Sunday 21 December 2014

A recent release from Deutsche Grammophon brings Pierre-Laurent Aimard in top notch Bach performances delivered with a simple directness that magically allow Bach’s depth and formal logic to emerge

Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750) primary purpose when he came to write Book 1 of The Well-Tempered Clavier (BWV 846-869) was to demonstrate in a practical way how a twenty four key system, with twelve major and twelve minor modes, could work. He took Andreas Werckmeister’s term ‘well-tempered’ indicating his own preference for a system of keyboard tuning that tuned all the thirds sharp thus allowing him to play in all twenty four keys without the loss that occurs if the octave is divided into absolutely equal semitones.

Over the years this somewhat academic aspect of the works has led to performers adopting an equally academic approach to the music. In recent years performances on the modern piano, with all its expressive qualities, has led to the opposite problem, that of over romanticised performances.

How refreshing then to have a new recording that allows all of Bach’s depth and substance to emerge without resorting to any extravagances. Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s new recording for Deutsche Grammophon does just that.

0289 479 2784 6

The Prelude and Fugue No. 1 in C is beautifully laid out revealing a gentle, thoughtful quality with the Fugue bringing a captivating logic as Pierre-Laurent Aimard slowly yet authoritatively allows the contrapuntal lines to unfold. The prelude of the Prelude and Fugue No.2 in C minor really takes off, Aimard’s fine, clear technique allowing every line and detail to appear, riveting the attention. In the fugue Aimard’s playing is such that one can’t help being concentrated as each detail and line appears.

Aimard brings such life to the prelude of the Prelude and Fugue No. 3 in C sharp as well as a fine touch revealing every nuance with the fugue showing such buoyancy, a gentle ebb and flow, so subtle. By allowing the music to reveal itself naturally, with no false devices, Bach’s genius is revealed all the more in the prelude of the Prelude and Fugue No.4 in C sharp minor followed by a fugue that unfolds quietly and gently before Bach’s little musical lines appear and are woven. Quiet exquisite.

In the Prelude and Fugue No.5 in D the prelude is beautifully layered with some vitally fluent playing in the fugue and such lovely poise. Aimard’s fine left hand line against a sprung rhythmic right hand theme is terrific in the prelude of the Prelude and Fugue No. 6 in D minor followed by a lovely rhythmic poise in the fugue. 

Prelude and Fugue No. 7 in E flat has some lovely fluent lines, fine phrasing and attention to every little tempi and dynamic, the fugue bringing such a carefree forward movement. It is Aimard’s naturalness with this music that gives it the feeling of being new and fresh. I don’t think I’ve ever heard such an exquisitely conceived Prelude and Fugue No. 8 in E flat minor before, crystalline and pure, beautifully laid out with Aimard showing fine artistry. Aimard leads into the fugue seamlessly; it just develops so naturally.

There is a lovely rhythmic gait as the prelude of the Prelude and Fugue No. 9 in E gently flows forward before the fugue arrives, dancing forward. There is a beautifully paced and phrased prelude to the Prelude and Fugue No. 10 in E minor with this pianist’s left hand providing a strangely distant feel before the music suddenly speeds ahead with the fugue giving a terrific forward thrust.

There is a very fine buoyancy to the prelude of the Prelude and Fugue No. 11 in F with the fugue having a natural forward flow, beautiful dynamics, every line clear.

The Prelude and Fugue No.12 in F minor has a gentle pace, leisurely but vital with subtle little variations of tempi and dynamics. Again it is Aimard’s beautiful pacing, his subtle moves of tempi and dynamics that reveal so much in the fugue with fine musical lines.

A joyous Prelude and Fugue No. 13 in F sharp opens disc two, beautifully phrased with a fugue that has fine flow and phrasing, with a wonderful clarity of line. Again Aimard’s fine left hand line adds so much to the prelude of the Prelude and Fugue No.14 in F sharp minor with a fine forward flow before Aimard slowly and thoughtfully develops the fugue in another remarkably fine performance.

The prelude of the Prelude and Fugue No. 15 in G hurtles along full of joy, buoyancy and life, a terrific spring in the rhythms. The fugue develops out of the prelude beautifully with some of the finest of Bach’s contrapuntal textures. There is a lovely flowing prelude to the Prelude and Fugue No. 16 in G minor Fugue 16 in G minor with a directness of utterance in the fugue offset by subtle variations of dynamics.

The Prelude and Fugue No. 17 in A flat brings some fine phrases, so lightly managed, every little nuance carefully revealed.  The fugue has more beautifully judged tempi with a moderate forward flow that sounds just right. There is more lovely ebb and flow in the opening of the Prelude and Fugue No.18 in G sharp minor with nicely judged tempi and dynamics, before a fugue that sounds just right, unfolding naturally, the rhythmic pulse in the left hand holding the tempo as the right develops over it.

The prelude of the Prelude and Fugue No. 19 in has a lightness and buoyancy with Aimard managing to reveal little clipped phrases without any loss of flow or momentum. The fugue has a terrific flow in its weaving of rhythms and musical lines. Aimard sets off again at a fine pace in the prelude of the Prelude and Fugue No. 20 in A minor with some tremendous playing, Bach’s lines flowing and weaving. In the fugue Aimard finds a moderate, beautifully poised tempo with a very fine evenness of tone.

A nicely sprung, buoyant prelude with great fluency and lovely textures precedes a terrific, rollicking fugue of the Prelude and Fugue No.21 in B flat. Prelude and Fugue No.22 in B flat minor opens with a deliberate feel, yet soon Aimard brings a lovely sensibility, with a depth that is often missed. The fugue picks up beautifully from the prelude retaining a degree of introspection but with a broader line.

A delicate, beautifully agile prelude opens the Prelude and Fugue No. 23 in B with a superb lightness of touch. In Aimard’s hands the fugue sets off at a lovely pace, finding a natural flow for Bach’s contrapuntal ideas. There are some lovely rhythmic qualities to the prelude of the Prelude and Fugue No. 24 in B minor as Aimard slowly allows the music to develop, rising beautifully in the middle before finding its way naturally home. Aimard’s phrasing and tempi is really fine as he allows the final fugue to develop with lovely rises and falls and a fine sense of inevitability, making one marvel at Bach’s terrific flow of invention.

This is top notch Bach in every way. Aimard doesn’t romanticise these immortal works but instead he delivers them with a simple directness yet magically allowing Bach’s depth and formal logic to emerge. It is often as though these works are being improvised as he plays.

My downloaded recording is nicely balanced and clear.

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