Discovering the beautiful keyboard playing of Robert Hill by accident on YouTube changed my life
The story is as you might expect: I heard a piece of music, and wanted to find some performance of it by somebody, anybody on YouTube as long as it had a decent user rating (yes, I find ratings actually useful when checking out unfamiliar music), and I happened to come across some random guy’s performance, and it was so fascinating that I looked at other uploads of his, subscribed to his YouTube channel, and looked him up on the Web to find out who he was!
It’s especially great that he regularly uploads new videos to his YouTube channel.
So who is Robert Hill, and why do I like his performances so much that I’m recommending that you check them out?
How I found Robert Hill
The short story is that I just heard someone playing, on piano, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Allemande from the French Suite no. 4 in E-flat, BWV 815.
Note that I actually have had very little interest in much of Bach’s keyboard music and have almost completely ignored them for decades; there are only two exceptions: the Goldberg Variations and some of the Well-Tempered Clavier. In particular, I have not listened to the French Suites, English Suites, or Partitas at all!
But because I just accidentally heard this Allemande played live, and liked it, I wanted to hear it again when I got home, and so I went to YouTube to find it.
I found a lot of performances online, of course, but I’m a sucker for the unusual, so I was particularly interested when I saw in the search results a link to some guy, Robert Hill, performing it on an unusual instrument I had never heard of in my life, a “lute-harpsichord”. And it got well over a hundred thumb-up ratings and only one thumb-down, so of course I was going to check it out!
I watched the video, and was totally blown away by the beauty of the performance:
- The instrument has a gorgeous sound.
- Robert Hill played very expressively, with the full freedom and emotion that treasure.
- Structurally, I could hear the different voices and phrases with total clarity because of how he plays.
- This single performance made me think that I needed to give old Bach another shot and check out more of his keyboard music.
Listen for yourself (it’s less than two minutes long):
Who is Robert Hill?
I did a Web search on Robert Hill and found information about him. He is an American keyboard instrument performer (especially early keyboard instruments such as harpsichord, clavichord, lute-harpsichord, fortepiano) and musicologist.
I had to search hard to find an actual Web site of his own, and it’s here. It basically looks like it hasn’t been updated since around 2001, which is also his last recording time period on his discography. At some point he must have decided to just share his music through YouTube. He is a music professor in Freiburg.
As I just mentioned, my fascination with the performances of Robert Hill comes from his expressiveness, which comes about from adjustments of tempo, rhetorical gestures, ornamentation, rhythmic sense. He plays a lot more expressively than many keyboard musicians do today, and I like that. I now believe that I was turned off by much of Bach’s keyboard music not because of Bach, but because of the relatively bland performances his music has received, especially from modern pianists. Bach was an emotional man living in an emotional age (the Baroque era of affect), and I feel blessed that musicians like Robert Hill are taking this seriously. There are others, of course, besides him, but I think his performances have a particular edge to them.
Here is an example of Robert Hill playing regular harpsichord.
Bach’s Allemande from the Partita in D major, BWV 828
I discovered this beautiful, haunting work of music by Bach for the first time, by sheer accident, when browsing Hill’s YouTube channel (live performance from 1997):
I cannot believe I went four decades without ever having heard this piece in my life. Now I can’t get it out of my head.
Hill did some extreme things in this performance (tempo modifications and hesitations) that are not to my taste, but I applaud him for having the courage to play from the heart, because much of what he did spoke to mine! He lives dangerously. Maybe that’s why he only posts live recording clips to YouTube now rather than make CDs?
He also plays fortepiano, which is a fascinating instrument I love. I have mentioned my first experience with a fortepiano in college in a blog post earlier this year celebrating the 300th birthday of Johann Sebastian’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel.
CPE Bach’s Fantasie in F-sharp minor
Heck, I had to check out Hill’s performance of my favorite CPE Bach keyboard work. In my earlier blog post, I had praised Andreas Staier’s performance I discovered in college, but now having heard Hill’s, I have another favorite (live from April 2014). This totally plays up Hill’s maximally emotive expressive style:
JS Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier selections
It was fascinating to find Hill performing JS Bach on fortepiano; I had never heard anyone playing JS Bach on fortepiano before. I love that he experiments with different styles.
The famous WTC I, Prelude in C major, in a fluid, beautiful Romantic-style (vs. Baroque-style) performance he just uploaded a couple of days ago:
A totally gorgeous Romantic-style interpretation of the slow Bach WTC I, Prelude in C# minor:
I love how he makes full use of the expressive possibilities of the fortepiano (power and dynamics and sustain).
Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata
Yes, he plays Beethoven too, on fortepiano.
Note that Beethoven did call it “sonata quasi fantasia” so it should be played freely “like a fantasy”, freely, and he does this. If you’ve only heard it played more “squarely”, check this out. In this case, I prefer a more subtle freedom than the exaggerated gestures Hill provides, because I feel he disrupts the rhythmic flow too much, so I consider his experiment not a full success, but still, I respect his willingness to go all out:
Yes, of course Robert Hill plays the modern piano too. And I love what he does with it.
Hill brings out the different voices very well, the counterpoint through the thick textures of Brahms. These are truly beautiful performances of some of my favorite piano music of all time, Brahms’ intermezzi.
A passionate performance of Op. 117, No. 2 in B-flat minor:
And Op. 119, No. 1 in B minor (some favorite performances of which I discussed in my blog post last year):
This is one of the most emotionally raw performances I have ever heard of this intermezzo. Hill makes the most of the suspensions, silences, dissonances, and clashing lines.
Discovering the musical performances of Robert Hill on keyboard instruments has been one of the happy surprises of my life this year. Not only has he provided me listening pleasure, but also has sharpened my conception of what the music he plays is about and how to express it. He has forever changed my expectation from myself of how I should play music. I expect that from now on, I will never again hold back from “weird” interpretations that I feel come from my heart and mind. I don’t expect that all my experiments will succeed, but seeing someone else try, and publicly, how can I not do likewise?
Have you recently discovered a musician who has changed your hearing and/or your own playing? Who was it and what did you learn?comments powered by Disqus