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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
CD 1
Two-Part Inventions BWV 772-786 [26:16]
Sinfonias BWV 787-801 [32:48]
French Suite No. 6 In E Major BWV 817 (ca1724-25) [17:39]
CD 2
Partita No. 2 In C Minor BWV 826 (ca1723-25) [20:51]
Sechs Kleine Präludien BWV 933-938 [14:21]
Sechs Kleine Präludien BWV 939-943 & 999 [6:05]
Kleine Präludien Aus Dem
Clavierbüchlein
Vor Wilhelm Friedemann Bach BWV 924-931 [9:15]
Kleine Fugen Und Präludien Mit Fughetten [22:20]
Andrea Bacchetti (piano)
rec. Sala Verdi, Milan Conservatory, March 2008 (CD 1) and Fazioli Concert Hall of Sacile, Italy, September 2008 (CD 2).
DYNAMIC CDS629/1-2 [77:11 + 73:21]
Experience Classicsonline

Having recently reviewed another new recording of the Two-Part inventions played by Till Fellner and already put it to one side as one of my Discs of the Year, I was in a rather greater state of trepidation than usual when offered another new recording of partially the same repertoire played by a pianist for whose work I’ve already expressed an admiration on these pages. Having lived with both versions of the Two-Part Inventions and Sinfonias for some time now, I am at least relieved of the responsibility of choosing a preference for one over the other. This is not an attack of cowardice on my part, I’ve simply found that each performance fits more into one ‘stream’ than another, and therefore will, if you are anything like me, appeal more to you in certain moods or certain times of the day than others. This is a terrible, consumerist way to look at music, but short of analysing every note and inflection, it does sum up the differences between each recording fairly well in my view.

With Fellner I made the comparison with Sviatoslav Richter, and I still associate Fellner’s richness of sound and expressive approach with the atmosphere of Richter’s recordings of the ‘Well Tempered Clavier.’ I don’t want to push either pianist irrevocably into any kind of camp or category, but having put Fellner against Richter in this case I feel obliged to put Bacchetti against Glenn Gould. By no means are even the majority of his lovely readings of the Two Part Inventions directly ‘Gouldesque’, but starting with the crisper Fazioli piano sound, there are enough cases to back up the comparison. With the opening C major invention I wondered at first if this was a live recording, with some jingling of keys, a bit of shuffling about, and someone clearing their throat 15 seconds into the second C minor invention. There is no mention of this in the booklet, though as with other live recordings the access points sometimes show the pieces being played without a break. In any case things soon settle down and there are no major distractions. The piano does have a bit of a metallic buzz on one or two notes in the right hand, but again this is something to which the ear can adjust with little difficulty.

Having thus digressed, I hear Gould somewhat in the measured approach Bacchetti takes to ornamentation, to some of the well-planned contrasts in articulation such as the separation of notes in the 5th E Flat invention BWV 776. Bacchetti doesn’t apply this as a restriction to Bach’s expressiveness, and he is a good deal less ‘cool’ than Gould, applying his own individual taste when it comes to a certain amount of romantic treatment of the music. As commented before on this kind of piano interpretation, the instrument influences the character of the playing to a greater or lesser degree. The shaping of phrases through dynamics is not a feature of harpsichord performance, and the natural fluctuations of tempo while maintaining the inner pulse are handled bearing this and the sustaining power of the modern grand in mind. Beautiful atmosphere and legato playing are again aspects of Bacchetti’s playing which bring me back every time, such as in the 9th F minor BWV 780 and 11th G minor BWV 782 inventions, and it is in these movements that Bacchetti imbues these relatively simple works with a similar power to something like the Goldberg Variations. If you don’t know these works and have until now felt that they won’t offer the same effect as that famous cycle, then here is a very good place to have your misconceptions seriously and pleasantly re-assessed.

The same goes for the three-part Sinfonias, like the Two-Part Inventions originally written as educational pieces for Bach’s eldest son Wilhelm Friedmann. In some of these performances one has the impression that Bacchetti is on his own spontaneous journey of discovery, and as a result pieces such as No.2 in C minor become a freshly verdant jungle of brand new musical territory. With the increase in parts, Bacchetti seems to widen his dynamic range; this no doubt being an illusion brought out by the extra layering in the counterpoint. The breadth of vision can also take on an entirely new scale in this recording, and slowness is a feature of some pieces. For instance, No.4 in D minor comes in at a stately 3:25, to Fellner’s fluently brisk 1:04. Yes, it is like listening to two entirely different pieces, but thank goodness for that says I. Both versions work, and Bach’s genius is neither falsely flattered nor flattened by being shown in two such remarkably different lights. Despite Bacchetti’s slower tempi, I always maintain the feeling that his ideas and playing are more ‘awake’ and involving than many, even Fellner, whose recording I still have near the top of my personal discoveries of the year. Fellner is more comforting and ‘late night’ in overall impression. Bacchetti is more driven and intense, even at those slower tempi. Just take No.6 in E major, where Feller’s notes fall like a beautiful curtain. Bacchetti is more attentive to a different kind of detail, gently teasing more from the smaller moments as well as portraying the bigger picture differently, finding the climax at that interrupted ‘golden section’ cadence at 1:00, where Fellner smoothes this over as more of a transitional moment, focussing his ultimate direction more towards the end of the coda. No.8 in F major is another case in point. Fellner’s 1:13 traversal bounces along lightly, with a nice sense of horizontal flow but turning the piece into something of an intermezzo against Bacchetti’s 1:49, at which pace he is able to pay as much attention to the endings of notes as well as their varied articulation. This playing is more analytical, but if anyone’s music is capable of being held up to a magnifying glass then it is that of J.S. Bach. We are transported to different realms in No.9 in F minor, with Bacchetti’s reverential 5:30 pushing the boundaries but also creating a greater sense of ecstasy than Fellner’s milder 3:18. This is another of those voyages of discovery, the dissonances taking on an entirely different meaning and emphasis - crucifixion and release rather than a reflective walk through the graveyard. It’s not all blood and tears however, and where Bach is more relaxed as in No.12 in A Major Bacchetti is also more urbane, still bringing us to the full heights with the nicely wrought climax, but here as elsewhere perfectly understating the lesser voices.

