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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Well-Tempered Clavier Book II
Dina Ugorskaja (piano)
rec. 2015, Studio 2, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Munich
CAVI-MUSIC 8553353 [3 CDs: 172:00]

Dina Ugorskaya's complete Well-Tempered Clavier originally appeared as a 5-CD box set back in 2016. Over the past couple of years it's been increasingly difficult to obtain. Cavi-music have now issued the two books separately, this time adopting the old fatbox format.  The recordings were set down in Munich in 2015. In September 2019 tragedy struck when the Leningrad-born musician passed away after a long battle with cancer at her home in Munich, aged only 46. She was the daughter of the Russian pianist Anatol Ugorsky.

Though I love Bach's monumental Well-Tempered Clavier, a bible for keyboard players, I have an ever so slight preference for Book II. It was completed twenty years after Book I, in 1742. Technically more demanding than its predecessor, the composer travels down a more adventurous road with his harmonies. In addition, Book 11 encompasses a greater emotional range, revealing more fantasy and daring. It was a time when Bach was playing an active role in keyboard instrument development.  Ugorskaja captures the very essence of the twenty-four, with rhythm, dynamics and tempo choices intelligently applied. She certainly doesn't over-romanticize, but approaches each one in a sober and understated way. There's an absence of mannerisms, essential for repeated listening. Like all the best performers of this music, pianists like Rosalyn Tureck, Tatiana Nikolayeva, Murray Perahia, Andras Schiff and Glenn Gould, she distils the music to its very essence. The fugues are delineated with precision and clarity, and their conversational interplay is a positive feature.

The C sharp major Prelude has a hypnotic spring in its step which sweeps you along. The Prelude in C sharp minor is refined, elegant and delicately contoured, radiating a glowing warmth. The buoyant D minor I like for its vitality and not-too-heavy-handed articulation, which I've encountered all too often. This delicate articulation is an endearing feature of the Prelude in E flat minor. Ugorskaja achieves some diaphanous translucency in the F major Prelude, and I'm won over by the serene introspective quality of the F sharp major. The G minor Prelude is noble and boldly declaimed. She applies a gossamer touch to the A major Prelude and the B minor has a blithe charm.

Most of the fugues emerge from simple subjects which flower into complex structures. One can't fail to gasp in wonder at Bach's range of inspiration. A favorite of mine is the carefree Fugue in F major, exquisitely pointed by Ugorskaja. The G major is similarly gleeful. In contrast the G minor is firmly resolute. The Fugue in B minor ends the cycle on a note of optimism.

The accompanying booklet is exclusively comprised of an interview the pianist gave to musicologist Katharina Raabe. The focus of the discussion is Ugorskaja's approach to Bach performance and her reasoning behind the use of a modern Steinway grand. I particularly like the recorded sound of this recording, where the piano sits fairly forward in the sound picture, with the acoustic providing a warm, airy ambience with just the right amount of resonance. On the strength of this encounter, I’m eagerly looking forward to listening to Book 1.

Stephen Greenbank

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