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CD Review

Johann Sebastian Bach

The Well-Tempered Clavier (Complete)

  • Preludes & Fugues, Book 1, BWV 846-869
  • Preludes & Fugues, Book 2, BWV 870-893
Gianluca Luisi, piano
Centaur CRC3040/3 4CDs
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Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I at least, dates from his time in Anhalt-Köthen, the composer's "wild years". The work possibly reflects the greater freedom which the composer enjoyed there than when performing his somewhat restricted and restrictive duties at Weimar. It's one of the cornerstone works for the keyboard; and arguably amongst the greatest "extended" compositions of all time. Central to a good performance, let alone a great one, are the dual challenges of divergence and convergence. Divergence in that Bach infused a relatively simple idea (preludes and fugues in all 24 major and minor keys) with huge variety. Any player has to embrace that variety, rather than "conquer" it. Convergence in that Bach's idea perhaps had to have a format which is systematic, if not actually downright repetitive, obliging the performer to privilege that very variety in a context where it could so easily be lost to routine.

Gianluca Luisi is an Italian pianist who was born in 1970; he studied, variously, at the Rossini Conservatory with Franco Scala, at the piano Academy in Imola, under Giovanni Valentini, Boris Petrushansky, Piero Rattalino and Riccardo Risaliti, completing his studies with Sergio Perticaroli in Rome. He went on to win an impressive number of prizes: the National Piano competition "Città dell'Aquila", the Mozart Prize (Italy); the Genzano Competition in Rome (first prize); the Cesenatico Competition (first prize); the Jeunesse Musicales Competition (first prize); the TIM Torneo Internazionale di Musica (first prize); in March 2001 he won the first prize in the "J.S. Bach Piano International Competition" in Saarbrucken (Germany).

So he is well-placed to make something really special of the Well-Tempered Clavier. And in a way he does. His is not a "classic" account, one that is designed or placed to become either a "reference" recording or a definitive one. Luisi's way of approaching the variety within the structure of the 48 starts with considerable freshness. He plays each prelude and fugue with a directness, a sense of the new that is invigorating. Not that he makes us think we're listening to the work for the first time. Nor that Luisi has insights that no one else has stumbled upon before. He has greater humility than to do that. Yet Luisi certainly shows us that he has an understanding of the work that makes us want to stop and take notice.

The pianist achieves this happy balance chiefly thanks to his tempi and phrasing. Although some of the preludes in particular (the E♭ Major [CD.1 tr.13] and A Major [CD.3 tr.13] ones, for example) are taken a little on the slow side, they never actually falter. On the other hand, there is a dignity and weight to this pacing (in the F minor fugue [CD.1 tr.24], for example) which is so well-conceived as to reassure us that, although Luisi's original conception may have been built on deliberation, his execution conveys great expressivity and attachment to the music. The melodic invention and sense of entering a world of great profundity is retained as well.

If you object to the use of the modern piano, there will be every reason to object to this set: it is very pianistic. The F♯ pair [CD.2 tr.s 1, 2], for example, emphasize the instrument's almost nasal qualities… the attack and decay of notes sandwiching a gently vibrating sound is loud and clear. Yet if you concentrate instead on the lines of melody, accompaniment, you can hardly fail to be struck by the sure but unobtrusive control that Luisi has over the works. He has not arrogated them to himself as pianists like Richter (RCA Victor Special Imports 260949) did. But he has that plainness and directness that Fischer (EMI Classics 91951) had; as though looking "through" the piano to the essence of the music itself. That in some way offsets any wish to stay with the palette of timbres and sounds for which Bach imagined the works – and abandon the piano for the harpsichord. Luisi concentrates on the mathematics, the systemic conception of contrapuntal writing; and seems aware of this in such a way that he refrains from overplaying the phrasing and sense of structuring which could also all too easily have resulted in a mechanical approach.

Luisi's is a concept that will neither rush nor get excited about the beauty or profundity of the music; but at the same time which avoids the pedestrian or mundane: the G Major pair [CD.2 tr.s 5, 6] are cases in point of this happy balance. Focused, unelaborate, forward-moving, demonstrative without being emphatic or strident. He seems to be taking pride in the near tranquility that he achieves by knowing the music and having such a clear idea of how he wants it to sound. This is comforting because Luisi's is likely to become a recording which one will want to return to. No one account will ever say it all. This one should stand the test of repeated listening well.

The recording is close and focused; it was made in 2005 at the Temple rue (not "due" as the booklet, which has a number of typographical and syntactical errors, has it – it's not up to Centaur's usual standards at all) Pierre Nicole in Paris. This is unlikely to be your first choice for a piano version of the Well-Tempered Clavier (that would be Rosalyn Tureck on Deutsche Grammophon (463305) for a historical, Glenn Gould on Sony (42266) for a less recent or András Schiff on Decca (414388) for a modern performance). But one to be considered closely nevertheless. Recommended.

Copyright © 2010 by Mark Sealey.