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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Well-Tempered Clavier Books 1 and 2
Preludes and Fugues BWV 846-869

1-12 played by Andrei Gavrilov
13-24 played by Joanna McGregor
Preludes and Fugues BWV 870-886

1-12 played by Nikolai Demidenko
13-24 played by Angela Hewitt
Recorded at the New Art Gallery, Walsall, (Gavrilov), at the Palau Güell, Barcelona, (McGregor), at the Palazzo Labia, Venice (Demidenko) and the Wartburg, Eisenach (Hewitt) all in February 2000
Directed for TV by Karen Whiteside (Book 1) and Peter Mumford (Book 2)
EUROARTS 2050309 [2 DVDs: 121:00 + 139:00]

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The idea behind this DVD release is simple but quite brilliant. In 2000, to mark the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, the BBC engaged four top international pianists of similar age and who all happen to reside in England, to play 12 each of the 48 Preludes and Fugues. These were to be filmed in different locations, from exotic Venice and Barcelona to good old Walsall in the Midlands. Some were broadcast in tiny chunks on BBC 4, and now the whole lot is together on a double DVD pack. The concept was obviously to try and make the 48 interesting to look at as well as listen to, and whatever your views on watching music being performed on TV, the results here are as engaging as any I’ve come across.

This has much to do with the quality of the playing, but imaginative camerawork and lighting do play a big part. The general concept is to adopt a number of ‘filmic’ approaches to each prelude and fugue that alternate throughout both sets. These vary between starting with a close-up of the hands and then shifting away and panning around the piano, or starting from a distance (sometimes actually outside) and then slowly closing in to the piano. Within these bounds are a few variants, but the formula is pretty constant through the four-plus hours of the discs. The lighting is subtly altered to accompany the camerawork, from bright daytime to candlelit night. The artists also change clothes to match this, alternating between concert black, fairly casual (Hewitt’s colourful sweaters) and very casual (Gavrilov in jeans and sweatshirt, McGregor in black dress and trainers). The overall result is something interesting enough to be worth watching on the screen but never distracting to the performances. The pianos are also moved around within the different venues, so the backdrops and indeed acoustic, do shift in perspective. The opulence of the Barcelona and Venetian Palaces is nicely offset by the cool austerity of the then newly–opened Walsall Art Gallery, and the recorded sound (engineered by Mike Hatch) is generally excellent, even the most cavernous spaces being tamed.

The performances are also unlikely to disappoint. I suppose the most ‘controversial’ is Gavrilov, but only because he uses pedal and rubato with a touch more freedom than the others. I certainly have no problem with this approach, which only seems to stem from his Russian background and admiration for the Bach playing of Richter and Gilels. Personally, I prefer a piano performance of this music to illuminate me and show the extra dimension that a modern concert grand can give. Anyway, if you are irritated, you know another pianist will take over before long. McGregor is also well known for also being a provocative Bach player and she certainly attacks some of the preludes with a vigour and abandon that have you on the edge of your seat (try No.15 in G major, where she nearly comes unstuck). Again, this is Bach pianism of a very high order, making you hear phrases afresh and bringing alive inner detail that can seem as dry as dust.

Demidenko is less confrontational than I expected. Like his fellow Russian, he is aware of his roots, and produces tingling preludes that glitter with clarity, followed by fugues that grow with an intensity and cumulative tension that sweep one along. This is playing it is impossible to switch off to. Hewitt, beautifully filmed in Bach’s birthplace, Eisenach, is probably the safest here, but her credentials are so sound that her set makes the perfect finale. This playing is a model of good taste that never becomes boring, where clarity of line and texture is paramount, where the instrument truly sings.

Talking of instruments, the pianos are the other stars here. Three are Steinway D concert grands, with Demidenko on a Fazioli, presumably because he’s in Italy. All are beautifully regulated and voiced, with the Fazioli’s extra bell-like clarity coming to the fore in some of Demidenko’s scintillating passagework. The only irritation (if it bothers you) is that his section of the film is interrupted at one point for some shameless product-pushing, as we see a piano (which just happens to be a Fazioli) in various stages of factory manufacture. Ah well, I suppose they may have cut a deal with the hire charge…

According to the booklet, these films were not just to celebrate Bach’s genius, but to be made in a way that would ‘appeal to the general viewing public who may not know much Bach …’ Given the high quality of the playing and production values, this deserves to succeed.

Tony Haywood


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