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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I, BWV846-869 (ca.1720- 23)
Peter Hill (piano)
rec. 10-12 July and 17-18 December 2012, University Concert Hall, Cardiff.
DELPHIAN DCD34126 [60:22 + 60:56]

I have been looking forward to Peter Hill’s recording of J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1 since hugely enjoying his Book II which came out in 2012 (see review). Those of you who have already discovered the “control and poetry” in that Book II will know why they simply must have this Book I, and Hill’s undemonstrative but highly involving sound and character draws you in from the outset.
Peter Hill plays Bach as if in one-to-one communion with the composer, while at the same time sharing it with you, the listener, also on a one-to-one basis. This intimate love triangle eschews concert hall flashiness, holding the deeper resonances and brighter colours of the piano in reserve for particular musical points. It confides and reveals the genius of the composer rather than the brilliant musicianship of the performer, while at the same time keeping the notes singing and alive, the rhythms sprightly and filled with their essential line-fuelled but oft-restrained Baroque energy. Ornamentation is kept to a minimum, so when the occasional extra note or twirl come forth it sounds like a special little treat. Without skimping on expression, Hill spares the music from over-romantic distortions or wilful individuality. He does however stretch more in the slower pieces than, for instance, Arthur Villar. The Prelude No. IV in C sharp minor is a case in point, where Hill sustains the music’s peaks and brings time itself into slower realms. Villar is by no means inexpressive in this, “one of the jewels of Book 1”, but Hill really does take us into other worlds.
The points and comparisons I made with Peter Hill’s Book II apply in equal measure to this Book I. His detailed booklet notes describe each and every prelude and fugue, and reveal a keen awareness of the architecture of the work. This includes its division into various sections, and in performance the pacing and placement of each prelude and fugue within the whole is certainly more keenly felt here than in some other versions. As before, Hill uses the expressive nature of the piano to perform Bach, by no means attempting to recreate harpsichord effects, but at the same time keeping within an idiom which, to our modern ears at least, presents the composer in compelling and expressively potent ways. Take the slow, spread chords of the Prelude No. 8 in E flat minor. The sustained eloquence of the melodic notes and the gentle stresses of the shifting harmonies beneath have a universal effect of movingly human expression: a sarabande which “rises to that of an impassioned, dramatic scena.” Hill keeps his passion in proportion, but the implied drama is unmistakable. Tempi are perhaps a little slower than we’ve been used to in preludes such as Nos. 13 & 14, but the sense of logic and flow in the music has its own feel of correctness, placing the musicianship of their performance beyond complaint. He is also not without wit, as the amusingly quirky discourse of the Fugue in A major demonstrates.
Do I have any criticisms? No, not really. Hill is neither extreme nor controversial, and he doesn’t seek to add layers of profundity where the depth in the pieces can stand for itself. This said, the understated strength of his performances is instantly recognisable once you’ve been immersed into his vision of Bach on the piano, and I sincerely doubt you will feel short-changed at any point.
As with any really good set of Bach’s WTC I am happy to take each recording on its merits, and willing to apply these to my own moments of appreciation. Angela Hewitt will always have her way of taking me by surprise, of making me stop in my tracks and revise my ways of thinking about or viewing the world. Roger Woodward delivers a different kind of inspiration, personal and challenging at the same time, as do Sergey Schepkin, Abdel Rahman El Bacha, Vardo Rumessen and others. The rather special Sviatoslav Richter will always be there if I feel like going down memory lane, my scratchy ex-library CBS copy of Glenn Gould has its permanent place in the side pocket of my car door, and András Schiff’s set is on the want list. Each has their own individual voice in this music, and each shows different sides of Bach’s remarkable powers. Peter Hill’s Bach is the one to which I will turn when the evening air is still, and both the sinking sun and rising moon are gazing at each other across a midsummer sky full of tastefully subtle but mouthwateringly fruity colours.
Dominy Clements