Born in Berkeley, California in 1998, pianist Karin Kei Nagano began studying piano at age 3 and has worked with the late Germaine Mounier and the renowned teachers Vera Gornostayeva, Igor Lazko, [...]
They spoke about it
Karin Kei Nagano’s sweetness and precise playing always bring a dose of personal emotion to this sublime music by Johann Sebastian Bach.
—Daniel Vincent, ICI Musique
Her interpretation is precise, detailed, which we appreciate both the sobriety and the sparkling moods. She puts the necessary bite and some playfulness to embellish the counterpoints of a beautiful embroidery.
— Le Parnasse Musical
Very beautiful […] New recordings of these works come to be rare.
— Médium Large, ICI Radio-Canada
Karin Kei Nagano’s determined playing has a great clarity and makes the voices dialogue with intelligence and good taste, while maintaining the listener’s interest. ★★★★.
— La Presse
Her first album, released in 2014 and dedicated to Mozart’s Concertos Nos. 12 and 13, had a striking maturity. With her second album, one discovers a more bustling Bach.
— Le Huffington Post Québec
Her playing goes far beyond meeting the technical requirements of counterpoint lessons and reaches for the beauty of what only a creative mind such as Bach’s could have placed there.
— The WholeNote
A word from Karin Kei Nagano
Ever since Johann Sebastian Bach wrote this collection of short works for his children and students as a means for mastering fundamental keyboard technique, his “Inventionen and Sinfonien” have remained a basis for keyboard pedagogical practice. In my own case, my piano teacher introduced me to Bach’s “Inventionen and Sinfonien” when my fingers could not even reach an octave. I remember making big arm gestures to reach the intervals that were too broad for my hands. My feet would dangle somewhere in the space between the bench and the pedals. Since that early encounter, these pieces have been a fundamental part of my repertoire and have accompanied my whole musical journey.
As I developed as a musician, I found that I could identify with these pieces not only because of their exceptional quality, but because Bach had intended them for the evolving apprenticeship of his pupils and his son, Wilhelm Friedemann. It has been my goal to reflect the youthful character of the music and seek to capture the purity and simplicity that are characteristic of a maturing pupil’s interpretation.
Concerning the order of pieces on this recording, I have deviated somewhat from the familiar sequence as arranged by Bach and published in 1723. Somehow I always felt that this standard succession of pieces was slightly inorganic, lacking fluidity. Around the time of recording, another version caught my attention: the arrangement from the Clavierbüchlein (keyboard book) for Bach’s son Wilhelm Friedemann, which is actually the original version of the pieces, published in 1720. In this 1720 version, it seems that Bach sought to introduce his son by stages to the various keys: accordingly, he starts with the keys with the fewest sharps and flats and then gradually adds more. This creates a symmetrical cycle of keys, first ascending and then descending: C, D, E, F, G, A, B – and then B-flat, A, G, F, E, E-flat, D, C, a framework that makes this version feel especially pleasing and fluid.
Many aspects of this collection of masterful pieces continue to fascinate me. Each invention and sinfonia creates a world of its own. For instance, the listener hears dances emanating through the counterpoint, as in the energetic rhythms of Invention No. 3, or senses an orchestral, Brandenburg Concerto-like quality in Sinfonia No. 2. Chorales are woven through the beautiful contrapuntal lines of Sinfonia No. 6.
One marvels at countless inventive qualities, recognizing with admiration how these pieces have guided many generations over 250 years through remarkable musical adventures always worthy of fresh exploration. Perhaps they will lead you as well to your own musical journey…
The Inventions and Sinfonias, BWV 772–801 (the Two- and Three-Part Inventions)
Late in life, the great poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe reflected about his experience of J.S. Bach’s music, that it was as if “eternal harmony were conversing with itself, as it may have done in the bosom of God before the Creation of the World. So likewise did it move in my inmost soul, and it seemed as I neither possessed nor needed ears, nor any other sense – least of all, the eyes”.
This quality of the intrinsically musical–of moving, intertwining voices in dialogue with one another– is exquisitely embodied in the two and three-part inventions (Inventions and Sinfonias) that J.S. Bach devised as a cornerstone of keyboard playing and springboard to the two books of his Well-Tempered Clavier.
What accounts for the stirring inner life of this music, which was conceived in the early 1700s–long before the modern piano came into existence–yet came to inspire countless musicians, from Mozart and Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schumann, to Schoenberg, Shostakovich and Kurtág, and so many others?
How for instance does the “eternal harmony […] convers[e] with itself” in the very first two-part invention in C major (BWV 772)? The opening four notes–with the stepwise pattern C, D, E, F–outline a rising perfect fourth interval unfolding immediately after the silent downbeat, which lends to the figure a rhythmic lilt, an upward striving character.
The upper voice shaping this rising fourth is answered by the lower voice, as the left hand mimics the right, but just as this happens, the higher voice moves on to outline another rising fourth higher than the first figure –from G to the upper C– and with a broadened rhythm, the note-values twice as slow. This asymmetry of rhythm is important, conveying as it does the sense of a beginning and middle part to the initial motive. As the two voices answer one another and intertwine, they bring to sound a continually evolving play with the fundamental intervals, as the “eternal harmony […] convers[es] with itself,” in Goethe’s words. In the third and fourth measures of the piece, the rising fourth is expressed in the left hand as B, C, D, E and then as G, A, B, C, now rendered as eight notes instead of sixteenth-notes, hence twice as slow as at the outset. Against this figure we hear as counterpoint in the right hand the falling fourths A, G, F, E and then F, E, D, C, but now written as sixteenths, the same rhythmic pacing as the initial figure of the piece. Bach absorbs such relations into the broader rhythmic flow, leaving it to the player to nuance the interactions of the voices in dialogue. In shaping this piece, Bach supplies two internal articulations or cadences: to the dominant G major (measure 7), and to the submediant A minor (measure 15). This strategy lends to this first invention a formal contour in three parts, but a sense of development and climax is present as well. Bach reserves a denser texture with sixteenth-notes in both hands for the passage in mm. 13-14 leading toward the A-minor cadence, while the peak register of the piece is attained near the end in m. 20, as the upper voice twice reaches the high C, two octaves above the starting point. Since this invention focuses so consistently on the interval of the fourth, Bach can effectively utilize the elongation of this pattern to the fifth–hence C, D, E, F, G–in the bass–as the springboard to the final measure, as added voices reinforce the closing sonority. A mysterious inner causality endows even the most straightforward features of this music with a luminous quality.
All of these marvelous inventions embody such ingenious musical conversations, while surveying a wide range of musical character. In the Invention No. 8 in F major, BWV 779–to cite one further example–a brilliant, dance-like chase of the voices inspired Beethoven in the finale of his Sonata No. 6, op. 10, No. 2 in this key. It is no wonder that Bach’s Inventionen and Sinfonien have exerted such fascination on so many subsequent composers, and continue to inspire and challenge pianists today, nearly three centuries after they were conceived by Bach.
© William Kinderman