach music - like polyphonic thinking, meticulously planned architecture, original treatment of musical narration, virtuoso complexity and multi–layer structure hiding myriads of riddles - each of the volumes offers something extra, something that becomes the superior feature. In the case of the Partitas this would be the variety of musical material in dance forms, of course, and a colourful palette of opening movements. In case of Die Kunst der Fuge - the polyphonic technique in all (im)possible manners, but based on one theme. Both collections are very demanding, but with the Partitas, the performer has to be aware of and familiar with many different styles, musical languages of that time in Europe, and be able to speak these languages even in the technically most complex compositions.     

What was your own vision for the partitas?
My goal was to clearly show the different colours and narrations of each Partita and yet make the whole cycle sound as a coherent volume. The stories inside a fat book. This music is definitely filled with contrasts and I am the follower of such contrasting renditions. Such an approach is anyway according to the theory of affects of that time. What I love about Bach is his divine mind. The mixture of a scientist and a humanist, both good-natured and a tease. And this complex personality I wanted very much to show in my interpretations. Endless riddles to be solved, endless questions to be asked. This is fascinating for me. I know there will always be something more to discover.

How do you decode the intentions of this divine mind?
While working on a piece by Bach I always try to solve the puzzle, to guess what he had in mind by choosing the particular way of writing the musical line or rhythmic figure. With the repertoire of XVII/XVIII centuries the problem is that there is nothing explicitely in a score from the composer - the musician must learn to speak this language. Lots of instructions we can find in the treaties from that time but even there author would underline the fact that the final interpretative decision has to be based on the good taste of the performer. Regardless of whether we know what constitutes good taste or not, we are definitely sure that there is lots of space left for the performer to become the co-creator of the piece. His personality, temperament and type of mind must be heard in any music he performs. That is why classical music is not dead yet! 

Tell me about your personal challenges of performing the Partitas.
As partitas are the final Bach’s statement in the field of the suite form, they reach the absolute peak in the genre. For example, the gigue itself is a very demanding dance form, and when written as a complex fugue, you have more than one theme, or first theme, becoming the counterpoint to the new theme, or finally all these will eventually meet at some point. You have to give these aspects serious thought. You need to find a right balance between the masterfully designed polyphonic form and characteristics of that dance. For me, it was very important to define the unique character for each partita and to keep this distinction for all the movements. This was a huge challenge, because every dance has its particular features, and yet I wanted to speak differently with the corrente from the 6th in minor key than the corrente from the 5th in major one. Of course, it’s not only the key, which differentiates them from each other. The harmonic tensions, the compositional techniques, the metri, the national styles, even the placing in the volume; all these give each partita a special colour.       

What's your position on the debate of performing this music on the harpsichord versus the piano?
While playing on the instrument he chose for the particular music, we know how Bach had heard it while composing it. The structures he used were dedicated to this particular instrument, as the ones, which would work best on it. The instrument and its limits on many levels - expressive, technical, sound - are helping us to solve doubts concerning interpretation. While playing on the piano we gain a different version of the piece. Speaking in the terms of  popular music, it’s like a cover version of the piece performed by a different band. In my opinion, the crucial thing is to understand what the piece is about. In order to know it, someone who decides to play it on the piano has to understand the harpsichord idiom first. Then, he can try to find the proper means of the piano to end up with the same content achieved with different “tricks”. Imitating the harpsichord idiom on the piano doesn’t work at all and may only lead to a ridiculous caricature.

To sum things up: you have to use completely different methods in order to gain the same musical narration. And when it’s done, I don’t have anything against it per se. I just don’t like the ignorant approach to this music, treating it as if it were some kind of abstraction, which could be rendered in the same way as the romantic one for example, without the knowledge of the period, style and aesthetics. So, while playing the piano, you can’t ignore the dynamics as a tool to show the voices in the fugue a little more, assuming that on harpsichord that wouldn’t be possible. Because it IS possible on the harpsichord, only in a different way and by using different instruments like time, articulation, ornamentation and registration. At the end, you can easily hear the masterfully designed voice leading on harpsichord too.

You already spoke about lowering the threshold to the temple of classical music. Your album looks like a perfectly contemporary release and you've performed in decidedly untraditional venues. How do you feel about some of the more free approaches to classical music, which seek to liberate the music from its 'monumental' status?
I consciously chose an independent label with an attitude and philosophy close to mine. What is unique about releasing a CD on a DYI label is that you can choose the artists with whose work you will achieve the desired effect. The final shape of the album couldn’t be achieved without the remarkable work of these people. I can’t really say a lot about the nature of cooperating with a big label, but what I’m sure of is that I wouldn’t have been allowed to decide not only about every single detail in my album but often not even about the musical aspects. And that I could never agree on. I believe all the impulses you receive when you take the record in your hands illustrate the taste of the artist and have an influence on your reception.

I am usually very enthusiastic about new approaches, which doesn’t mean I agree with all of them. When the most important factor of the piece is lost by such a procedure, I can become sad. But definitely I am a fan of refreshing this music, making it live and current. And that is why you could hear me playing these Partitas in a dark cellar of a popular Warsaw club. Not deconstructed, not reinterpreted in some modern fashion. Just the same as I would play them in philharmonics. Only this time it is me who is coming to the new audience.

By Tobias Fischer
Image by Tomasz Dubiel

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