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CD Review

Johann Sebastian Bach

Well-Tempered Clavier
Book I, BWV 846-869

Kimiko Ishizaka, piano
Navona Records NV5995 2CDs 54:03+54:44
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Kimiko Ishizaka is a very unusual musician: she is the pianist behind the now widely admired Open Goldberg Variations, a 2012 project that involved recording the Bach masterpiece under excellent studio conditions and offering the results for free download. It is supposedly the first fan-funded such endeavor ever produced. Critical response to the effort has been very positive across the board. The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, enters the marketplace in the usual manner, but will likely draw as much attention, as the pianist's take on these twenty-four masterworks is brilliant and fully worth your exploration if Bach is your cup of tea.

Kimiko Ishizaka was born in Bonn, Germany in 1976 to a Japanese father and German mother. She was a child prodigy and began studying the piano from age four. In her youth she played in the Ishizaka Trio with her brothers, Kiyondo and Danjulo, who were also prodigies. She graduated from the Hochschule für Musik Köln and won several prizes in major competitions. Ishizaka launched a successful career as a pianist, performing throughout Europe, Japan and the US. Oddly, she also became a powerlifter, finishing third and second, respectively, in the 2005 and 2006 German championships in powerlifting and other categories. She also had success in Olympic weightlifting winning three metals in the 2008 German championships.

But be assured she doesn't play the piano like a weightlifter: she is elegant, spirited, technically impressive, and ever sensitive to the expressive character of the music. Ishizaka subtly employs various shadings of dynamics, uses a fair amount of legato, and phrases the music with a keen sense for Bach's expressive soul. Listening to the pieces, you notice that Ishizaka is never wayward, never extreme or eccentric, but delivers a sane and deftly imagined take on the music. Pianists like Gould and Richter could be tremendously compelling in this repertory, while occasionally turning to the extreme in tempo choice. Ishizaka is generally on the brisk side but never pushy and, on the other end, never laggardly.

She catches the grace and flowing lyricism of the opening C major Prelude without buttering the notes with too much legato, which might unduly Romanticize the music, or without pushing the tempo aggressively ahead, as some pianists do apparently to avoid the same pitfall. The Fugue that follows is graceful in her hands, not overly light but quite pleasantly playful. The Second Prelude, in C minor, has an appropriately anxious demeanor, conveyed without the mechanical quality in Gould's recording, and Ishizaka plays the ensuing Fugue with lucidity and an infectious snap in her deliberate tempo. Listen to the grace and ebullience of her Third Prelude, in C-sharp minor, and notice her subtle use of dynamics and her digital clarity. There is a fittingly somber and philosophical air about her deft account of the Twelfth Prelude, in F minor, and the ensuing Fugue develops subtly from the depths, gradually taking on a stateliness and grandeur, with main and secondary contrapuntal lines always in seemingly perfect balance.

Ishizaka does not slight the joyful, busy Thirteenth Prelude, in F-sharp major, in looking ahead to the meatier Fugue that follows. Indeed, she gives both pieces their just due, with the Fugue remaining somber and elegant throughout in its somewhat measured tempo. The brief, utterly effervescent Fourteenth Prelude, in F-sharp minor, is played with such seeming technical ease and elegance by Ishizaka, and the busy Fugue that follows is performed at a breathless pace but with utter clarity of execution. Nothing seems amiss in Ishizaka's traversal of these masterpieces and I could thus go on citing further examples of her superior skills, but let me draw your attention to just one more: try the Prelude and Fugue, in B minor, that close the set. Tension builds subtly in the agitated Prelude and is left unresolved. The same unsettled manner remains in the massive Fugue, but here Ishizaka imparts a more animated and tortured sense to the music with an insistent, almost mechanical style that brims with tension. A brilliant performance and brilliant set all around!

Navona offers offers fine sound and the notes by Ishizaka herself and executive producer Robert Douglass are enlightening. This disc offers a separate track for each prelude and each fugue. In sum, this may not be a revolutionary take on this Bach masterpiece, but it is certainly a very worthwhile effort on all counts. Strongly recommended.

Copyright © 2015, Robert Cummings