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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Discovered Tapes – Bach
Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1 [134:39]
Well-Tempered Clavier Book 2 [184:49]
The Art of Fugue [87:14]
Pietro Scarpini (piano)
rec. RAI Roma, 3-5 January 1961 (Book 1); Home studio, Rome, c.1975/76 (Book 2); Home studio, St. Moritz, 23 February 1976 (Art)
RHINE CLASSICS RH-017 [6 CDs: 409:02]

For enthusiasts like myself, some good news, Rhine Classics have just released four more box sets. All enticing, I didn’t know which to reach for first. I finally settled on this 6 CD set of Bach recordings by the Italian pianist Pietro Scarpini. In fact this is the fourth release in their Pietro Scarpini Edition, my reviews of the previous volumes can be found here (review ~ review ~ review). Unusually for a concert pianist of stature, Scarpini shied away from the recording studios preferring to set down his unique interpretations in the comfort of his own home. He also gravitated towards radio broadcasts, which he meticulously taped and catalogues. It is this Scarpini archive which has been the source of the label’s Edition. Throughout this compelling traversal, there are a mixture of mono and stereo recordings.

He was born in Rome April 6, 1911. His mother was a pianist and most probably gave the young Pietro an early grounding. He went on to study at the city's Accademia di Santa Cecilia, where his teachers were Alfredo Casella for piano, Ottorino Respighi for composition, Alessandro Bustini for conducting and Fernando Germani for organ. Deputizing for an indisposed soloist at his graduation concert in 1937 in Mozart's Piano Concerto in E flat major K. 271, he made a forceful impression, by all accounts. This led to offers of three concerto engagements with the Berlin Philharmonic. Reviews lauded him as “a new star in the international sky of pianists”, and his career was launched. He also held teaching posts at Parma and Florence. Prior to the war, his repertoire was fairly standard, but post-war his interest in contemporary music flourished, aided by a probing intellect. Hindemith and Dallapiccola became working colleagues and friends. He championed Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire throughout his career, and he gave the first Italian performance of the composer's Piano Concerto in 1948. He retired from the concert platform in the late 1960s but continued to give master classes and teach in Siena and Darmstadt. A heart attack in 1982, followed by a triple by-pass, curtailed his activities. In 1988 he had a pacemaker fitted, from then on confining his piano-playing to his home. He died in November 1997.

The two books of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier were recorded almost fifteen years apart. Book 1 dates from January 1961, being set down in the RAI studio, Rome. Book 2 dates from around 1975-76 and is a home studio recording. Sound quality is remarkably good in both instances, with Book 2 having the slight edge. I have to say, I’m totally won over with Scarpini’s take on these works. I’ve always been a devotee having learned some of them myself. Angela Hewitt sums up for me what this music means: “It is an inexhaustible treasure trove of the greatest possible music, combining contrapuntal wizardry with (Bach’s) immense gift for expressing human emotion in all its forms. Bach amazes us by absolutely never running out of steam. In The Well-Tempered Clavier, we find a piece to suit every mood and every occasion.” Scarpini’s are deeply thought out interpretations, and he digs deep into the fathomless riches on offer. He’s never self-conscious or contrived. Shunning waywardness and extremes, personal mannerisms have no place in these clean cut readings. The intellectual and technical challenges are firmly within his grasp.

The recording of The Art of Fugue has a warm, intimate aura about it. It was set down in the pianist’s home studio, St. Moritz on 23 February 1976. The booklet note writer adds that the performance ends where the original text stops” It was Bach’s final work, left unfinished at his death and made up of fourteen fugues and four canons, where the same short theme is heard in different permutations. Bach specialist Christoph Wolff describes it as “an exploration in depth of the contrapuntal possibilities inherent in a single musical subject." Scarpini’s gifts lie in his ability to make every line speak. It’s not all seriousness either. There is serious formality, but he’s able to infuse humour and high spirits where warranted. The more complex contrapuntal thickets are rescued from congestion by his teasing away the inner contrapuntal lines to reveal the jewels that lie therein, at the same time attaining potent cumulative power. I love the balance he strikes between the voices, never allowing one to dominate. His exquisite touch and sensitive use of pedal, where appropriate, facilitates the achievement of some luminous sonorities. This is certainly a performance that plumbs the depths of this elusive masterpiece.

Restorations and remasterings are in 24bit 96KHz sound, and Emilio Pessina has done a sterling job. In the ’ From Baroque to Contemporary’ box I reviewed, I recall being beguiled by the Scarpini’s Bach, in transcriptions by the pianist himself and Ferruccio Busoni, and commented on the freshness and vitality of the playing, remarking that they sounded ‘fresh off the press’. I’m now firmly convinced that Pietro Scarpini a Bach player to be reckoned with.

Stephen Greenbank



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