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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]

This is the fourth in Rhine Classics’ multi-volume sets to be devoted to the art of Italian pianist Pietro Scarpini and it’s the second that I have reviewed. The earlier set I encountered was devoted to Baroque to Contemporary repertoire (see review) and showed that his clarity, with minor exceptions, served both elements of the repertoire with equal fidelity and persuasiveness. Part of one of those 12 discs was devoted to Bach in the form of hyphenations; transcriptions by both himself and the more familiar ones of his compatriot Busoni. In this new 6-CD set, everything is by Bach; both books of the Well-Tempered Clavier and The Art of Fugue.

Book I was recorded by RAI, Rome over three successive days in January 1961, in good mono sound. RAI’s original master tapes are lost and it was fortunate that the pianist retained his own set in his archive and it’s these that Rhine has used for its remastering. You will search in vain for signs of quixotic caprice in Scarpini’s performance. There is instead a tremendous sense of concentration and clarity, the music propelled where appropriate by animated left-hand voicings that ensure buoyancy but never overbalance the music making. There is gravity, as in the Fugue of No.4 in C sharp minor, but not indulgence. He extracts great colour in the rolled chords of the Prelude to No.8 but also ensures beauty of tone. That in itself however is not the goal. Rather it’s pertinent voice leading, the use of ‘affect’, steadfast nobility, steady but never metronomic rhythm. He is lively and robust – sample the Prelude of No.14 - but it’s always controlled. He uses the pedal with discretion but always with purpose and ensures that in the Fugue of No.21 the music swells with due amplitude. The concluding Fugue, the complex B minor, is given time to weave its spell.

He turned to the second book in the mid-70s, this time in his home studio. Whilst the majority of Book II is in mono, seven Preludes and Fugues are in stereo. His ability to phrase with unselfconscious naturalness and to balance the demands of both hands is here undimmed. The playing is again refined without becoming academic, rhythmically alive without becoming aggressive. If here and there one feels a slight slackening of left-hand subtleties, at least in the context of his vivid performance of Book I, it’s a minor matter.

The following year, at his home studio but this time in St Moritz, he recorded himself performing The Art of Fugue ending precisely where Bach stopped. Scarpini was not quite 65 when he set down, in the course of one day, the whole work. That his technique was so formidable can’t be doubted and there are, throughout the six and a half hours of this set, very few smudges or imperfections and such as exist are largely immaterial. So it is in The Art of Fugue. Scarpini’s touch is refined, his imagination alert, his intellectual equipment attuned to the complex tapestries to be conveyed. It is a measure of his success that one listens in one uninterrupted span to his imaginative but stoically focused playing.

The remastering is in 24bit 96KHz sound, there is a two-page biography of the pianist, in English only, in a well-presented booklet. Scarpini largely avoided the recording studio, preferring other contexts in which to display his varied and very obvious talents. It would be good to hope that a performance of his Goldberg Variations has survived, in Busoni’s edition, and that a Beethoven box could be assembled. Scarpini was indeed a masterful musician and it’s appropriate that over twenty years after his death so many valuable things should be emerging from his archive.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank

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