Fanfare Interview

A marvelous new Bach recital from AMC Classical, towards the c, features pianist Niklas Sivelöv.

In our interview, Sivelöv talks about the recording and Bach’s unique genius and magic.
Before we discuss your AMC Classical Bach recording, towards the c, I’d love to explore some of your thoughts on J. S. Bach and his music. And, given that you are renowned as a pianist and composer, I’d be most interested in your appreciation of Bach from both those disciplines. When did Bach become a part of your musical life?

Do you recall the compositions you first studied, and your reaction to them?
I started to form an interest in the piano around the age of 8; before that I was playing the organ as well as percussion. On the organ I was only improvising at first and making my own little tunes, since I didn’t read music properly, and I used to listen a lot to the Beatles, trying to find the right harmonies and melodies. I also enjoyed playing along on the drums to the music of Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin, my older sister’s favorites that came blasting out of the speakers.
When I started to read music a bit better I recall one of my first pieces I studied was one of the Minuets from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach, and later also the First Invention in C Major. This was love at first sight, and since then I have played Bach almost every day of my life. It’s music for both the heart and brain, as well as being very satisfying for the body. It’s both physical and metaphysical. I’m also left-handed, so I enjoyed the challenges Bach was offering. In my very early years I exclusively liked Bach and Mozart, and only gradually added Beethoven and Chopin to the list.
What talents and qualities do you think an interpreter of Bach’s keyboard music must possess?
Honesty of feeling and a transparent hearing. You need a pure touch and understanding of Bach as both a “vocal” and a “dancing” composer. The movement and motion are essential elements; his unique blend of styles (the German, Italian, and the French), and his enormous drive as a person and musician require a lot from the player. Since his music in general is very much of a practical nature, you need a lot of imagination for different instrumentations and settings, as the music is not in a higher degree connected and bound to a certain instrument. This “absolute music” character of Bach is inherent in all his production (well, with some exceptions).
Do you have any particular favorite Bach interpreters, past or present, and what you do most admire about their artistry?
I like players such as Gould, Schiff, and Edwin Fischer. They are all very different, but I think they have each a very strong connection to Bach.
How did you choose the repertoire for your new recording, towards the c? Did you have any specific overarching criteria in mind?
There is an overall plan to record the “complete” Bach in the next five years. This was next in line to do, and now I’m about to record all the Partitas and English Suites. After doing the WTC I felt the need for something smaller in format.
Earlier, you characterized the music of Bach as “both physical and metaphysical.” This touches on Bach’s transcending what might be viewed as traditional boundaries between secular and sacred music. In my review of your HVB Records recording of Bach’s complete The Well-Tempered Clavier (Fanfare 44:1, Sept/Oct 2020), I wrote: “Bach viewed all of his compositions as offerings to God. And although the Two Books of The Well-Tempered Clavier clearly fall into the category of secular music, in the hands, heart, and mind of an exceptional artist, they communicate a profound spiritual eloquence and beauty. Niklas Sivelöv is such an artist.” I have the very same impression in listening to the Bach works you perform on towards the c. 

Tell us about the title, “towards the c.” I suspect it suggests multiple meanings and possibilities.

Those are very kind words, I’m much obliged.

It boils basically down to this: Bach in German means Brook or Stream, and this could represent the natural flowing of the music of Bach; a piece starts and just keeps going to the end, like one long connected musical line. On the other hand, Bach’s enormous catalog of works and genius are more like the Sea or Ocean, so the title relates to music starting and ending in C (Sea … just a little word association). Especially in this original order, this could be an explanation for the title. The cover of course underlines this. I designed it.

towards the c concludes with your Improvisation, “The Calm Sea.” Please tell us a bit about this work, and how it relates to the Bach that preceded it.
Improvisation was always part of my music-making, and I have released several CDs consisting only of improvisation, such as the CD Exposé. On Exposé I am, for example, improvising over the First Prelude from WTC Book 1, in a similar style as in the “The Calm Sea” (based upon the Sinfonia in E Minor, BWV 793). Stylistically it’s free, music from our time, as is my composition style, but not going too far from the essence of the music—just a tender expansion of the musical sphere.
What are some projects on your horizon?
I’m working on several recording and composing projects, such as: Bach’s Partitas and English Suites, Beethoven’s early sonatas (partly on historical instruments), and my own Piano Concerto No. 6 and Symphonies 1 and 5. I’m also very much into the music of Scriabin, which I have recorded before and I’m now planning to record again: all 10 Sonatas.
As a postscript to our interview, Niklas Sivelöv shared his poem on Bach, included in the
book, Piano Dreams:

Johann Sebastian Bach.
One note… The abandoned sheep looking for its herd.
Two notes… The tender touch of the chosen one.
Three notes… The completion. The soul awakens.
Johann Sebastian Bach.
White Orchids whispering the Truth. The Colourful
Chanting of the Angels’ Eternity.
An Echo of the Elements and of human suffering.
The dancing of the spirits. An Invention.
Of time.