Like Till Fellner’s single disc, the first of Bacchetti’s double CD package ends with a French Suite, in this case the French Suite No. 6 In E Major BWV 817 as opposed to No.5 on the ECM release. Beautifully played and relatively uncontroversial, Bacchetti is sensitive to the dance origins of the movements while at the same time bringing out the best of a stately Sarabande and the simple two-part texture of the Polonaise. Some of the trademark ornamental runs adorn the Menuet, which is also rather segmented at each cadence rather than through-flowing. Gentle virtuosity graces the Bourée, and the final Gigue is taken as a rather firm finale, but with plenty of playfulness in the interaction between the parts.

The second disc of this set is recorded in the somewhat drier acoustic of the Fazioli Concert Hall. Having heard a number of Bacchetti’s recordings made here I have become quite used to its characteristics. The space creates a fairly intimate atmosphere without sounding too enclosed, but here it does tend to impose a kind of mid-range bulge on the piano sound, so that even Bacchetti’s crisp and tightly controlled articulation can have a more woolly aura than one might hope for. This is a mild effect, and one of those things which you probably wouldn’t notice in isolation and over some sound systems, but following the one disc directly with the other highlights the differences, as do my cripplingly pricey headphones. The programme opens with another of Bach’s masterpieces, the Partita No.2 BWV 826. As with the earlier French Suite, I don’t find much controversy in Bacchetti’s stylistic approach or execution of this piece. While in the main the performance is pretty much top drawer I was however less convinced by the Courante, where the rapid ornamentation runs up against marginally too wild a tempo, resulting in something scribbly and somewhat incoherent, rather than the ‘superbe’ effect that was probably intended. This was my only worry in this piece. The opening Sinfonia has that opening mix of fantasia grandness and almost naively simple two-part writing down to a T, and the following counterpoint has power and direction. I like the gentle but unsentimental touch in that Allemande, as well as the romantic flavour which gives the Sarabande a wistful and reflective feel. The playful nature of the Rondeau is also given a certain amount of intensity through the extra ornamentation later on, and a rhythmically uplifting Capriccio with which to finish makes this a Partita No.2 a more valuable contribution to this collection than the ‘and other keyboard works’ status it has on the front billing.

The rest of the second disc is taken up with less commonly recorded Bach keyboard works. Quoting musicologist Alberto Basso, who writes of Bach’s ‘Klaviermusik’ of the period 1717 to 1723 in Köthen that “The basis of all of Bach’s output... would seem to be defined by two collections clearly intended for the use of family members, and constructed so as to provide a practice tool of a very particular outline. The first of these anthologies bears the title Clavierbüchlein vor Wilhelm Friedemann Bach.” Composition of the Clavierbüchlein for his eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann was begun in 1720 and completed several years later. This collection of works contains the fifteen Two-Part Inventions BWV 772-786, and the fifteen Sinfonias BWV 787-801, but is also the source of the Kleine Präludien BWV 924-32, the Sechs kleine Präludien BWV 933-38 and the Fünf kleine Präludien BWV 939-43. These have long figured as classics of keyboard teaching and, while generally very short, they draw on all the technical and instrumental practices of the day, moving between dance forms to fugue, expressive pieces to canons.  

While some of these pieces are of their nature less musically high flying than many of the Two-Part Inventions and Sinfonias, there are plenty of typical J.S. Bach gems, such as the Prelude in D major BWV 936 with its light-footed walking bass. Some are little more than musical sketches; the Prelude in C major BWV 939 lasting only a dramatic 37 seconds, and some are more famous than others, such as the running semiquavers of the Prelude in C minor BWV 999. Andrea Bacchetti makes the most of each, pulling out all the stops with miniature masterpieces such as the Prelude in A minor BWV 942 and elsewhere. The Kleine Fugen und Präludien Mit Fughetten which finish this varied and exiting programme were new to me, but are every bit as worthwhile as the rest. The high points are arguably the emotionally searching D minor BWV 899 and the expansive E minor BWV 900, but either way, if your Bach keyboard collection needs broadening this is a one-stop place to take you well beyond familiar orbits and into the realms of gently fascinating discovery.

Dominy Clements 

 
 


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