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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, BWV 846-869 (1722)
Arthur Villar (piano)
rec. September to November 2012, Oktaven Audio, New York, USA
CD BABY 8087401 [50:49 + 52:50]

Arthur Villar is a young award-winning Brazilian-born pianist who has been giving acclaimed performances of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier since 2008. Now having released his own recording of this work the hope is of course that his playing will go out to wider audiences, and with a nice website and numerous tracks from this release already to be sampled via YouTube, I’m sure his performing career will go from strength to strength.
I’ve heard many a Well-Tempered Clavier and there are only a very few which have left me cold, or for that matter given me a cold. Arthur Villar’s recording is one which has the immediate appeal of a superb recording made on a fine sounding Steinway D, and I have to say I was intrigued by this performance from the outset.
With so many versions of this music on the market, the temptation for newcomers has to be to make a distinctive personal mark in their interpretation. I doubt there is a pianist alive who would deny the startling effect Glenn Gould had on our perceptions of Bach’s keyboard music, and there are many who have adopted at least some of his stylistic characteristics or who acknowledge his influence. Arthur Villar seems to be very much his own man in steering a path away from any particular ‘school’ of Bach performing, appearing to be occupied as far as possible with the material in front of him and his own responses to it, rather than allowing himself to be swayed by the turbulent winds of fashion. His playing of Bach is not particularly dramatic, and unlike Roger Woodward sees each prelude and fugue less as a mountainous emotional landscape to be traversed, meeting challenges and holding and releasing tension like the ropes of a heroic climber. I love Woodward’s Bach, but just as there are many ways to climb a mountain, so there may be those who prefer to take easier routes and enjoy the view.
Villar is lighter and takes his Bach without quite as much travail as Woodward, and in terms of touch and reluctance to use the pedal he is closer to Angela Hewitt, though in going back and comparing it is quite startling to hear how romantic she is in terms of rubato. Hewitt’s approach yields magical moments and her Well-Tempered Clavier remains one of my desert island choices, but I have to admit, when I returned to her recording after some time with Villar the word ‘ham’ kept popping into my mind.
Arthur Villar’s release comes with an informative booklet note on Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier by David Schulenberg, but Villar’s own philosophy on the music remains something he has kept to himself. I sense in his playing a search for purity, a return to Bach without imposed musical expression which takes us away from the notes and towards the player. This is something which I can only applaud, and the more I listen and refer to other players the more I have come to appreciate the value of such performing. I have no doubt there are those who would seek a greater sense of excitement, of a pianist who ‘delivers’ more, but in delivering Bach with simplicity and lack of adornment I have to say this is a recording which strips away pretense and generates its own expressive atmosphere. Just to avoid misunderstanding, Villar’s playing is anything but plain. He has a fine legato, as you can hear in the E minor Prelude, as well as plenty of detailed articulation as in the Fugue which follows. He doesn’t go in for picky staccatos, extremes of tempo, striking acoustic dramas of dynamic contrast or washy halos of perfumed beauty, nor does he invent extra melodies through accenting or elongating notes not marked as such in the scores. There are some pieces in which his direct approach is less successful, and the Fugue in A minor is an example of one of the more lumpy numbers in what is by and large a fine set. Nevertheless, Villar’s playing is almost universally filled with quiet and natural sounding expression, and a stylish and communicative projection of Bach’s lines and rhythms.
Yes, there are one or two very small technical blemishes which I feel obliged to remark on. About that rhythmic security, there are a couple of places at which you sense the technical gloss of perfection has rubbed just a little thin. Nothing goes wrong as such, but the left/right hand co-ordination can waver slightly here and there, such as in a moment at 00:25/00:26 of the C minor Prelude, and perhaps the evenness at 0:53 in the C# Prelude might be mentioned, or that mildly edge-of-the seat feel around the torrent of notes in the G major Prelude. These are all observations on minor points which would probably go unnoticed in many cases, but if I’m going to praise something to the skies I can’t help balancing up with any possible negatives. With Villar’s ‘straight’ rhythmic approach it has to be said that he leaves himself nowhere to hide, and with no stretching rubati or extra expressive mannerisms these slightest of human failings are always going to be more apparent. This does have its down side in pieces which Bach clearly intended as having a higher degree of fantasy and freedom, such as the Prelude in B flat major, which comes across as neither one thing or another in this case. There are few technical aspects of this recording which would prevent me from recommending it however, so let’s leave it at that.
With Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier we have long gone beyond the point of being able to hold up a single favourite recording, and I think the best we can do is try and find where each new recording might position itself in quite a thickly populated forest. Arthur Villar’s recording is not at the top, but shines through the shrubbery for its clarity of vision and honesty of approach. I can hear other critics shouting out ‘boooring!’ on the strength of superficial listening, but with attempts at timelessness you have to take a longer view, gathering in detail as well as taking away a general impression. Of the pianists I’ve plucked out for comparison one of those who Villar at times comes closer to is András Schiff in his 1984 Decca recording, but here there are also marked contrasts. Schiff is relatively anti-romantic, but goes to greater lengths in shining spotlights on what he considers are important lines, creating points of character through emphasised articulation and at times extreme dynamic layering – all points which have served to irritate me over the years, though I understand his later ECM version is the real deal. In this way I can pick out Arthur Villar as a winner over at least one international superstar’s younger incarnation – and that has to be recommendation enough.
Dominy Clements