Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, BWV 846-869
Abdel Rahman El Bacha (piano)
rec. 29, 30 October and 1, 2 November 2010, Chichibu Muse Park, Saitama
TRITON OVCT-00077 [54:48 + 56:36] 

Impressed by Abdel Rahman El Bacha’s recording of Ravel’s complete piano works for the Triton label (see review), my buds of intrigue were alerted when I saw he had recorded Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I. You can never have enough J.S. Bach, and I seem to have acquired quite a variety of recorded versions over the years. This means I’ve pretty much passed the stage of making comparisons, and have come to think more in terms of ‘does this give me pleasure?’ and ‘if not why not/if so why?’ rather than considering any particular version to be ‘better than’. If you love this music on piano, there are so many versions to choose from it’s impossible to tell anyone they should possess one over another, and true J.S. Bach fans will be almost certain to have more than one WTC I in any case.
 
In some ways, the comments I made on El Bacha’s Ravel apply here as well. To paraphrase, I don’t know quite how he does it, but he manages to give relatively straightforward performances of Bach’s refined masterpieces, at the same time making the music highly attractive and desirable. His playing has a ‘romantic’ touch, in that he plays with a certain elasticity, allowing a little rubato here and there to emphasise important harmonic points or to allow melodic phrases to breathe. If I have any criticism of this is the occasional final cadence which is extended perhaps a little too much, but this is a point of taste and a relatively minor one. My spirits are always raised when I hear things I haven’t quite heard in the same way before, and there is something in the way El Bacha does his Prelude No.2 in C minor which makes it sound a little like a virtuoso cimbalom. Is it half-pedalling? Talking of pedalling, El Bacha is less ‘dry’ than some pianists, Angela Hewitt in particular, though by no means does he use the pedal to excess, and clarity is a strong feature of these preludes and fugues. The ‘spring’ in the C minor fugue and the dancing nature of the music such as in the C-sharp major Prelude and Fugue No. 3 is delightfully animated.
 
The Prelude and Fugue No. 4 in C-sharp minor is always an important moment, and El Bacha’s flowing pace in the prelude is lovely, the fugue given plenty of space to expand but not taken to extremes of slowness. He doesn’t spotlight those dramatic entries as the fugue builds, allowing the narrative of the music to maintain its momentum and the notes to speak for themselves. There are pianists who take us on more far-reaching journeys, and whose return to the repose of the final bars is more hard won, but this is still a stirring experience, and one which sits well in proportion to the surrounding pieces.
 
Other highlights for me include the Prelude and fugue No. 8 in E-flat minor, which is supremely poetic in its simplicity in El Bacha’s hands, his ornamentation always measured in the prelude, the beautiful lyrical lines of the fugue shaped with vocal softness. The only place where I feel the tempo might have been a little more ongoing is the Prelude No. 10 in E-minor, where the accompanying undulations are given a little too much presence. Interesting is his little acceleration towards the faster final section, more often leapt on as a quick gear-change by other pianists. El Bacha’s Fugue No. 14 in F-sharp minor is superbly controlled, and it is quite surprising how much expression he can obtain from what is in fact quite a limited dynamic range - he doesn’t swoop or climb much within each piece, keeping a consistency of language and message per prelude or fugue, which adds to the sense of the reading as a well conceived cycle rather than a series of contrapuntal vignettes. El Bacha is uncontroversial, but more importantly is entirely convincing, and brings a smile in sunny pieces like the Fugue No. 17 in A-flat major. The emotional swings aren’t as extreme as with someone like Roger Woodward (see review), but the joy in the music and its rhetorical character is always present even if the deepest profundities are perhaps less searchingly explored - and it has to be said, the recording is much better.
 
This demonstration recording sounds superb both in standard as well as SACD stereo. The Triton label doesn’t go in for surround sound, but with such deep and rich sonics and a beautifully prepared Bechstein instrument this is hardly necessary. The acoustic is nicely resonant without being intrusive. I am extremely impressed by this WTC I, know that it is one to which I will return frequently in future, with only the hope that there is more Bach in the pipeline from Abdel Rahman El Bacha.
 
Dominy Clements
 
Superb: measured and uncontroversial, but - how does he do it?