Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, BWV 846-869
CD 1
BWV 846-857 [65:40]
CD 2
BWV 858-869 [71:16]
Daniel Levy (piano)
rec. Barocksaal, Ossiach, Austria, dates not given
EDELWEISS EDEM 3365 [65:40 + 71:16]

Read about Daniel Levy, and you will soon discover that he is an exponent of “the Vincenzo Scaramuzza School”. This seems to stand less for a particular style of playing than, as Rosanna Consentino has described, “an accurate study of the anatomy of the pianist, [allowing] a complete relaxation of the muscles and tendons of the hands and arms, even when the pianist performs the most difficult pieces of music.” The result she also describes is a smooth, unforced and non-metallic sound, though as Martha Argerich was also taught by Scaramuzza, this doesn’t have to result in low-powered musicianship.

Daniel Levy has recorded widely before, and his Chopin recital has also been reviewed here. As you might glean from the disc timings, his Bach Well-Tempered Clavier is done with a spacious approach, being quite a few minutes longer cumulatively than the by no means hurried Roger Woodward, and perhaps a little closer to Vardo Rumessen in some of his tempi. I’m afraid I’ve had so many recordings of this marvellous music go through my speakers I’ve rather given up attempting really detailed comparisons, and Daniel Levy’s approach in Bach is certainly individual enough to make it stand out. His playing has a magical quality at distance, and this is certainly a beautifully made recording. Not everything is equally successful in my opinion, but I am also of the opinion that it would be worse to have a kind of ‘clone’ of one or other musical forebear, and so I support Levy’s highlights, if subjectively having one or two nits to pick.

One of the good things about this production is that each prelude and fugue is given its individual track, making access a breeze. Levy’s playing is superbly expressive for the most part, and I relish his voicing in the fugues. Where I’ve most found myself wanting to comment is in aspects of rhythm. There is a small point about the first Fugue in C major, where there are extra micro-gaps or elongations in the middle of and between the fugue statements, which does draw the ear rather towards the playing than the music, wondering how even a minor foible like this will stack up as the counterpoint develops. This is something which pops up frequently in this cycle. Sometimes it serves to emphasise or highlight aspects of rhythm in a fugue, but does run the risk of becoming a mannerism if you find yourself feeling obliged to listen out for it each time. One extreme rhythmic case is the Fugue in D major, where Levy sees and plays the ‘turn’ as a rather free ornament rather than a stable thematic feature. These notes are taken more swiftly than usual in relation to the slow tempo taken, and this ends up being something rather uncomfortable and distorted. There are one or two moments where you wonder how it will all pan out, like the sprightly Fugue in A minor. While you realise that the rhythmic ‘air’ given to the opening fugue theme cannot really be supported throughout the entire piece it is absolutely the case that Levy maintains its character from start to finish, for good or ill.

These are one or two negatives, but that’s about as far as I would go in terms of objective criticism. All other aspects of this recording are a question of taste, and if my taste-buds are anything to go by this is one of the best meals you could expect to order. Daniel Levy has a skilful way of delivering contrasts of flavour and texture, giving a crisp touch as often as he creates languid pools of delicious softness. I’ll abandon the culinary analogy, but you’ll get the drift if I say this is a richer WTC I than Angela Hewitt, but without being cloying. Hewitt is more intimate and does more with subtle dynamics, shaping phrasing with a more linear character where Levy is more vertical. You can hear this in the Fugue in C sharp major, chosen almost at random, where Hewitt’s conversational voices weave and interact, each given a highly distinctive character. Partly a consequence of the more resonant recording but also due to Levy’s more spiky handling of the theme, extra accents and stronger presentation of secondary themes mean the musical argument has less linear character but does have greater punch. His most magical moments are where the tempi flow from a source seemingly other than that which we draw on in our own humdrum universe. The Prelude and fugue in C sharp minor are both cases in point, the slow development of the fugue in particular giving the sense of time standing still. The opening of the Fugue in A major is rather special as well: that isolated first note giving the impression that this will be the entire aphoristic piece; such is the space which follows it. There are numbers which are arguably too slow, such as the Prelude in A minor, which is not only broad but also rather heavy in its tread. Given the already mentioned contrasts of character through the cycle as a whole these moments can however be taken in a spirit of learning and open-mindedness, and most of the playing here is gorgeous and relatively uncontroversial. Levy’s slowness is a different kind to that of Glenn Gould: for instance introducing a lyrical character to the undulating accompaniment to the opening of the Prelude in E minor, and then using this equality of purpose to make the second half to echo the earlier Prelude in C minor.

The recording for this release is very good, the acoustic resonant but not too boomy. There are one or two production issues however, including an unfortunate chop-out of the decay in the last note of the otherwise excitingly dramatic Prelude in B flat major. There are also some moments where the left channel seems to drop rather, such as in the Fugue in F minor which ends CD 1, and strange things happen with the Fugue in G major where the left channel drops after one and a half notes. This seems to be a slight mismatch between sessions which is mildly unfortunate, but not entirely disastrous unless you are a dedicated and highly critical headphone listener. The booklet notes for this release have an extended appreciation of Daniel Levy by Bernard Jacobsen, and a rather briefer non-credited text on the work at hand. Daniel Levy may not be equally likeable in all of the Well-Tempered Clavier, but he is never dull, and his is a voice which deserves hearing.

Dominy Clements

Quite a rich menu, but a voice which deserves hearing.