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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Well-Tempered Clavier: Books I and II
Alexandra Papastefanou (piano)
rec. 2017, Aris Garoufalis Concert Hall, Athens Conservatoire, Greece

The Greek pianist Alexandra Papastefanou is certainly no stranger to the keyboard music of Johann Sebastian Bach, having performed all of it in a series of recitals. My research also tells me that she previously recorded the Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1 back in the early 1990s and this is available on Musica Viva LPs. This time she's taken both books into the recording studio, and I must say that it's gratifying to have the complete cycles together in one release. I'm very impressed with First Hand Records lavish production, with all four discs housed in an ultra-slim DigiSleeve, not much thicker than a standard single CD jewel case, which will appeal to those with space-saving concerns.

A word or two about the pianist might be useful. She graduated from Athens Conservatoire, a pupil of Aliki Vatikioti. Further studies at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory, the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest and the University of Indiana, Bloomington, USA ensued. Her teachers have included György Sebők and a spell with Alfred Brendel. She was a one-time finalist in the Clara Haskil Competition and has picked up several other prizes along the way.

Lovers of Bach keyboard works played on a modern concert grand need look no further. It is obvious from listening to these performances that Papastefanou has lived and breathed these works for a long time and has them at her fingertips. She approaches them in thoughtful and scholarly fashion and her readings reveal their sheer scope and range. Each one is characterized individually. Tempi are nicely judged, and dynamic variation employed. Not only does she bring transparency and lightness of touch, but in the fugues, especially, the passage-work is crisp and evenly delivered. We are not short-changed on poetry either, and she's capable of investing the piano sound with a wealth of tonal colour. What particularly attracts me is a quality sometimes missing in performances I've heard: that innate sense of architecture and structure, particularly in the fugues.

Choosing some highlights has been difficult because of the consistent quality invested throughout. I'll take Book 1 first. The opening Prelude in C major is played with fluidity and innocence, whilst the Prelude and Fugue in C sharp major exudes joy and ebullience in its dance-like rhythms. The arpeggiated chords of the E flat minor Prelude are weighed down with pain and sadness; its Fugue in D sharp minor is similarly doleful and introspective. The F minor Prelude is calm and meditative, and the A flat Prelude is notable for its elegant refinement. It seems almost churlish to say that the G major Prelude doesn't thrill and excite me as much as Richter’s does, but there it is.

I've always preferred Book 11, for its greater emotional scope. I love the sprightly lilt of the C sharp major Prelude, and crisp, pointed articulation of the Fugue. A calm serenity pervades the C sharp minor Prelude which follows. Papastefanou injects plenty of energy and forward momentum into the D minor Prelude and a light buoyancy into the G major. In the A minor, one of my particular favorites, the anguished chromaticism of the Prelude is successfully captured. The cycle ends optimistically and in upbeat manner with the Prelude and Fugue in B minor.

If any recording ticks all the right boxes for me, it's this one. Papastefanou's performances are technically faultless. The Steinway model D has been expertly voiced and tuned to perfection. The warm, intimate ambience of the Aris Garoufalis Concert Hall, Athens Conservatoire provides an ideal venue to facilitate clarity and delineation of the contrapuntal lines of the music. This complete cycle stands shoulder to shoulder with the very best in the catalogue. I have every confidence it won’t be straying too far from reach.

Stephen Greenbank

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