Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Well-Tempered Clavier Book II, BWV870-893 (ca.1739 – 1744)
CD 1
BWV 870-881 [78:49]
CD 2
BWV 882-893 [79:41]
Peter Hill (piano)
rec. 11-13 November 2010 and 19-20 February 2011, University Concert Hall, Cardiff.
DELPHIAN DCD34101 [78:49 + 79:21]
I’m a huge fan of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, and with Book I being more frequently recorded and released as a separate entity, was very keen to hear Peter Hill’s Book II. I still consider his Messiaen piano music recordings to be a force to be reckoned with and a potent reference. These appeared originally on Unicorn-Kanchana and have now thankfully been re-released on the Regis label at a bargain price. Hill’s sensitivity of touch, keen ear for voicing and sheer musical good taste is apparent from the outset in his Bach, and so we know we are in safe hands.
One thing you will notice about these CDs is the generous timing for each. Peter Hill only just avoids going over to three discs as Roger Woodward does (see review). Reminding myself of the things I like about Woodward’s playing does however throw up vast differences between these players. Woodward has a greater sense of drama, a chiselled and sculptural approach to these pieces which, though not without sensitivity, encourages an appreciation of them in a human rather than a heavenly context. Despite the three discs, his tempi are in fact often swifter than Hill’s, and Woodward only comes in at about 160 minutes compared to the present set’s 158. Hill’s recording is closer and has a more intimate, one-to-one feel against the grander acoustic of the Celestial Harmonies recording. A fairly typical comparison might be the Fugue in D sharp minor, where Woodward is more forward moving, and rooted in a left/right dialogue which means that the lower voice keeps us in touch with reality. He has lyrical lines, but these are more secondary in feel, or at the very least have equal status to the voices which would more commonly be seen as having an accompanying role. This attractively earthy view contrasts with Hill, who, a little broader in tempo, sings more with the upper line, floating more above a bass counterpoint which lives in a little world of its own. This is a world in which the heavenly treble and the earthly baritone complement each other, but don’t so much enter into dialogue, each occupying its own domain and carrying a more individual role.
There is one pianist which Peter Hill does remind me of, and that’s the legendary Edwin Fischer, whose Bach Well-Tempered Clavier is still something of a marvel, despite its 1930s vintage and therefore understandably rather muddy recording quality. Take the tempo of something like the Prelude in C Sharp Minor, and you can see where a comparison of the balance in control and poetry meet between these two artists. The relatively measured speed of that particular opening pulls you up somewhat, but also makes you listen anew, savouring each note and each phrase. Hill is more often than not even slower than Fischer, but one always senses that this is in the service of the music rather than self-indulgence. Hill’s playing certainly never wallows, though you have to accept the broad view he takes and not let yourself become anxious and frustrated. As each work unfolds, the logic of Hill’s choices becomes apparent, and the joy is in re-discovering the pieces in a frequently new sounding framework of reflection and open ended duration.
One other pianist I’ve brought out to compare Hill with is Angela Hewitt, whose second recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier for Hyperion is a reminder of how the romantic approach can generate yet another set of delights (see review). My huge admiration for Hewitt’s playing derives from the sheer fantasy of her micro-management of each fugue voice and the consistency with which she carries these ideas through an entire piece, bringing each to vibrant life, and making each part of an ongoing narrative of contrast and connection throughout the cycle. Her approach does have more elasticity and rubato than many, but always within that stable rhythmic structure which all music demands – taking with one moment and giving back with another so that the shape and direction of each piece retains its satisfying inner logic. If it’s dialogue you are after in that Fugue in D sharp minor then Hewitt’s internal conversation is the most amicable and transparent of all.
I’m terrible at liking what I hear at any particular moment and just listening in awe at the gifts Bach and all of these excellent musicians bring us, and while I know we’re supposed to be in the business of placing new recordings in a kind of hierarchy of preference I prefer to be less dogmatic when it comes to something like Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Peter Hill has a way of transporting us into a world of verdant abundance, but one which is far removed from the bustle of modern living. Some pianists have a way of creating something ‘modern’ with their Bach, and Glenn Gould might be argued as being the leader in this field. All have a personal contribution to make, and Peter Hill’s is in giving us lyricism without Angela Hewitt’s more extreme rubatos, a romantic feel but in strict avoidance of excess. His Bach is granted breadth and air, allied with a close and confiding quality which is at the same time comforting and subtly commanding of our absolute attention. Try and read a book while this music is playing, and then try to keep count of the amount of times you will read the same sentence without absorbing a word. For this reason the recording should also come with a government warning that playing it while driving is to be avoided.
Hill’s ‘heavenly lengths’ do not mean that this is Bach without energy, and there are of course pieces with swifter tempi. Hill keeps the confiding quality even in the racing notes of the Prelude in G major, the drive and power in the music coming from somewhere in the ground beneath the piano rather than in overt loudness and intensity of sound. This is not a cycle prepared with Hollywood Bowl projection in mind, but neither is it weak and watery. The strength comes from somewhere within – the ‘soul’ of the music, rather than its expression in dramatic gestures. There are exceptions by way of contrast, and the Fugue in G minor comes close, with growing pianistic colours building to a meaty but still unforced climax. The Fugue in A minor also sets off with an imperious nobility; a challenge resolving into an animatedly heated but still amicable discussion.
Peter Hill’s technique is as good as faultless throughout this lengthy feast of Bach, though I do feel his fingers almost tripping over themselves about 4:20 into the Prelude in D major. This is very much Bach to be treasured, relished at length and reserved for desert islands. I would put it alongside Till Fellner’s Book I (see review) as something to keep close for those special moments where deep inner journeys require a soundtrack which will take you beyond your own imaginings into a place where time itself stops to watch in wonder.
Dominy Clements
Bach which will take you out of this world.