Johann Sebastian BACH (1685–1750)
Toccata in G major BWV 916 [7:43]
Toccata in E minor BWV 914 [8:43]
Toccata in D minor BWV 913 [16:10]
Toccata in G minor BWV 915 [10:29]
Toccata in D major BWV 912 [14:38]
Toccata in F sharp minor BWV 910 [9:12]
Toccata in C minor BWV 911 [12:21]
Andrea Bacchetti (piano)
rec. Fazioli Concert Hall of Sacile, Italy 13 October 2009; 21 January 2010
DYNAMIC CDS 658 [79:43]
Having had the good fortune to have reviewed a number of Andrea Bacchetti’s recordings in the past, I knew pretty much what to expect in terms of the sound on this disc. Bacchetti favours Fazioli instruments, which have a generally warmer and more expressive tone than your typical Steinway, whose balance is more impressively sparkly. Brightness and sparkle do not necessarily generate greater projection in concert however. I always make the comparison with my own instruments, the old pre-war wooden flute not necessarily having the sheer power of high tech computer-modelled silver, but still being capable of making the air sing and the walls shimmer with satisfactory reflections. The walls of the Fazioli Concert Hall do not enclose a huge acoustic space, but are perfectly suitable for more intimate sounding recital programmes, and this Bach sounds very good, if perhaps not quit as close as several piano recordings.
This is more true of my principal reference, that of Angela Hewitt on Hyperion. Placed in a more resonant acoustic, the microphones are also placed closer to the piano so that contrasts of colour are more immediately apparent. I am a big fan of Angela Hewitt, and like her Toccatas very much indeed. She has one disadvantage over the Dynamic CD in that her BWV numbers appear all as one track, where Bacchetti’s movements are all listed separately, which to my mind is what the convenience of CD is all about, although MP3 download fans will probably disagree on this point. Hewitt is a degree freer with her moulding of phrases and her elasticity with tempi in the Toccatas, which in the end is another reason these are not my absolute top favourite of her Bach recordings.
There are a few moments where musical fantasy take over from strict counterpoint in these pieces, and a degree of flexibility is very much part of the expressive tradition in these moments. The opening of the Toccata in G minor BWV 915 is a case in point from which neither pianist is shy. Bacchetti also has an elastic bounce with the allegro and fugal movements, keeping the pulse moving strictly but building a musical frame around this steadily unerring centre. Hewitt and Bacchetti diverge considerably in places when it comes to tempi. Compare their Toccata in D major BWV 912 and you wouldn’t recognise them as the same pieces. Hewitt is swift in the introduction, dancingly rhythmic in the second movement, and ruminatively expressive later on. Bacchetti goes for the noble, stately approach in the introductory prelude and the subsequent movement. A/B comparison makes him sound initially rather stolid, but with neither section having any tempo indication in the score all approaches are fair and equal, and where Hewitt wins in fleeting excitement Bacchetti gives us more in terms of a sense of structure and breadth of development. Where Hewitt’s eloquent conclusion is a sudden change of gear, Bacchetti’s is the logical finale to a fine musical statement. He also takes more time over those rather strange contrary trill-like gestures, integrating them more into the substance of the music, rather than throwing them in as surprising aberrations.
My first impression with Andrea Bacchetti’s playing of these pieces has remained through further listening. I won’t say that other pianists have a lesser grasp of the architecture of these Toccatas, but with Bacchetti I have the feeling that his thinking and intention is governed very strongly by the mechanics and design of each movement, and its place within each Toccata. The result is a sensation that the memory of the opening notes and gestures very much inform the feel of the last. It’s hard to describe, but you might compare it to taking a walk from one end of a cathedral to the next. You will of course view the grand vista as you commence at one end, and as you progress your attention will be drawn by poignant memorials or smaller more intimate chapels for personal reflection. The sun will of course be spilling into the space at one point, the bright colours of a stained-glass window creating playful splashes and showing hidden corners which have their own sense of surprise. Your growing relationship with the environment in which you find yourself stimulates your own inner journeys and reflections. My point is that, however disparate the varying movements or musical spaces, Bacchetti ensures that you are always moving through a unified architectural whole. I don’t mean ‘architectural’ as a bare-bones experience either in this case. Bacchetti is not as lushly expressive as Hewitt, but experience already hadn’t led me to expect this either. I may be pushing the argument too hard, but for me the programme as a whole also has this sense of an entire structure. Bacchetti holds back plenty but delivers emotional impact where it counts – just hear the entry of that Adagio in the Toccata in C minor BWV 911 near the end of the disc, and you have the feeling that this is perhaps the heart of the whole, the altar at which we draw breath and catch a glimpse of immortality.
Bacchetti keeps ornamentation at a low key. His Toccatas are direct and unpretentious, perhaps a little too direct for some tastes, but I appreciate this no-nonsense approach. His touch can at times be somewhat comparable Glenn Gould, though without the Canadian’s brittle articulation and none of his extremes – though I was surprised to see both their overall timings for BWV 914 as identical almost to the second. Bacchetti’s ‘wow’ factor is not as much in individual moments or movements, and he doesn’t go for over-impressive speed or excessive expressive lingering, so do I miss anything here? With all that sense of structure and architectural form, there is perhaps a feeling that the newly-minted sense of discovery in these Toccatas is less vibrant than one might hope for. Perhaps we can’t have it both ways, or at least, not both at once. In any case, to my mind this is a recording which delivers more the more you hear it, and when this is true you know it’s Bach talking.