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Bach Nostalghia
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Original works and transcriptions
Francesco Piemontesi (piano)
rec. December 2019, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, Germany
Reviewed as downloaded in 16/44.1 PCM from press preview
PENTATONE PTC5186846 [52:14]

My spell checker kept trying to correct the title of this album into “Nostalgia”. But rest assured that the title as it appears in the heading is correct, and refers to Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1983 film of the same name, which contains the memorable line, “Poetry is untranslatable, like the whole of art.” (Yes, I realize that perhaps there’s some irony in quoting that line in English translation!) The title is Piemontesi’s idea, and perhaps suggests a touch of irony, as Bach’s original compositions are “translated” in various ways to the idiom of the piano.

Decades ago, I remember reading a claim from a HIP-apologist who asserted that the very deed of playing Bach on the piano, even without the textual modifications of a Liszt or a Busoni, constituted in itself an act of transcription, since Bach never could, he assured us, have conceived of the sound of a modern grand piano. But that assertion, while it may have some truth to it, doesn’t seem very important to me, in light of Bach’s own transcriptions of his own and other composers’ music, where a concerto for two violins might become a concerto for two keyboards/harpsichords, or a Marcello Oboe Concerto might become a work for a single keyboard. It seems clear that Bach did not conceive of his compositional ideas (or those of other composers) as strongly wedded to a particular instrumental color or capability.

Half of the works on this album were originally composed for organ, beginning with the first track, the Prelude and Fugue in E-flat major (popularly known as the “St. Anne’s Fugue”). Piemontesi has chosen to split the prelude from the fugue, a practice which the booklet note writer, Mark Berry, implies to be reasonable, even though the vast majority of keyboardists (both pianists and organists) do not make this kind of separation. He writes: “Though we consider prelude and fugue to form a single work, it is not clear that Bach did.” And he’s right. In the first published edition of the Klavierübung III (of which this work forms a part), the prelude was printed at the beginning of the volume, while the fugue was printed at the end, with some chorale preludes and the Four Duets separating them. Given this fact, Piemontesi is certainly within his rights to separate the two portions of the work this way, although I’m so used to the “single work” idea of it, that it may take me some time to get used to Piemontesi’s conception of the form. In general, it’s a good performance, with the pianist making good use of his fine sounding instrument, but there’s one bothersome blemish to the performance, at least for me, and that’s Piemontesi’s decision to play the notes printed in the reduced-size typeface (ie. like grace notes) on the beat, rather than before the beat. What? Everyone has known for more than half a century that Bach wanted his ornaments played on the beat, but I question whether Busoni wanted that type of execution. Just within Busoni’s placement and layout of the chords, the on the beat execution often sounds weak and disrupts the continuing power of the phrase in a way that a before the beat execution would not. That’s just my opinion of course.

The two chorale preludes which follow are again well played, but likewise contain aspects which I’m a bit bothered by. For instance, in “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme”, Piemontesi often clips off the last note of the many short slurs in the piece rather abruptly, which to my mind is not in keeping with Busoni’s request for “simple expression and naive piety”. In a way, I think I can see what Piemontesi’s idea is: by clipping that last note of many of the slurs, he wants to reduce its sound so that it’s less likely to interfere with the chorale melody, once the two ideas appear in counterpoint. I appreciate his thinking, but I’m not convinced by it, and I’ve heard other performances which avoid this kind of clipping at the end of the slur and which nevertheless bring out the chorale melody without a problem. In addition, I’m not sure just what edition of the music Piemontesi is using. I’ve got the old Edition Breitkopf score, and, in some spots, I’m not sure what I’m seeing vs. what I’m hearing — and I’m hearing some extra filling in the middle voices that’s absent from the score as I see it. Of course, this could be something added or improvised by Piemontesi himself, but I wish the booklet notes had been more explicit as to just what the pianist is doing here, or what edition he was using.

I apologize for continuing to find fault with Piemontesi’s generally worthy playing, but there is more for me to question in his performance of the Italian Concerto — especially in the slow movement, which I find rhythmically wayward in places. I’m thinking of the alternation in strict sixteenth-note motion between the two hands (for instance, in bar 30). Instead of the even sixteenth-note pulses, which produce a hushed and calming effect, we hear a kind of triplet rhythm, with the longer notes of the ersatz triplet occurring in the left hand and the shorter right-hand notes falling into them in a kind of befuddled way. Why would he play this bar (and similar sections) like this? He can’t be trying to impose inégales here (a practice generally applied to notes moving in stepwise motion), because the rhythm is applied over two different voices, and, far from being stepwise in motion, the succeeding notes are sometimes more than two octaves apart! I just can’t understand what he’s thinking here, and I feel certain that listeners who become aware of Piemontesi’s rhythmic instability here will feel as unhappy with it as I do, even though I’m willing to agree that it seemingly sounds deliberate, rather than occurring as a result of not paying attention.

In the Wilhelm Kempff transcription of the Siciliano from the G-minor Sonata, Piemontesi follows the indicated articulation exactly (articulation indicated by Kempff that is!). It’s a beautiful work in a very accomplished performance. Maximilian Schnaus’s transcription of “Kommst du nun, Jesu, vom Himmel herunter” spends a lot of its time in the upper regions of the keyboard, but otherwise seems a worthy continuation of the Busoni and Kempff traditions. Its lightness and high “center of gravity” provide a good contrast with most of the other music on this album. In addition, the Schnaus transcription ends in the exact region of the keyboard where the Busoni Toccata begins, and I applaud Piemontesi for his clever juxtaposition of the two works. (I confess that I hadn’t heard the Busoni Toccata in almost 50 years!)

Although I reviewed the two-channel CD-quality file (16/44.1 PCM), this release is also available at the Pentatone site as a download in two-channel and surround with 24-bit resolution. It seems that Pentatone is no longer exclusively in the DSD camp these days.

There’s some admirable playing on this album, but there’s also a kind of “death by a thousand tiny cuts” aspect of the interpretation and playing which prevents an unreserved recommendation.

Chris Salocks

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
(transcr. Ferruccio BUSONI):
Prelude and Fugue in E-flat major, BWV 552: Prelude [8:32]
Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, BWV 659 [4:42]
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 645 [4:03]
Johann Sebastian BACH
Italian Concerto, BWV 971:
Allegro [4:00]
Andante [4:16]
Presto [3:54]
Johann Sebastian BACH (transcr. Wilhelm KEMPFF)
Flute Sonata in E-flat major, BWV 1031: Siciliano [3:16]
Johann Sebastian BACH (transcr. Maximilian SCHNAUS)
Kommst du nun, Jesu, vom Himmel herunter, BWV 650 [3:07]
Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Toccata, K.287 [9:16]
Johann Sebastian BACH (transcr. BUSONI )
Prelude and Fugue in E-flat major, BWV 552: Fugue [7:00]

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