Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Johann Sebastian Bach als Europäer
Musikalisches Opfer BWV 1079: I. Ricercar a 3 voci [5:44]; IX. Ricercar a 6 voci [8:38]
Concerto nach italienischem Gusto in F-Dur BWV 971 [12:51]
Ouverture nach französischer Art in h-moll BWV 831 [32:42]
Vier Duette BWV 802-805 [12:01]
Thomas Günther (piano)
rec. 20-22 September 2015, Stadthalle Meinerzhagen.
CYBELE RECORDS SACD 131518 [71:57]

This recording takes on the complete second part of J.S. Bach’s Clavier-Übung, and with the Four Duets and Ricercari from The Musical Offering turns the programme into something which demonstrates Bach’s referencing of different European styles – inevitably filtered through his German perspective.

This SACD recording includes a binaural layer intended for headphone listeners, and with a decent set-up you get a remarkable wrap-around sensation which very much puts you “in the room” as a listener. There is enough resonance and ‘air’ in this nevertheless detailed piano recording to create a fine listening experience through any of the other layers – standard stereo and 5.0 multi-channel, and with sound quality assured we can move on to the musical content.

I have become familiar with Thomas Günther more through his recordings for Cybele of the Russian Futurists, now available as a complete four disc set. Günther’s Bach is stylish and not without its subtleties, but his approach is firm, allowing the music to speak for itself, but not really taking on the more lyrical style which makes Angela Hewitt’s fairly recent release of The Art of Fugue so attractive (review). The Andante of BWV 971 for instance is quite measured and vertical in its feel, the melody not so much floating as providing adornment to a fairly unyielding accompaniment. The following Presto has plenty of precision and clarity in its voicings and the tempo is energetic, but it even with some dynamic shading here and there it can become something of a wall of sound after a while.

Günther has been preoccupied with Bach’s keyboard works since the late 1980s and is known for his workshops and performances. There are however no actual notes on performance here, but the full and fascinating notes by Dr. Stefan Orgass go into each work in some detail.

What will dictate if you like this recording is, I think, connected to how much ‘weight’ you want from your piano in Bach. I’m not exactly sure how much of this is due to the lively acoustic or to Günther’s touch, but even with the transparency of the Four Duets I find the almost symphonic impression a bit much to take. The French ornamentations of BWV 831 are nicely done, but going back to Angela Hewitt and her big Bach box (review) I was reassured to find my memory of her playing hadn’t been deceiving me. Take the first Gavotte, in which Günther contrasts the central section, but aside from this entirely legitimate stepwise change like a shift in register on a harpsichord, taking few inner expressive dynamics. Hewitt on the other hand relishes change in each of the repetitions and developments of the theme in the outer sections, taking the central section more a as continuation of the narrative than a different space entirely. You may find this micro-management of the material less appealing than I do, but with a softer touch there is more space for colour contrast, and more room to point out flashes of brilliance like the sparkle in the eye of a good portrait.

Günther by no means lacks expression and interest in the way he approaches these pieces, but even in the lovely Sarabande I feel there could be a bit more elasticity in the forward motion of the music – a point in which I now feel Hewitt goes fractionally too far in her recording, sometimes advancing and receding in tempo like a boat on heavy seas. These points are all questions of taste, and subjective to the point at which I would be reluctant to put people off. My main issue with this recording it would seem is that it is as much about the piano as it is about Bach. If you love good piano playing then there is plenty to revel in here. If you prefer your Bach a little more organic or jewel-like then this might come across as a bit too machine-milled – very fine and demanding of nothing but respect, but missing those perspectives that shimmer beneath the surface.

Dominy Clements

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